Back in January when I sent out my book manuscript, I had the weird sense of waving goodbye to a cruise ship I built myself, standing at the pier while this giant, white, overstuffed artifact bellied out to sea.
It was not the first time this particular ship had been launched. In August 2006 I printed out the whole thing, some 350 pages. This was after my dissertation defense but before I dropped off the text at the print shop in Bloomington where Indiana University dissertations are bound. Lots of other stuff was going on at the time—I was in the midst of packing for the move to Pennsylvania, my thoughts mostly focused on coming up with syllabi for the two courses I was contracted to teach at Swarthmore starting in the fall. But I took a moment, amid the mess of cardboard boxes and sorting stacks for the yard sale, to balance the fat block of pages in my hands, marveling that I had managed to produce such a thing.
About a year later I sent it out again, this time as a book proposal. I got polite notes back from two academic presses—saying, essentially, thanks but no thanks—and shelved the project until 2011 or so. It went out again at that point, and this time was met with a yes, just in time for my tenure case.
Then came the reader reports. Mostly positive, with a handful of suggestions for changes, they stopped me in my tracks; it would be almost four more years before I got around to patching holes, updating case studies, and clarifying ambiguities needed to clear the final hurdle.
I should explain, if it isn’t clear from the outline, that I am not a good writer. Process-wise, I mean. Faced with a task, I put it off; encouraged, I dig in my feet and work even more grudgingly. This goes deep with me, all the way back to childhood. Though I have, for the most part, achieved the level of wisdom that involves accepting myself as I am, procrastination is one of the traits I most want to change in myself. As soon as I get around to it.
Anyway, it turns out that publishing a book, at least a scholarly one, involves more than one goodbye; it’s less like Ilsa and Rick lingering heartlost in the fog than like dropping off a child at school, morning after morning. That’s probably the wrong metaphor here, because I adore my children, but have come to detest the book. Still, the other images that spring to mind—repeated skin biopsies, for instance—might express in a Cronenbergian way the connection between writing and excrescence, a putrefaction of words shed like skin dust, but they don’t capture the idea of an object consciously built. A model kit, seams puttied and sanded, paint sprayed and retouched, decals and weathering conscientiously applied. Doomed to show only flaws and mistakes in the eyes of its maker; to everyone else it’s probably, y’know, okay.
My book is looking more okay these days thanks to the copyeditors at NYU Press. I got the manuscript back for review, have been going through the chapters, reviewing changes. There are a few on every page, and I see the wisdom of every single one. That’s generally my response to being edited—gratitude. Harlan Ellison and a mob of similarly perpetually disgruntled writers would kick me out of the Tough Kids Club for saying so. You can find me over by the janitor’s closet, eating lunch with Strunk and White.
There’s nothing like a suddenly lost object to demonstrate the precarity of our systems for keeping order—the flimsiness of the illusion that the spaces we inhabit are at our mercy, rather than the other way around.
There are many sorts of object, of course, and many sorts of loss. I daily shed millions of dead skin cells without thinking about it, and it doesn’t trouble my world if a Lego block goes missing from the Tupperware footlocker where all our Lego pieces entropically end up. The absence I’m talking about is the shadow cast by a specific kind of item: it must be something so critical to daily function that I need it—at least need easy access to it—almost all the time; by the same token, its ubiquity as both physical item and psychic token must make it easy to take for granted. Glasses, keyring, wallet, phone, various iPods and iPads. Made almost invisible by ritualized use, these small but vital technologies don’t often vanish from the map. But when they do, they threaten to take the map with them.
This week I spent a disturbing and disorienting couple of days searching for my laptop, a silvery sylph of a MacBook Air, which did not disappear so much as slowly slip off my radar—not a jump cut but a slow dissolve. Like Pasteur’s germs, the loss became an official fact only retrospectively. First I had to shamble from spot to spot around the house to check all the places the MacBook tends to get left: the high shelf kids can’t get at, the table beside the wall outlet, under the couch, under the bed. Meanwhile my thoughts probed an alternative theory, treating the missing computer as a theft. Hadn’t I left my car unlocked, work case in the front seat plain for all to see, when I dropped my kids at school? It was only a few minutes. But how long would it have taken, really?
