Every Tuesday, we shine a light on a few big, worthy or just plain weird DVD releases.
The Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy
“One of my first long words was ‘triceratops’,” says Steven Spielberg, whose instant and profound access to his own childhood helped make him the wealthiest movie director of all time. Eighteen years after he translated a kid’s fears of deep water and angry fish into Jaws, he adapted Michael Crichton’s best-seller Jurassic Park into the definitive dinosaur movie. The 1993 sci-fi/horror film and its two sequels (Spielberg directed The Lost World in 1997, Joe Johnston Jurassic Park III in 2001) didn’t attain the iconic status of Spielberg’s shark picture; the humans in even the first Jurassic Park were gaseous nonentities. But the series was a special-effects pioneer, merging Stan Winston’s dinosaur puppets with ILM’s computer-generated wizardry to create gorgeous, virtually seamless images of prehistoric creatures rampaging across an island off the coast of Costa Rica 65 million years after they went extinct.
Now, eighteen years after Jurassic Park tromped like the king of the overgrown-monster movies into theaters—in real dollars, it is the 18th top-grossing film of all time—the trilogy is on Blu-ray, in Universal’s so-called Ultimate Edition for $79.98 ($48.99 from Amazon.com). If the personal dramas play no more compellingly than they did on the big screen, just fast-forward; that’s what your remote is for. But the images look great on Blu-ray: the jungle is wetter, the subsidiary nasty characters are oilier, the dinosaurs’ skin, scales and thundering movements more realistic. And remember, the first film was made nearly at the dawn of CGI effects; in fact, Spielberg and the ILM team headed by Dennis Muren accelerated the process, with work that retains its immediacy. No need to update the FX for a new generation of fans.
The director, always the most articulate salesman of his own work, is the star of the two hours of new making-of extras, supervised by frequent Spielberg videographer Laurent Bouzerau. Spielberg explains how he oversaw the post-production of Jurassic Park even as he was shooting Schindler’s List in Krakow: he would look at FX dailies during telcom sessions, listen to snatches of John Williams’ score on his car cassette player and on weekends confer in Paris with the editor. (All in all, his juggling of the dinosaur movie with the Holocaust drama amounts to an amazing achievement in bipolar artistry.) Spielberg also says that, when planning the Jurassic Park roller-coaster adventure at Universal Studios Hollywood, he would get off before the final plunge into the water. He was afraid to take his own thrill ride.
Yet this scaredy-kid became a remorseless entertainer of frightened children. Though giant creatures like the Tyrannosaurus Rex could be majestically menacing—especially when snacking on a jeep’s innards in the first movie, or prying open a crashed plane like a sardine tin and tearing passengers from it in the third—Spielberg smartly realized that the most effective dino-villains were the kid-sized (four-foot-high) velociraptors; they could sneak up, attack quickly and scoot off in search of the next victim. The ingenious sound engineers used walrus and dolphin noises for the raptors, the slowed-down scraping of dental floss for the screeching pteranodon. Throughout much of the series, these spooky sounds weave at least as many aural shivers as the thumping or soaring John Williams score.
Spielberg finally got the monsters on land, to terrorize San Diego, at the climax of The Lost World. “Suddenly it’s a Godzilla movie,” he said on location, “and I just have only dreamed about making one of these as a child. And as a grownup I’m ashamed of myself.” But in his fantasy films the director is rarely a grownup. Putting children in peril, as he does throughout the Jurassic Park series, is less an adult’s sadism than a recovered memory from his own earliest moviegoing days. Steven the boy made these films for hundreds of millions of impressionable kids like him. At the end of one extra he says, “As much as it’s for the child still in me who loved playing with dinosaurs when I was a little kid, it’s much more for them”—the audience. “And I like having them as my partner.”
The People vs. George Lucas
OK, this guy made these three movies, and people loved them. Then he changed things in the movies, and the people who loved them hated that. Finally he made three other movies on the same theme as the first three, and the people who now loved hating him hated him some more.
The guy is George Lucas; the films are the two Star Wars trilogies; and the people are The People vs. George Lucas, Alexandre O. Philippe’s zizzy documentary about the ardor, obsessions, outrage and possessiveness—the very fanaticism—of fandom.
