Perfect Scenes: Jurassic Park

Presenting a test post for a possible new series of short analyses, one that will aim to examine those individual scenes in movies that I would place on the highest pedestal. First up:

Jurassic Park  – “They’re moving in herds”.

In this scene billionaire geneticist John Hammond (David Attenborough) has invited expert palaeontologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) to visit his new resort, based on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Joined by eccentric mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), the group stops on the way to the main building to get their first glimpse at Hammond’s “attractions”.

Many people, if wanting a quote to title this scene with, would go with Hammond’s “Welcome to Jurassic Park”. It’s quite definitive, the music swells as he says it, hell, it’s the “We have a title!” moment. But for me, what actually makes the scene as good as it is isn’t that punctuating statement, but Alan Grant’s final verbal reaction to this first glimpse of a brachiosaurus.

We need to take this production layer by production layer. The CGI may have dated just a little bit, but I can assure that on a big screen it still looks momentous. The acting is fantastic, most notably how everyone’s varying reactions fit perfectly to what we have been presented to far: Hammond being amused, the lawyer thinking about the financial rewards that are possible, the snarky mathematician now being stunned. And the score, well the score. John Williams’ iconic theme tune for the franchise perhaps never sounds more appropriate or majestic than here, and what’s wonderful is also how he slowly builds to that crescendo, letting a softer version play for that very first glimpse.

But, in my opinion, it is the script that really makes this far more, and Grant’s lines in particular.

What we have seen of Alan Grant thus far in Jurassic Park is a man who takes his career extremely seriously, to the point that in the first scene he, essentially, decides to terrify a snooty kid rather than simply put up with his put-downs about the long-dead creatures Grant has dedicated his life to understanding. Dinosaurs are more than just a grainy image on a monitor to him, more than some pale bones jutting out of the Arizona badlands, they are a fascination, one that has consumed him for some time.

So when he actually sees a living breathing dinosaur in front of him, his reaction is one of obvious stunned surprise, but also analytical. He and Ellie note that the animal cannot possibly be cold-blooded, and obviously doesn’t need to live in a swamp to support its body weight. He wants to know fast they run.

In a way it’s a method of dealing with the apparent impossible, of turning this sight into a chance to answer questions, questions that have dominated his academic and professional career. But the emotional magnitude of the moment cannot be avoided. Spielberg deftly combines the analytical with the emotional as Grant sits, tears nearly in his eyes, and makes that beautifully simple remark: “They’re moving in herds. They do move in herds”. A hole in Grant’s understanding of his life’s work has been instantly filled, something he never expected, and that is a powerful bit of catharsis.

It would have been easy to make this scene about nothing but the spectacle, to showcase these CGI creations and have your principals stare slack-jawed at them. But not Spielberg. Instead of just that, we get an immediate emotional connection to the dinosaurs through the intense meaning the moment of their unveiling has to Alan Grant, and we also get inside his head rather well too, forming a deeper connection between viewer and main character.

As an aside, I think it’s worth also having a look at the exact moment that this scene is adapted from, in Michael Crichton’s novel:

Grant stood on the path on the side of the hill, with the mist on his face, staring at the gray necks craning above the palms. He felt dizzy, as if the ground were sloping away too steeply. He had trouble getting his breath. Because he was looking at something he had never expected to see in his life. Yet he was seeing it.

The animals in the mist were perfect apatosaurs, medium-size sauropods. His stunned mind made academic associations: North American herbivores, late Jurassic horizon. Commonly called “brontosaurs.” First discovered by E. D. Cope in Montana in 1876. Specimens associated with Morrison formation strata in Colorado, Utah, and Oklahoma. Recently Berman and McIntosh had reclassified it a diplodocus based on skull appearance. Traditionally, Brontosaurus was  thought to spend most of its time in shallow water, which would help support its large bulk.

Although this animal was clearly not in the water, it was moving much too quickly, the head and neck shifting above the palms in a very active manner-a surprisingly active manner…

Grant began to laugh.

“What is it?” Hammond said, worried. “Is something wrong?”

Grant just shook his head, and continued to laugh. He couldn’t tell them that what was funny was that he had seen the animal for only a few seconds, but he had already begun to accept it and to use his observations to answer long-standing questions in the field.

He was still laughing as he saw a fifth and a sixth neck crane up above the palm trees. The sauropods watched the people arrive. They reminded Grant of oversize giraffes-they had the same pleasant, rather stupid gaze.

From the distance, they heard the trumpeting sound again. First one animal made it, and then the others joined in.

“That’s their call,” Ed Regis said. “Welcoming us to the island.”

Grant stood and listened for a moment, entranced.

While the spirit of this page is undoubtedly maintained, Spielberg does immense work in making it work on a visual level, of taking Grant’s internal thought process and converting it into a simple statement that any audience can be moved by. He also strips away some of the less than moving sentiments, since you don’t want movie Grant referring to the dinosaurs as “oversize giraffes”.

It is a scene to showcase the dinosaurs, but also to showcase the humans, and in a movie ostensibly just about dinosaurs come back to life, that’s truly something special. Like the brontosaur that trumpets as it raises itself up on its hind legs, Spielberg drops us into his vision with a note of total story-telling triumph.

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