I did not like the feeling of these suspicions germinating and spreading vinelike through my view of the world. Too much of the U.S. is ensnared and immobilized in such thorny psychic tendrils. And just as the presidency is in a way the mass projection of a schizoid populace—a country whose constituent blocs have lost the ability to comprehend each other, an imagined community angry-drunk on its dark and fearful imaginings—my worries about some faceless thief are just a way of externalizing anxiety and disavowing my own responsibility for losing track of something valuable.
The computer finally turned up (isn’t it I who turned up? the laptop didn’t move) in my campus office. It was on a shelf at about shoulder height, a place where books belong. I had no memory of setting it there, but set it there I must have. So now my theoretical thief has become an inferred Bob.
That word: absentminded. Quick flash of Fred MacMurray and an infinitely receding four-dimensional array of old academics wearing one sock and polishing their glasses. A little past that tesseract of cliché is one very real person, my mother, whose memory loss has in recent years become profound. Because of her I suppose I watch my own slips and failings with a diagnostic eye, sifting random problems for systematic ones, signals in the noise that point to a larger noise in the signal.
The computer vanished the instant I put it somewhere it doesn’t usually go. What does that say about where the coordinates and position of any object reside? Is it all and only relational? Are there, in fact, only negative differences, dark matter? I think it’s less important to answer those unanswerables than to note how close they are to the surface, a magma of existential worry coursing under the brightness and rationality of waking life. Note it, remember it, honor it.
I have decided to engage these games as much as possible without resorting to cheat guides, walkthroughs, Let’s Plays, and so on; if I’m actually committed to progressing through a game in a series of short sessions, I ought to confront head-on those factors of duration and difficulty too often skipped in favor of easy, outsourced solutions.
Come to think of it, I have always been something of a cheater, guiltlessly ready to subvert the sanctity of the magic circle, or at least distend its ethical circumference. I remember at fifteen hunching over my Apple II+, studying the lines of BASIC that made up Sierra On-Line’s Softporn Adventure (1981), sifting the deep code of DATA statements for vocabulary items—“nipple,” “unhook,” “menage”—that would lubricate my path through the seamy hypertext. In 1996 a friend introduced me to another virtual labyrinth, iD’s 3D shooter Quake. He pulled a console down from the top of the screen, typed “NOCLIP” and “GOD MODE,” and showed me how to walk through walls, a floating unkillable angel of death holding all the guns and unlimited ammo.
I’ve never worried much about whether this kind of loosey-goosey fun compensates adequately for the pleasure it replaces—the more sober, committed, purist approach of playing the game as it was intended to be played. Yes, texts are machines that work independently of their authors, ergodic texts like videogames more than any. But there will always be value in engaging the text machine as an expression of its maker—particularly when the notion of “maker” is expanded beyond human agents to include objects and forces, actants institutional, technological, and historical.
Plus it is just fun to blunt-force my way through a problem, solving it in baby steps, experiencing first frustration, then a kind of humbling at the sorry limits of my skills and abilities, then a burst of so-there euphoria when I finally crack the damned thing. This kind of emotional slalom, which I associate with focused, patient, persistent work toward a larger goal, is not something I’ve had much practice with.
This image documents my victory over the two-weight puzzle. What you do is, you pull the first rope down between the gears, then jump down and run and climb on the cart that’s been positioned there, jump to the end of the retracting rope and pull it back down. Swing and leap onto the second rope, pull it down, and run beneath the weights before they get too low.