In 1977, when Lucas released the first Star Wars episode (or the fourth—it’s all very complicated), he created an immediate and enduring sensation that must have taken even him by surprise. Most of the profits from the film went to 20th Century-Fox, but Lucas got to keep the merchandising money, and that eventually amounted to billions. The kids who donned the Star Wars pajamas, jousted with light sabers and befriended the Luke Skywalker and Han Solo action figures got hooked on the whole grand, if shallow, multimedia blitz. And the addiction accompanied them through adolescence and into at least chronological adulthood. These untiring acolytes produced live-action, cartoon and stop-motion Star Wars tribute films. They bought endless repackagings of the first trilogy’s videocassettes (and laser discs); indeed, they bought into the Star Wars mythos. Maybe they created it. And eventually they thought that, because they loved it, they owned it.
So they were furious when, in 1997, Lucas reissued Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in theaters and on DVD in “improved” form. He ornamented some scenes with SPFX technology not available in the ’70s, and altered others with touches that could change a character’s psychological profile—like the cantina confrontation between Han Solo and Greedo. Lucas now had the Rodian bounty hunter pull a gun on Solo, which retroactively stripped the Millennium Falcon pilot of his ruthlessness. One woman recalls that, when she first saw the scene, “I stood up right in the middle of that theater and I shouted, ‘Greedo never shot first!’” The fans saw any changes as a triple betrayal: of the canon, Lucas’ genius and their youth. Says professional Starwarsian Chris Waffle: “If Da Vinci were able to jump in a DeLorean and go through time and appear today, and then tell everyone, ‘Ya know, well, the Mona Lisa, I didn’t have the mouth quite right, let me go in and repaint some of this’, they’re not gonna let him.”
In 1988, Lucas had testified before a Congressional panel that he opposed the “colorizing” of old black-and-white films because the process distorted their legacy. Yet he suppressed the original versions of the earliest Star Wars films, refusing to release them on DVD. When Steven Spielberg put out a slightly revised version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (with, for example, walkie-talkies replacing guns in the hands of the pursuing feds), he included the original cut in the video pack. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is available in three versions, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in five. But if you want to a glimpse of Star Wars as you loved it a long time ago, you’ll need to get your old VCR or laserdisc player out of the basement. (Fans have made digital downloads of the laserdisc.)
The Oscars that Star Wars won for Special Effects and Editing went to a movie we can no longer see in its exact form. And though it would simply be good business for Lucas to reissue the originals—the billionaire would make another bundle, and perhaps retrieve the lost allegiance of his most fervent admirers—he has refused to do so. His reconstruction is the only official Star Wars. Says one fan, “It’s like you’re being force-fed somebody else’s memories instead of your own.”
Two years after the DVD debacle came The Phantom Menace, the first in a prequel trilogy. Fans who cued for the trailer came out ecstatic, with one saying, “I think God must be ashamed as a creator once He saw the preview for this movie, and realized He hasn’t made something this good.” Their ardor cooled once they saw the full movie, with much stentorian debate on excise taxes and, that ultimate insult, Jar Jar Binks. Lucas’s computerized comic character took the rap for all that was starchy and silly in the film. (Some French critics loved Jar Jar, and so did many young viewers who were the age of previous-generation fans when they had first seen Star Wars.) The elder fan base was devastated; yet Jedi squires went back a dozen or more times. “It’s like abuse victims returning to the site of their abuse,” says filmmaker Andrew Semans, “in order to conquer it somehow.”
All these disappointments naturally cued conspiracy theories. Here’s one, from a fellow named Brandon: “George Lucas talked about making prequels, but they never made it past screenplay before he died on the Van Wyck Expressway in a fiery car crash in 1989.” A more widespread opinion is that Lucas the 30-year-old rebel, Hollywood’s Luke Skywalker, had become old and corrupt: Emperor Palpatine or even Darth Vader. In an interview with Charlie Rose, the filmmaker acknowledged that comparison. “I was sort of fighting the corporate system…. But now I’ve found myself being the head of a corporation. So there’s a certain irony… that I’ve become the very thing that I was trying to avoid. That is Darth Vader. He becomes the very thing that he’s trying to protect himself against.” And Lucas has become the uncompromising father that his metaphorical children, the Star Wars fans, must outgrow and overthrow.
