Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Jurassic Park and 10 things that make movies great

February 18, 2014

Jurassic Park (1993)
I was nine years old when Jurassic Park came out. I’m not going to say this is the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly my favourite Hollywood blockbuster and will always be on my top ten. It didn’t make filmmaking feel attainable in the way that Chasing Amy did a few years later, but it instilled in me a love for the formal theatricality of the cinema-going experience.

Movies don’t need to be Jurassic Park to be magical, but whenever I’m on a run of watching less-than-stellar films, it is useful to look at this 1993 masterpiece. It never fails to remind me of why I love movies, but more than that, it’s virtually a masterclass in fine filmmaking.

Arthouse and experimental filmmaking is great; movies that explore alternate narrative structures, and subjects, characters, themes and plots that don’t appear in mainstream Hollywood movies. But there are classic characteristics of the grand tradition of Hollywood filmmaking that show respect for the audience and reaffirm that filmmakers are entertainers working in a large-scale medium. This shopping list of features might not save a bad movie, but will, I think, help a ‘story with promise’ to be told in a way that really takes us on a journey.

This isn’t formula: each story brings with it its own unique set of problems. This is preference: I want to see movies that do these things really, really well. And when I eventually make movies, I’d better well make sure I follow my own advice!

10 Things that make movies great

  1. A good opening
  2. A great hook
  3. A dynamic ensemble of characters
  4. Tell the story subjectively
  5. Characters should be brave (even when they’re not)
  6. Emotional contrast / scene contrast
  7. Show us the world of the characters
  8. A great musical score
  9. The middle is your chorus
  10. The End: land the plane

 I’ll dedicate one post to each of these topics, so to kick off, let’s look at the opening of a film.

A Good Opening

I’m not talking inciting incident or any technical screenwriting practice, just the first three or four minutes of the film. The opening is basically a film-within-a-film, a music-video length sequence that prepares us for what lies ahead, that establishes a house style and, hopefully, lets us know we are in safe hands.

The opening could be a title sequence. See Art of the Title for a wonderfully in-depth look at this crucial art. But it doesn’t need to be flashy either, the simple titles and music that open Chasing Amy set the melancholy, romantic and creative atmosphere of that film perfectly.

But the opening could also be a vignette that establishes character as in Back to the Future, or simple titles followed by a dystopian Los Angeles as in Blade Runner. It could be a whole scene, like the brilliantly acted break-up scene at the start of The Social Network, before the titles.

It is the overture of your film, before the main action commences. The Lion King takes this idea to its literal conclusion in one of the finest animation sequences put to film. But there are considerations here:
  1. Nothing necessary to a decent understanding of the rest of the film should be included in the opening.
  2. Do not jump straight into the main narrative of the movie. The opening is our entrée into the world of the film; it isn’t yet the film proper.
Why the above two points? Because this is a film, it isn’t television. We’re committing ourselves to at least a full ninety minutes, the lights are going down, people are still coming in from the bathrooms, or at home we’re still fluffing the pillows on the couch or finishing our conversation.

This is the movie’s chance to gently grab our attention and immerse us in the world of the film. If we think of a film as a great flight as opposed to a drive to the corner store, then the opening is our take-off. The film might be a 90-minute non-stop actioner, but it still has to take off, and the Bond films learnt this early on.

What does Jurassic Park do?

Jurassic Park actually has an exquisitely composed 21 minute opening sequence. Every scene from the very beginning of the film plants seeds of the issues at stake, introduces the key characters, and builds our sense of anticipation to the final full, breathtaking reveal of a dinosaur at around the 19:30 minute mark. At 21 minutes we have the real full title reveal as John Hammond says, ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park.’

But it’s beyond the scope of this post to do a blow-by-blow analysis of that full sequence, so let’s just look at the first four minutes.