Full of confidence in my agency and effectiveness, I strode onward. Right into a situation where some kind of glowworm dropped onto my head and took over my movement so that I could only jump, run, or walk in the direction the worm was taking me. When it settled into my scalp with a waxy sizzle, there was a highly cinematic pullback with a bit of Vertigo zoom, a retreating axial gesture videogames have long used to transition into and out of cutscenes. Here the device is neatly deployed to signal a different compromise of agency, turning me into an avatar under the command of two competing sets of inputs.
Solving a puzzle first-thing lends an optimistic boost to a play session, and I practically danced through this one, ridding myself of the glowworm by enticing some hanging vampire slugs to nibble it off my noggin, then getting enmeshed in an elaborate mechanical conundrum that involved getting a huge machine to run in the background to generate electricity that makes a storm that makes it rain, then pulling an aqueduct down to fill up a basin in which a log floats, making it possible for me to leap to the other side. To run the machine I had to lure a little spiky hamster critter out by knocking loose some glowberries it hungered for … then get it in its way and chase it back to the machine where it takes up position in a hamster wheel, which I pull a lever to strike with a brake that starts the electrical display in the background. Got all that?
Great Wolf Lodge, in the Poconos, has no real wolves and isn’t really a lodge. But it certainly is Great, at least for my wife and me and our two children. We were there for the third time last week, a getaway timed to coincide with family visiting from New Zealand and our elder son’s sixth birthday.
Kids and parents alike immediately grasp the genius of Great Wolf Lodge’s arrangement: a waterpark blended with a hotel, GWL makes it possible to walk between your room and a giant warehouse of gushing water, slides, and towers, wearing only sandals, swimsuit, and t-shirt. Leave your money and phone behind in the room, and don’t worry about a key: fastened around your wrist is a paper band, Tyvek-tough, with an RFID or something inside that allows you to swipe your way past closed doors. The place is laid out like a labyrinth, a rec-room designed by Escher, and navigating its plushly carpeted, dimly lit hallways, dodging packs of running children and nodding at fellow exhausted parents, I can’t help but think of The Shining and the prowling eye with which Kubrick mapped the Overlook.
Although we concur on the felicity of GWL’s operating premise, parents harbor an additional measure of respect and appreciation for the practicality of its closed system, a loop—not unlike the nautilus tunnels down which we bounce in inflated rafts, shrieking like we’re riding roller coasters—whose limits promise to keep everyone safe. The safety of Ouroborous. Safety from what? From the external world and its dangerous unpredictability, its menacing strangers, its natural threats. Our comfort is premised on apocalypse just beyond the border: like a bomb shelter, or Charlton Heston’s pad in The Omega Man, or the domed cities in Logan’s Run (a space whose sybaritic pleasures resonate with the waterpark’s ethos).
I realize there’s something (paradoxically) infantile about the paranoia inherent to parenting. Since my kids were born I have been unable to extricate my warm love of them from the cold fear of their destruction, illness, sadness. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “To love anything is to see it at once under lowering clouds of danger,” and indeed I have found that the psychic burden imposed by having dependents is so encompassing and unrelenting that to have it lifted, even for the span of a twenty-four-hour stay in a room that smells of chlorine, is like an out-of-body experience.
Our six-year-old appreciates the various wonders of the water park, but it is our three-year-old who is primally transfixed by pools, fountains, bubbles, buckets, splashes, and jets. He points out every vent and drain he sees. Having learned the word and general meaning of “hydraulic,” he asks if everything is hydraulic. But his engineer’s eye is married to a daredevil’s soul, and his favorite activity is fording the waves of the wave pool. Wearing his life vest, he pushes himself into the cresting foam, lets himself fall backwards, rolls so his face is underwater for seconds at a time. I hover, inches away, ready to grab and pull him upright, but he shouts “Let me go, Daddy!” So I stand back, watching with the floating patience of a steadicam, flexing my hands and twisting my body in sympathetic mirror of my boy’s actions, as though this is a videogame, I the player, he the avatar.
