Spielberg's Triad of Doom - From a Shark's 'Jaws' to 'Jurassic Park'
by Tyler Wantuch
October 26, 2012
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg shook the world (literally and figuratively) with his second true monster movie, Jurassic Park. His first monster movie, Jaws, not only helped coin the term blockbuster, but also catapulted Spielberg into a household name. Jaws was released in 1975, from then on Spielberg left monsters alone. He focused more on aliens, Indiana Jones and even threw in a few serious pictures. Then in 1993 he returned to the genre with a few surprises up his sleeve. First off, Spielberg would not take on just any monsters. He would attempt to create realistic dinosaurs. This alone would have been blockbuster gold.
But Spielberg went the extra mile to expand his already strong treatment of the monster movie. The life-changing special effects of Jurassic Park coupled with a horror-esque monster film, places this film far above any old trashy 90s blockbuster.
Spielberg’s original monster movie treatment was nearly flawless. Jaws opens with a very Hitchcockian method, employing a memorable soundtrack, off-screen monster violence, and an overall sense of despair that follows our protagonist Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) wherever he goes. Spielberg also pulls deep from the new slasher film genre that was just becoming popular in the early 70s. He has the Great White devour a young skinny dipping girl and an unsuspecting drunken fisherman much like Leatherface would like to do.
The shark even receives an “impossible to destroy” treatment that these films love so much, as one time the townsfolk believe she has been caught and killed only to see her come back and strike again and again. Although there is some discussion that Jaws is simply confused or starving, and this is why she is coming so close to land The sympathy is not promoted so the cold hearted killer cannot be confused as a misunderstood monster. Instead Jaws appears to be a methodical calculating hunter bent on terrifying all.
Spielberg doesn’t stop there, he continues to go deeper by deftly paralleling the Great White with the grizzled sea veteran Sam Quint (Robert Shaw). The two old salts visually both look beaten down by age. They both have been seemingly torn up and ragged from previous violence with a look of unhinged evil that sits in both of their eyes. Spielberg deeply foreshadows that neither the misplaced Quint, who comes straight out of a Herman Melville novel, nor the dislocated Shark would survive the film. This parallel increases the tension as Chief Brody struggles to keep both Quint and the shark in check. Not to mention he must also juggling his family life, local politicians and an annoying marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) to remain in control.
Control in a monster movie is never an easy task. In fact the thrill aspect is created from this loss of control, Spielberg understands this, and as the film concludes he plays on the old adage, “who is hunting who?” A better way of saying that is, which of Brody, Quint and the shark are in control? The shark soon shows us the answer as our heroes slowly lose everything, the boat included. Spielberg has pushed us to the limits of any thriller. But in one last ditch effort, the 25 foot shark explodes. A sigh of relief escapes the audience. Chief Brody has shown who is in control. This was a perfect monster movie. How could Spielberg out do himself? Simple: by trading in one monster for three.
Welcome to the Monsters of Jurassic Park
In his second stab at a monster movie, Spielberg exchanges the feeling of Hitchcockian dread, for a sense of wonder. But just like any good monster movie the wonder is misleading. Early in the film he tempts us with stories of Velociraptors told by Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) and promises of seeing real life dinosaurs. We fall for the bait. I can still to this day remember once they arrive on the island, my heart stopped along with the characters as they came across the first of the giant monsters.
These were not poorly made special effect dinosaurs. These were top of the line, blow-your-mind dinosaurs. Aside from being important to fill the seats, they were also important for the story. We needed to be filled with the same wonder, so that we the audience could understand how our victims could be crazy enough to come to an island full of man eating monsters. The idea of seeing a real life dinosaur is too enticing no matter the risk. Even the insatiable Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who cannot shut up about how the entire idea of this island, goes against everything that is nature and will eventually turn destructive is still on the island and going along for the ride.
Once they arrive, Spielberg has served up three distinct type of monsters to chase, frighten, and eat our victims heroes. The Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Velociraptors and Dr. Hammond (Richard Atteborough). Each present different challenges to the characters, but also have one thing in common. No matter what they do, the guests are powerless against them. Dr. Grant and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), clearly our heroes, fight a futile battle of surrendering and running. Not once do they take matters in their own hands and confront the monsters instead are forced to bite their tongues, run and hide, and never fight back. Once again Spielberg discusses control of situations, and this time he isn’t giving an inch.
