Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Jurassic Park and 10 things that make movies great: Part 2 "A Great Hook"

May 22, 2014

A Great ‘‘Hook’’
This is part 2 in a series of posts looking at some of the elements that make good movies great. Since Jurassic Park (1993) is one of my all-time favourite films, we’ll be looking at all of this through the prism of Spielberg’s classic. This post stands alone, but you may wish to revisit Part 1, A Good Opening.

When film coaches and screenwriting gurus discuss the idea of having a good ‘‘hook’’, they simply mean the beginning of the story. The central, singular action that, as Aristotle tells us, should be resolved by the end. Sounds simple enough. And it should be! Simple, that is.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle valued plot above all[1]. In the Poetics, he argues that a plot must be unified by a single action that begins at the beginning and concludes finally, at the end. Everyone knows a story has a beginning, a middle and end, even if a film or a book doesn’t choose to show us the whole thing, but not everyone knows that we owe the concept (or at least our way of talking about it) to Aristotle.

While a ‘hook’ is usually described within the context of pitching a story (this topic comes up just as frequently for novelists working on their query letters as it does screenwriters), as a movie-goer, I want a great hook as it tells me what kind of film I’m going to be in for. The hook (that is, the beginning of the film and the inciting event that begins the main action) asks a question that I want to see answered. Playwright and filmmaker David Mamet describes it as a logic syllogism, and Robert McKee has made an excellent career out of teaching this simple yet complex and infinitely variable aspect to the aesthetics of storytelling, which used to be common knowledge back in the days when people still read Aristotle. As Good Will Hunting told us, this is an education you could have gotten for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library. But I digress.

So what’s Jurassic Park’s hook? It’s a remarkably simple one, and at the surface not very interesting, but in some ways, that’s what makes it one of the best. 
When a new theme park that brings dinosaurs back from extinction experiences a fatality, its owner brings in a team of experts to give the all clear before opening.
The film is about a safety inspection. That’s all.

It’s a simple question that can be answered. Does the park or does it not receive expert blessing to be opened to the public? That question is answered with complete finality by the end of the picture.

But the beauty of the simple question, is that this hook can be the gateway through which all of the themes of the film are made manifest in tangible ways through the action of the plot. The themes of the politics of genetic engineering, corporate corruption, the hubris of the rich, science vs business, and man vs nature all come into play from this very simple question: “Can we open the park?” The themes persist and yet it is not billed as a political thriller exploring the politics of big business and unregulated genetic engineering. The filmmakers do not beg us to think about the themes they care for dearly, rather they cleverly weave such themes into the film’s hook and its central action.

In Part 1, we looked at the opening of Jurassic Park and I argued that the film proper begins at around the 22 minute mark, after we see the first dinosaur. Though the idea of Acts in cinema is an imperfect one, it’s a useful analytical tool to chart the course of the main action and its key changes. In my reading of it, the first act of Jurassic Park begins from the very first scene, in which a worker dies while transporting a raptor, and concludes when Alan Grant witnesses a live dinosaur and asks the critical question, “How did you do this?” and Hammond says, “Let me show you.” With the words “How did you do this?” Grant tells us that now, and only now, is he taking an active role and beginning his inspection. And thus our protagonist acts on the main action of the film.

Alan Grant (Sam Neill) says "How did you do this?" (21:50)
Look how happy he is to be on an island with a T-Rex.
Within the exquisitely composed sequence from minute 1 to minute 22 of the first act, we see a series of scenes advancing us from the tragic event of the worker death through to the beginning of the investigation, in a logically ordered structure of events. Scene by scene, the filmmakers establish a wide range of themes all hooked into that critical question the film is promising us it will answer, “Can it be safe? Will they open this park to the public?” We know it’s not safe: they established this in the opening scene, but we don’t know if the park’s going to make it to opening and we want to see this unfold. To see if they can succeed, or simply to witness the destruction, it doesn’t matter so much why we want to see it, just that the film has hooked us with its question and we desire an answer.

Maybe it’s enough to have a poster with some dinosaurs on it to get an audience into the theatre. But once we’re there, the filmmakers need to hook us in to get us to go on the ride with them. Spielberg, Crichton, Koepp and co rightly chose to delay the reveal of the dinosaur until we are engaged with the central characters and core themes. Then and only then do they show us the dinosaur, and then sit us down for some nice exposition on how the park came to be created. It’s the great take-off before settling into cruising altitude.

In later posts, we’ll discuss how the filmmakers deliver on the promises made through this opening first act, but for now, let’s take a closer look to see just how many themes they’ve managed to bring to the fore throughout this first sequence and the film’s central action.