0:00 Fade-in to Universal Logo animation, with just the sounds of insects at night.
0:20 Logo fades to black.
0:24 Fade-in to titles. Deep bass sound and choral musical score begins.
There are only three titles, ‘Universal Pictures Presents’, ‘An Amblin Entertainment Production’, ‘Jurassic Park’.
This entire title sequence lasts only 30 seconds. The combination of musical score, sound effects (insects), Jurassic Park font and text fading out to a lingering red, are the only elements used to establish that feeling of awe and anticipation at the beginning of this monster movie. It’s already great!
0:50 Fade-in on trees at night being pushed aside. It’s not clear yet, are we about to see a dinosaur already? What’s pushing it aside? Cut to: nervous looking workers. Reveal: it is not a dinosaur coming through, but a shipping container being transferred via forklift.
2:00 Pull-back to reveal prison-like compound where the shipping container is being delivered. Title ‘Isla Nublar, 120 Miles West of Costa Rica’.
It’s only two minutes in, and we’ve already established tone and a couple of central themes of the film to come: ‘this dinosaurs business is a dangerous business’, and ‘animals in captivity’.
2:15 Dialogue: ‘Pushing team, move in there. I want tazers on full charge’. They are transferring the shipping container to the compound. POV shot of a worker through the bars of the container.
2:30 Container is pushed into place at the gate to the compound. Dialogue: ‘Loading team, step away. Gatekeeper.’ The gatekeeper climbs the container, we crane up the container with him. POV of raptor, looking up at the gatekeeper (soon to be victim). ‘Raise the gate.’
2:45 Crane up as the gate is pulled open and the score builds to horns in true monster movie fashion. A silhouetted view of the raptor as it rushes the gate. The container is pushed backwards and the gatekeeper falls to the ground.
2:55 The gatekeeper tries to get up but is sucked into the container from behind. He grabs the edge of the container with his fingertips.
3:00 Robert, the leader of this team of workers, rushes in, grabs the gatekeeper and tries to pull him out. He slips from his grip and is pulled up the container.
3:15 Dialogue: ‘Work her back.’ The workers shoot tasers at the raptor. Cut to:
3:20 Close up of the eye of the raptor. Reverse on Robert: they’ve made eye contact. Robert struggles with the gatekeeper.
3:30 Dialogue: ‘Shoot her!’ Gatekeeper’s hand slips from Robert’s grip. ‘Shoot her.’
3:40 Hand slips away as we hear gunshots. Cross-fade to Mano de Dios Amber Mine.
The first fifty seconds created the atmosphere of the film and the scene to come. The following three minutes gave us our isolated horror movie opening. If you missed that scene and came in late, you’re not missing anything essential, but the scene establishes the film perfectly.

The following scene at Mano de Dios follows on from the death and we discover the main setup of the film: there is an investigation into the safety of the park, and they will need a digging expert, Alan Grant, if they want to open. Cut-to ‘Badlands, near Snakewater, Montana.’ We see a dinosaur being excavated, and there’s a great lecture from Alan on the origins of the raptor while the film establishes the themes of children and family that will be picked up later on with Hammond’s grandkids. Everything in this opening will be picked up later on, and even when it’s a bit on the nose (Alan’s fear of computers), it’s still all very economical, structured, and essential. There are no loose ends.

Finally, at 9:30 into the film, a helicopter swoops in and the team rushes in to cover up the dig site. Grant and Sattler go into their trailer and we finally meet John Hammond, the mastermind of this theme park, and one of the sponsors of their dig. The next time you see Jurassic Park, observe what happens in this scene: Hammond reiterates the setup of the film (that he needs experts to sign off on the park), and we are introduced to Grant and Sattler.

If you were nine minutes and thirty seconds late to this film, were buying popcorn, or making out on the couch, you can enter at almost ten minutes into the film without missing any crucial information.

So why are the first nine minutes and thirty seconds there?

It’s the film taking-off. The filmmakers are telling you, sit down, get comfortable, we’re going on a ride, and we’re going to show you dinosaurs. It’s also telling you, in one way or another, it’s going to be great, but everything is going to go terribly, terribly wrong.

You can’t make the film without the opening, and you don’t want to jump in half-way. But the genius is, if you do come in partway through, you haven’t missed anything. Those first 21 minutes are also an excellent example of the introduction of theme, character, how to handle exposition (the insults and arguments between Hammond and Malcolm, for example), but these are topics for future posts.

But is all that really necessary? Surely we could open at the island visitor centre and cover the rest with exposition?

Sure, that would technically work. You could probably follow the film just fine, but you wouldn’t care. The opening communicates information, but more importantly, scene by scene we are made to care about what’s happening and who is involved. Before the reveal of the dinosaur we already like Grant, Sattler, the jovial Hammond, and the eccentric Ian Malcolm. After we’ve seen the dinosaur we have left our couches and our seats, and are now deeply immersed in the film. And then the movie proper can begin. But not before.

A rich opening is a sign of a good movie, but it’s a promise that must be delivered on. And as we go through the later points of my shopping list of things that make movies awesome, we’ll hopefully find out how some of that stuff works too.



Further reading:

It’s worth looking at the screenplay for Jurassic Park’s opening scene. Spielberg and co’s work here is really incredible when you compare the script to the finished product. The moment when you first see the eye of the Raptor is smartly put later on in the scene to better set up that first shot of the trees.

2 comments:

  1. Very good read, thanks for sharing. One of my favourite openings from a film is in Trading Places (1983), it's a day-in-the-life montage of the city of Philadelphia, with a bouncy Mozart tune to boot.

    Video http://youtu.be/lCubTHR5vpY

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  2. Thanks Nicholas!

    That's a beautiful opening too, I love how it all builds up to the presentation of the breakfast tray. I'll have to revisit that movie!

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