One hour and twenty minutes of playtime in, I’m souring of Limbo’s world; or maybe it is the experience I find tiring and tedious. Watching my character work its way along the screen’s X axis is like watching an ant in an ant farm, trapped in sandy tunnels between two sheets of glass. Over and over I thud into some new nasty trap and die until I figure it out. This was the first session where I racked mental focus from Limbo’s gorgeous, auroral grays and blacks, becoming conscious instead of its bluntly punishing rhythms. In the words of a former student, the game’s mechanic started to stick out.
My alienation might also stem from my first encounter with destructive forces embodied not in sharp-edged objects, unjumpable gaps, or giant hairy spiders, but human beings like myself—a gang of imps shot blew darts at me, chasing me back along my path until I was able to crush them between two stomping hammers. (It took about six deaths to learn the correct sequence and timing of jumps to bring about this result.) Discovering that this already unpleasant place had characters in it working to make things even worse was mildly angering, and I was pleased to smash the motherfuckers. I suspect I have wandered into a Lord of the Flies situation, and I have never had any illusions that in such a pecking order I would be anywhere besides the base. I wish we could all get along, but failing that, I will survive by any means necessary.
A central problem of game design is the calibration of challenge and skill, the parceling out puzzles and obstacles poised just slightly ahead of the player’s growing repertoire of game-specific talents and tools. It is essentially a pedagogical process in which each test is also a lesson that feeds into the next incremental advance. Videogame as tutor code, by turns irritating and inspiring. Get the mix wrong and the game is boringly easy, or paralyzingly difficult.
But even as I pin my reaction on the game, I realize that local, player-side effects are conditioning my response. I ended today’s session in the middle of a puzzle I can’t yet crack, a baroque interrelation of pull cords, turning gears, two large blocks whose lifting and falling is key to safe passage. There’s a push cart I haven’t figured out how to use, although it is reassuring to trust in the parsimony evident throughout Limbo so far: if it isn’t important to the solution, it wouldn’t be there.
When I told my mother-in-law that I intended to remain mindful throughout the process of my first colonoscopy, she said, “Take notes.” I think there was a wink in her voice, but in truth, engaging in careful observation and taking notes seems entirely appropriate to things like this: interruptions of somatic routine so potently dramatic they leave you, in Brechtian fashion, estranged and resensitized to the basic conditions of existence. You know: the existence where “you” are just a language virus with delusions of self that grew inside the complex brain of a hyperselected primate body that is itself a feat of natural evolutionary engineering—a body that will always remain, though you inhabit it every day like a complacent monarch riding in the cushioned control dome of some steampunk mecha, profoundly beyond your limited ken.
Of course, the ken I speak of is my own. In medical matters I am the ignorant beneficiary of knowledges, sciences, and skills practiced by my intellectual betters. I’m OK with that. One facet of any “procedure” is the way it enlists you in a sequence you have not authored and in most cases do not fully grasp (assuming you are in the hands of experts whose value is precisely the rarity of their depth of training). Everything was made simple for me, the poor shlub with the colon in need of scrutiny. The doctor gave a referral, CVS provided prescription medicine (a white paper sack the intimidating size of a Wendy’s bag), the endoscopy clinic called a week beforehand with instructions, a website took my medical history. By the time my wife dropped me off at the clinic and the automated doors opened for me and I handed over my ID and insurance cards, I was as locked into my path as a pinball in its spring-loaded launch bay, ready to be plungered into the careening, strobing field of play.
Given the nature of colonoscopies, I guess I shouldn’t be talking about getting “plungered.” My point is that I see phenomena like this as straddling the worlds of perfect order and mad chaos. It is a test, and if I pass, I get to go back to life as usual—life lived in happy ignorance of the body’s magical self-maintaining machinery and its constant potential for catastrophic breakdown. If I don’t pass, if they find something, I get the prize of a new and different future, one of which I am destined to remain acutely, painfully, fearfully conscious. Again, formalism.