1. Isla Nublar
Accident during transfer of raptor kills worker.
Man vs beast, workplace safety, hubris of the rich
2. Mano de Dios Amber mine
Lawyer for Hammond discusses death of worker and impending $20m lawsuit with one of Hammond’s diggers, and that they need experts to sign off on the island. Digger warns lawyer that they will never get Alan Grant to sign.
Corporate culpability, old tech vs new tech, business vs science
3. Badlands, Near Snakewater, Montana
Sattler and Grant uncover dig with brushes. Grant and co view digital image of raptor fossil. Grant lectures a child on the dinosaur’s ferocity.
Old tech vs new tech, man vs nature, awe of the natural world, family, adults vs children
4. Walking back to dig site
Sattler admonishes Grant for scaring the child. Grant asks if she’d ever want one. A helicopter arrives, sending dirt all over the dig site.
Family, man vs nature, science vs business, old tech vs new tech, arrogance of the rich
5. Sattler and Grant’s trailer
Grant and Sattler discover Hammond in their trailer. Hammond opens up (their) champagne and proposes Grant and Sattler visit his island to inspect the park by offering them more money for their research.
Arrogance of the rich, science vs business, middle class vs wealthy, family, adults vs children, deception and manipulation by the rich
6. San Jose, Costa Rica
Denis Nedry meets with Dodgson to receive $750k and method of storage (a whipped cream can) to steal viable embryos from the island for a competing company.
Corporate corruption, human greed / man is a beast, man vs man, companies vs companies
7. Helicopter ride to island
Malcolm meets Sattler and Grant. Malcolm discusses chaos theory, Hammond points out that he brought the scientists and the lawyer “brought the rock star”. Helicopter soars through valleys, comes to a bumpy landing by a waterfall.
Man vs nature, science vs business, awe of the natural world, hard science vs soft science, distance and isolation, chaos vs order
8. Jeep ride through island
They pass through high security electric gates. The lawyer threatens to shut down Hammond if the park does not get the all clear after the inspection.
Danger, awe of the natural world, man vs nature, hubris of the rich, safety and corporate accountability
9. Top of hill and view over the park
Jeeps stop at the top of the hill. Sattler discovers an extinct leaf. All see their first dinosaur. Lawyer says they’re going to make a fortune. Grant gets out to look, asks how fast the dinosaurs are, and Hammond says they clocked the T-Rex at 32 mph. Grant stumbles away and discovers a herd of dinosaurs on the horizon. Finally he asks Hammond, “How did you do this? and Hammond says, “I’ll show you.”
Awe of the natural world, awe of the accomplishments of science and engineering, man vs nature, hubris of the rich and powerful, business vs science

Not only does the film establish the above themes, but in the main, they are established by setting up something that will be paid off later. Grant’s intimidating lecture on the ferocity of raptors is played out with real raptors later on in the film. His distaste for the child is resolved by his experiences working with Hammond’s grand-children to escape the island. Malcolm’s flirtatious description of chaos theory is later revealed to be held true with nature finding a way to have the dinosaurs procreate, and represents his free ‘chaotic’ view compared to Grant and Sattler’s ‘ordered’ view of science.  

Notice that Hammond does not tell Sattler and Grant that he is being sued for $20 million for the death of one of his workers, thereby withholding critical information that would affect their choice to come along. Hammond is played as a cheerful, sympathetic figure by Richard Attenborough, rendering his actions (helicopter sending dirt all over the dig, opening the champagne without permission, manipulating with his wealth) far more meaningful as subtext. The contrast between Hammond’s benevolent exterior and his out of touch, self-interested inner life results in the film’s tragic hubris, played out at the end of the film. Hammond himself is the embodiment of the film’s main action.

It is beyond the scope of this post to outline all of the different future plot lines set up in this section of the film, but the point is this: for the filmmakers of Jurassic Park, theme is not separate to action. The action of each scene and indeed the entire sequence allows so many pertinent themes to come through, and they are wise enough to do this while not wasting a second on anything unnecessary to the progression of the main action.

To recap, here are the themes we’ve identified that are front and centre through this first act, brought to the fore by the film’s outstanding and beautifully simple premise and opening scenes:

Adults vs children
Arrogance of the rich
Awe of the accomplishments of science and engineering
Awe of the natural world
Business vs science
Chaos vs order
Companies vs companies
Corporate corruption
Corporate culpability
Deception and manipulation by the rich
Distance and isolation
Hard science vs soft science
Hubris of the rich and powerful
Human greed / man is a beast
Man vs beast
Man vs man
Man vs nature
Middle class vs wealthy
Old tech vs new tech
Safety and corporate accountability
Science vs business
Workplace safety

That’s a big list. Stephen King rightly says that no-one knows where ideas come from, but we sometimes know where we are when they come to us. Maybe something takes our interest (a theme perhaps), and before too long a story idea forms. Michael Crichton was a physician, novelist and filmmaker with an active interest in technology and the relationship between human achievement and the natural world. In 1973, he wrote and directed the sci-fi classic Westworld, about an adult theme park in which the robotic workers populating the park malfunction and start killing the guests. My guess is that with Jurassic Park, he took another swing at these ideas that enthralled him: the bizarre place that is a theme park, the hubris of the rich and powerful and the fallacies of corporate risk assessment, the pitfalls of a naïve approach to new technology, and finally, the nature of what it is to be human and how we relate to the wider world. To those existing ideas from Westworld he coupled a love for dinosaurs and a fascination with developments in genetic engineering. Jurassic Park is of course the superior film, the culmination of a career and a life, all kinds of themes and ideas distilled into a single story.

The beauty of a great hook, or a well thought out premise, or a clearly articulated beginning is this: it is the single idea that opens up a whole world of themes to explore. A writer needn’t pick a single theme, but in the end, they do need to pick a single plot. One which advances logically toward an inevitable conclusion that resolves all that has been established at the outset. Even if that resolution expresses that some things do not have clear answers.

Simple hooks are best: they ask little but allow for big answers.

[1] Aristotle discusses the primacy of plot in the component parts of a tragedy. The Poetics is actually a great read, even if it can be a bit enigmatic. Rather than reading online (though of course you can), I would recommend picking up a translation with a good commentary to guide your way through it. Given that dramatic theorists since the Neoclassic period onwards (including Hollywood script gurus) have been highly influenced by Aristotle’s thinking, returning to the source is invaluable.

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