Philippe’s hurtling, highly caffeinated doc locates the anger and the fun of fandom. His hyperbolic subjects mock the embarrassing 1978 TV show The Star Wars Holiday Special (“It’s like finding your mom and dad’s sex tape”), sing peppy songs called “George Lucas Raped My Childhood” and rail against the money spent on merchandise. A mother, Faye Anastasia, stands in front of a wall of Star Wars tsotchkes and wails about Lucas: “The man has ruined my life. He took my husband away, he took my son away, and consumed every dollar that I’ve ever had that I could never save. Every toy in this room that you see behind me is a chip away at my heart for the last 30 years.” It’s the testimony of a spurned lover. As one person says: “That’s how you can tell they’re Star Wars fans — because they hate Star Wars so much.” If they can no longer be members of the church, they must be the most agonized apostates. Indifference is not an option.
In a DVD extra, the filmmaker interviews fans at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con about Lucas’ proposed 3-D versions of the films. “If they’re gonna do it in 3-D,” says one excitable young man, “then George Lucas…might just as well put ropes so afterward everyone who goes see it can just hang themselves.” He calms down, thinks of the filmmaker’s Disneyland ride and adds, “I think if people just want a great 3D experience they should just do Star Tours over again.”
Attack the Block
What if a bunch of kids in a rundown, working-class neighborhood found an alien? If they’re the youngsters in Super 8, the summer hit written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, they protect the creature. If they’re the teen gang in the Brit sci-fi comedy Attack the Block, they whack it to death. Mind you, the extraterrestrial in Joe Cornish’s film is no sympathetic E.T. It’s about the size of a Jurassic Park raptor, looks like a gorilla with “glow-in-the-dark jaws”—imagine the ugliest, nastiest Muppet—and will chomp to death anyone it encounters. Oh, and the thing’s got friends. The South London sky sparkles with hundreds of tiny cylinders bringing the monsters to Earth. But since it’s Guy Fawkes Night (cf. V for Vendetta), when the locals set off fireworks, nobody notices the alien invasion except for a gang of street kids and the young woman they just mugged.
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Attack the Block, like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, revels in the forced cohabitation of seemingly irreconcilable genres with a cheeky, mostly cheery brio. It’s a mashup of Night of the Living Dead (a few folks resist an eerie infestation) and District B13 (young people in a housing project use their homey-honed skills to fight off more powerful antagonists). Wright served as executive producer here; and Shaun costar Nick Frost is on hand as a dope-den denizen who performs a quick autopsy of the first dead alien and says, “Well done, lads. You discovered a species unknown to science, possibly nonterrestrial in origin, and you kicked its f—in’ head in.”
A Brit TV fixture as half of the Adam and Joe comedy duo, and co-author with Wright of Spielberg’s new Tintin movie, Cornish said he got the idea for Attack the Block when he was mugged, noticed that the young assailants were as scared as he and began researching their lives. Turning his private horror into social-worker empathy, and somehow transforming that into a sci-fi/horror script, he selected nonprofessional kids, some from the area the film is set in, as his stars. (The DVD’s extras show the casting and rehearsal process.) The standout is John Boyega, as Moses, the 15-year-old gang leader. Boyega sports a star quality that, seemingly at will, can channel Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier or Samuel L. Jackson.
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The kids, who begin as thugs, worm their way up to hero status by applying hard-won street wisdom to the business of eluding and offing the alien horde. They are also notorious consumers and quoters of pop-cultural detritus. They joke about calling Ghostbusters, refer to the dead alien as Gollum, Gremlin and Dobby the Elf, and hope to get money by selling the critter’s corpse to a newspaper, but not the Sun. (“The Sun‘ll dress it up like one of those Page Three girls”). When one kid has seen too much spilled blood, he says, “Right now I feel like going home, locking my door and playing FIFA”—the soccer video game.
The most bookish of the lads, Jerome (Leeon Jones), tries to get the awful e-word out to the world, but realizes, “This is too much madness for one text.” Maybe Stateside audiences thought the same of Attack the Block, whose title was inspired by South Korean director Kim sang-jin’s anarcho-teen Attack the Gas Station! from 1999, and which opened here the week that news reports blared the widespread torching of poor neighborhoods like the one in the film. (It earned about $4 million at the U.K. box office, $1 million in North America.) But Cornish’s comedy has high spirits and a pile-driving pace that should keep home viewers laughing happily between the screams.