So far they are about the only living thing that has responded to my presence, and they do so in a deterministic way that mirrors the relentlessness of a natural predator in the implacability of the code driving its digital twin. After getting impaled by the spiders’ stabbing legs oh, a dozen or so times, I have grown affectionately accustomed to these bristly black blobs and their quickly crawling ways. During one hair-raising phase I was lifted into a web and spun into a cocoon, only to break free and hop away like a sperm bouncing madly on its tail—a terrifying intimacy after which the spiders seem as inevitable as family. By the end of my third session we were on such familiar terms with each other I was yanking off a wounded spider’s legs and rolling its body like a boulder to solve a climbing problem.
I’m less sure what to make of the other “kids” sharing this tenebrous gameworld with me. There’s more than one of them, and they frequent the frame’s edges, slipping out of view as soon as I see them. Their bodies litter the background, suggesting that their role in this little cosmos is not simply to tantalize and torment; they, in turn, are tormented.
It’s increasingly clear that I am in a world of physics puzzles—something like Angry Birds—whose mechanics, along with its mise-en-scene, invoke a larger bleakness at the heart of videogaming’s appetite for corporeal destruction. To play this platformer, it seems to say, is to be neither dead nor alive but suspended between the two, pushing along by sheer instinct through a landscape that (A) kills and resurrects you repeatedly and (B) doesn’t give a goddamn.
I’ve only been playing Limbo for a little while—this post covers two twenty-minute blocks of gametime—but already I am getting used to moments like this one, when I encounter a scene that brings me to a startled halt, gazing at some vision that is simultaneously horrible and beautiful. I stare (or rather, I regard my avatar as it stares with its bright, empty eyes) and take the measure of the mise-en-scene, which so niftily merges the cinematic with the algorithmic. Seen as a frame of film, the chiaroscuro layers of this misty, monochrome forest recall F. W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau, or the multiplanar woods in classical Disney features: Bambi, Snow White. Engaged as a juncture in a videogame, by contrast, the little diorama explicitly presents itself as a puzzle to be solved, an experiential bottleneck to the story’s unfolding. I know I can stand here forever if I choose.
I guess what I’m saying is I like Limbo’s pauses, the aporia that precede its epiphanies. The equilibrium they provide acts as an antidote to the relentless, headlong run-and-gun that typifies other games I play—the 2016 Doom most recently—as does the game’s nearly silent soundscape of drifting winds, rustling leaves, creaking chains, and buzzing flies.
I also like the frequency with which the game kills me. Every obstacle that impedes my rightward progress through this platformer’s sidescrolling world comes with a lesson in the form of a tiny death that will repeat until the problem’s solution has been learned: Falling on spikes will kill you, so jump over them. You will drown if your head goes underwater, so find a boat or a floating log. Some lessons are functional, the rudimentary physics of manipulation: Ropes can be climbed and swung on. Objects can be pushed and pulled. Some lessons are accidental and purely felicitous: Hold down the right- and up-arrow keys and you will skip childlike through the blowing grass. I care very little about my in-game puppet, whose dopey, compliant body reminds me of the kids savaged in Billy’s Balloon (Don Hertzfeldt, 1998). I drop it off trees and throw it into bear traps just to hear the meaty squish of its annihilation.
But I keep moving forward. After a period of isolation, alone except for the occasional rotting corpse, I’m starting to encounter other life: a giant, spear-legged spider. Another child like myself, running off as I approach. And every so often I crunch over a glowing egg and a score pops up. These bread crumbs, I surmise, will mark my progress through Limbo. When I shell out to the menu, I note that I have completed 11 “chapters” out of 40 or so.