The Heart, the Inhuman and the Mind: A Triad of Doom
I will start big. Real big. The Tyrannosaurus Rex is everything Jaws was and also what it wanted to be. It is an oversized, powerful, show stealing creature. His presence is always foreshadowed with distant thunder and hiccupping water, much like Jaws' two-note crescendo. Once the T-Rex is upon our heroes, we find our heroes have no chance, even weapons could not change this outcome. Instead they must hide, flee, or stay motionless like prey.
But this giant monster also seems to have a heart. He is viewed by Dr. Grant as a caged animal, much like King Kong. Just as Jaws was “trapped in the inlet,” an unnatural place which causes his violence, T-Rex is force fed goats, literally caged and seen as a beautiful animal. Dr. Grant states plainly, “A T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed, it wants to hunt.” This sentence explains that Grant views the T-Rex not as a monster but as a living creature. Spielberg supports this again when we see the T-Rex free chasing Gallimimus in a field. The music makes the scene feel natural as if the beast wasn’t so beastly after all. The heroes even stop and admire him as he chomps down on an unlucky dinosaur. Jaws never receives such treatment. In fact Jurassic Park, goes one step further, to end the film. The now freed T-Rex actually comes back to save (you heard me right) our heroes from the inhuman monsters.
Which brings us to the second monster, the inhuman Velociraptors. They are treated differently. Constantly being treated as the deranged step-child, they are locked up and misplaced out of fear. The paleontologists begin to worry when they hear of their existence, much different than the unbridled excitement they shared for the T-Rex. Once the Raptors are loose, they present a completely different type of monster. One that stalks our victims, playing tricks on them in order to viciously kill them. They are seemingly methodical, merciless, trained murderers, much like Jason Voorhees. They come with jump moments like a surprise pop into ventilation shaft. They open doors and an amazing knack at finding our heroes where ever they hide. They are not viewed as any sort of living creature, but something that was born from Hell. Even Muldoon (Bob Peck), a trained hunter, fears them and in the end is no match, “Clever Girl.” Serial Killers are unknown territory for Spielberg, but it is just the right layer to add to this complex monster movie. He has now combined an unstoppable Jaws like animal with an unfeeling serial killer. I am yet to find another film that pairs such a devastating unique pair of monsters. Our poor heroes are doomed.
But there is still one more layer. Lastly, we have Dr. Hammond as the mind. He is the Dr. Frankenstein of monsters, the dinosaurs were his brainchild, the park his reckless dream. Let us not forget that the main reason for the dinosaurs escape came from a disgusting traitor named Nedry (Wayne Knight) who can be seen as Hammond's screw-up son. Much like Igor who selects the wrong brain, Nedry chooses to disrupt the system and lower the gates, not to hurt the guests, but more likely to get away from his metaphorical overbearing father. All of the blood sits on Hammonds hands.
Dr. Hammond also does not want to hurt our heroes, but he is the unstoppable force that drives all the characters to their near death, except him, he stays miraculously out of trouble the entire film. Not only this but each character on the island is only there because of his desire. Throughout the film Hammond will be treated as an outcast, a monster in his own right, for creating this park. Quips from his own staff, Malcolm and even a very angry Ellie Sattler continue to put him in his place. "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should,” Malcolm reprimands Hammond. But even with this finger-wagging, not once does any character attempt to stop the old man. Instead they bring him around as a punching bag, powerless to release any anger. He stands with them as the embodiment of resentment. He is the reason they have seen acquaintances die, but just like the T-Rex or the Velociraptor, there is nothing they can do about it.
Like all good horror films there is always an underlying feeling that our heroes cannot control their fate. They are all pawns in a sadistic rampage of brutal attacks. Some die, and even a few seem to hold it together enough escape. In Jaws, Captain Brody must lose nearly everything to regain control. With his one in a million spear gun shot, he regains the upper hand, never mind he is still boat less in the middle of the ocean. But Spielberg does not give us this in Jurassic Park. Instead the three monsters overwhelm our heroes, and they are forced to flee up into the sky. As they look down, we realize that just as Ian Malcolm predicted, chaos is in control of the island. There will be no attempts to control the monster ridden jungle. Instead coping with the experience is the only available option.
The Triad of Doom works well to create a tapestry of fear and wonder. Because of the three monsters our heroes and the audience are physically and emotionally pushed to the brink. We are trying to understand Hammond and his dangerous vision, how to out run the T-Rex and ways to trick the malevolent Raptors. If Spielberg were to chose only one of these monsters, the film would lose its edge. It would feel repetitive as the same monster strikes over and over. But with three styles of attacks the film shows a depth unseen in a monster film since well, Jaws.