I couldn’t be more pleased to announce the publication of Special Effects: New Histories/Theories/Contexts, an anthology I co-edited with my good friends and colleagues Dan North and Michael S. Duffy. Inspired by a panel we presented together at the 2008 Film and History Conference in Chicago, the book features essays by the three of us, along with contributions from established and rising luminaries such as Scott Bukatman, Julie Turnock, Chuck Tryon, Lisa Bode, Drew Ayers, Aylish Wood, Angela Ndalianis and … well, read the TOC yourself:
Foreword — Scott Bukatman
Introduction — Bob Rehak, Dan North and Michael S. Duffy
PART 1: TECHNIQUES
1. Ectoplasm and Oil: Methocel and the Aesthetics of Special Effects — Ethan de Seife
2. Fleshing It Out: Prosthetic Makeup Effects, Motion Capture and the Reception of Performance — Lisa Bode
3. (Stop)Motion Control: Special Effects in Contemporary Puppet Animation — Andrea Comiskey
4. Magic Mirrors: The Schüfftan Process — Katharina Loew
5. Photorealism, Nostalgia and Style: Photorealism and Material Properties of Film in Digital Visual Effects — Barbara Flueckiger
PART 2: BODIES
6. Bleeding Synthetic Blood: Flesh and Simulated Space in 300 — Drew Ayers
7. Blackface, Happy Feet: The Politics of Race in Motion Capture and Animation — Tanine Allison
8. Being Georges Méliès — Dan North
9. The Battlefield for the Soul: Special Effects and the Possessed Body — Stacey Abbott
10. Baroque Facades, Jeff Bridges’ Face and Tron: Legacy — Angela Ndalianis
11. Organic Clockwork: Guillermo del Toro’s Practical and Digital Nature — Michael S. Duffy
PART 3: SCREENS
12. Digital 3D, Technological Auteurism and the Rhetoric of Cinematic Revolution — Chuck Tryon
13. Shooting Stars: Chesley Bonestell and the Special Effects of Outer Space — Bob Rehak
14. Designed for Everyone Who Looks Forward to Tomorrow!: Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the 1970s Expanded Blockbuster — Julie Turnock
16. The Right Stuff?: Handmade Special Effects in Commercial and Industrial Film — Gregory Zinman
17. ‘Don’t You Mean Extinct?’: On the Circulation of Knowledge in Jurassic Park — Oliver Gaycken
18. Inception’s Timespaces: An Ecology of Technology – Aylish Wood
Afterword: An Interview with Lev Manovich — Dan North
Driving home from last night’s screening of Jurassic World, I kept thinking back to a similarly humid summer evening in 1997, when I locked horns with a friend over the merits of an earlier film in the franchise, Jurassic Park: The Lost World. We were lingering outside the theater before heading to our cars, digesting the experience of the movie we had just watched together. He’d disliked The Lost World, which (if I remember his stance accurately) he saw as an empty commercial grab, a cynical attempt by Steven Spielberg to repeat the success of Jurassic Park (1993)—a film we agreed was a masterpiece of blockbuster storytelling and spectacle—but possessing none of the spark and snap of the original. As for my position, all I can reconstruct these 18 years later is that I appreciated The Lost World’s promotion of Ian Malcolm to primary protagonist—after The Fly (1986), any movie that put Jeff Goldblum in the driver’s seat was golden in my book—as well as its audacious final sequence in which a Tyrannosaurus Rex runs rampant through the streets and suburbs of San Diego.
Really what it came down to, though, were two psychological factors, facets of a subjectivity forged in the fantastic fictions and film frames of science-fiction media, my own version of Scott Bukatman’s “terminal identity.” The first, which I associate with my fandom, was that in those days I never backed down from a good disagreement, whether on picayune questions like Kirk versus Picard or loftier matters such as the meaning of the last twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Hmm, both of those links go to WhatCulture.com—maybe I should add it to my reading list.)
The second reason for my defense of The Lost World was simply my overriding wish that it not be a piece of crap: that it be, in fact, great. Because even then I could feel the tug of loyalty tying me to an emergent franchise, the sense that I’d signed on for a serial experience that might well stretch into decades, demanding fealty no matter how debased its future installments might become. I hadn’t yet read the work of Jacques Lacan—that would come a couple of years later, when I became a graduate student—but I see now that I was thinking in the futur anterieur, peering back on myself from a fantasized, later point of view: “I will have done …” It’s a twisty trick of temporality, and if I no longer stress about contradictions in my viewing practice the way I once did (following the pleasurable trauma of Abrams’s reboot, I have accepted the death of the Star Trek I grew up with), I am still haunted by a certain anxiety of the unarrived regarding my scholarly predilections and predictions (I’d hate to be the kind of academic whom future historians tsk-ingly agree got things wrong.)
But the tidal pull of the franchise commitment persists, which why I’m having a hard time deciding whether Jurassic World succeeded or sucked. Objectively I’m pretty sure the film is a muddle, certainly worse in its money-grabbing motivations and listless construction than either The Lost World or its follow-up, the copy-of-a-copy Jurassic Park III (2001). Anthony Lane in the New Yorkercorrectly bisectsJurassic World into two halves, “doggedly dull for the first hour and beefy with basic thrills for most of the second,” to which I’d add that most of that first hour is rushed, graceless, and elliptical to the point of incoherence. One of my favorite movie critics, Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central, damns that ramshackle execution with faint praise, writing: “Jurassic World is Dada. It is anti-art, anti-sense—willfully, defiantly, some would say exuberantly, meaningless. In its feckless anarchy, find mute rebellion against narrative convention. You didn’t come for the story, it says, you came for the set-ups and pay-offs.”
Perhaps Chaw is right, but seeing the preview for this fall’s Bridge of Spies reminded me what an effortless composer of the frame Spielberg can be–an elegance absent from Jurassic World save for one shot, which I’ll get to in a minute–and rewatching the opening minutes of Jurassic Park before tackling this review reminded me how gifted the man is at pacing. In particular, at putting a story’s elements in place: think of the careful build of the first twenty minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), laying out its globe-jumping puzzle pieces; or of Jaws (1975), as the sleepy beach town of Amity slowly wakes to the horror prowling its waters. Credit too the involvement of the late, great Michael Crichton. His early technothrillers–especially 1969’s The Andromeda Strain and 1973’s Westworld, both of which feed directly into Jurassic Park–might be remembered for their high concepts (and derided for their thin characterizations), but what made him such a perfect collaborator for Spielberg was the clear pleasure he took in building narrative mousetraps, one brief chapter at a time. (Nowadays someone like Dan Brown is probably seen as Crichton’s heir apparent, though I vastly prefer the superb half-SF novels of Daniel Suarez.)
I delve into these influences and inheritances because ancestry and lineage seem to be much on the mind of Jurassic World. DNA and its pandora’s box of wonders/perils have always been a fascination of the Jurassic franchise. In the first film it was mosquitoes in amber; in Jurassic World it’s the 1993 movie that’s being resurrected. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: in front of the camera you’ve got B. D. Wong and a crapload of production design tying the humble beginnings of Isla Nubar to its modern, Disneyesque metastasization, while “behind the scenes” (a phrase I put in scare quotes because, let’s face it, if the material were really meant to stay behind the scenes, we wouldn’t be discussing it), videos like this one work to reassure us of a meaningful connection between the original and its copy:
The “Classic Jurassic Crew” profiled here might seem a little reachy (lead greensman? boom operator?), but the key names are obviously Jack Horner and Phil Tippett, “Paleontology Consultant” and “Dinosaur Consultant” respectively: the former conferring scientific legitimacy upon the proceedings, the latter marking a tie to traditions of special effects that predate the digital. Tippett, of course, made his name in stop-motion animation–the Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth battle are largely his handiwork–and at first was approached by Spielberg to provide similar animation for Jurassic Park. But when Tippett’s “go motion” technique was superseded by the computer-generated dinosaurs being developed by Dennis Muren, Tippett became a crucial figure, both technologically and rhetorically, in the transition from analog to digital eras. In the words of his Wikipedia entry:
Far from being extinct, Tippett evolved as stop motion animation gave way to Computer-generated imagery or CGI, and because of Phil’s background and understanding of animal movement and behavior, Spielberg kept Tippett on to supervise the animation on 50 dinosaur shots for Jurassic Park.
Tippett’s presence in the film’s promotional field of play thus divulges World’s interest in establishing a certain “real” at the core of its operations, inoculating itself against the argument that it is merely a simulacrum of what came before. It’s a challenge faced by every “reboot event” within the ramifying textualities of a long-running blockbuster franchise, forced by marketplace demands to periodically reinvent itself while (and this is the trick) preserving the recognizable essence that made its forerunner(s) successful. In the case of Jurassic World, that pressure surfaces symptomatically in the discourse around the movie’s visual effects–albeit in a fashion that ironically inverts the test Jurassic Park met and mastered all those years ago. Park’s dinosaurs were sold as breakthroughs in CGI, notwithstanding the brevity of their actual appearance: of the movie’s 127-minute running time, only six contained digital elements, with the rest of the creature performances supplied by Tippett’s animation and Stan Winston’s animatronics. Those old-school techniques were largely elided in the attention given to Park’s cutting-edge computer graphics.
Jurassic World, by contrast, arrives long after the end of what Michele Pierson has called CGI’s “wonder years”; inured to Hollywood’s production of digital spectacle by its sheer superfluity, audiences now seek the opposite lure, the promise of something solid, profilmic, touchable. This explains the final person featured in the video: John Rosengrant of the fittingly-named Legacy Effects, seen operating a dying apatosaurus in one of Jurassic World’s few languid moments. The dinosaur in that scene is a token of the analog era, offered up as emblem of a practical-effects integrity the filmmakers hope will generalize to their entire project. It’s an increasingly common move among makers of fantastic media, one that critics, like this writer for Grantland, are all too happy to reinforce:
J. J. Abrams got a big cheer at the recent Star Wars Celebration Anaheim when he said he was committed to practical effects. George Miller won plaudits for sticking real trucks in the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road. Similarly, [Jurassic World director Colin] Trevorrow gestured to the Precambrian world of special effects by filling his movie with rubber dinos, an old View-Master, and going to the mat to force Universal to pony up for an animatronic apatosaurus. Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady tenderly ministers to the old girl before her death — a symbolic death of the practical effect under the rampage of CGI.
I hope to say more about this phenomenon, in which the digital camouflages itself in a lost analog authenticity, in a future post. For now I will simply note that “Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady” might be the most real thing within Jurassic World. Pratt’s performance here is strikingly different from the jokester he played so winningly in Guardians of the Galaxy: he’s tougher, harsher, more brutish. Spielberg is rumored to want him to play Indiana Jones, and I can see how that would work: like the young Harrison Ford, Pratt can convincingly anchor a fantasy scenario without seeming like’s playing dress-up. But the actor Pratt reminds me of even more than Harrison Ford is John Wayne: his first shot in Jurassic World, dazzlingly silhouetted against sunlight, recalls that introductory dolly in Stagecoach (1939) when the camera rushes up to Wayne’s face as though helpless to resist his primordial photogenie.
As for the rest of Jurassic World, I enjoyed some of it and endured most of it, borne along by the movie’s fitful but generally successful invocations of the 1993 original. “Assets” are one of the screenplay’s keywords, and they apply not only to the dinosaurs that are Isla Nubar’s central attractions but to the swarm of intellectual property that constitutes the franchise’s brand: the logos, the score, the velociraptors’ screeches and the T-Rex’s roar. (Sound libraries, like genetically-engineered dinosaurs, are constructed and owned things too.) Anthony Lane jeers that there is “something craven and constricting in the attitude of the new film to the old,” but I found the opposite: it’s when World is most clearly conscious of Park that it works the best, which is probably why I enjoyed its final half an hour–built, as in Park, as an escalating series of action beats, culminating in a satisfying final showdown–the most.
But that might just be my franchise loyalty talking again. As with The Lost World in that 1997 argument outside the theater, I may be talking myself into liking something not because of its actual qualities, but because it’s part of my history–my identity.