Cinema: Haven't I seen you somewhere before?
Sunday 20 July 1997
Jurassic Park was a remake of the first 30 minutes of King Kong, right down to the huge wooden front door of its monster island. This time Spielberg also tries to remake the finale of his ur-text by bringing the star turn - an enraged Tyrannosaurus - to San Diego. It's a big mistake: while Jurassic Park carried a genuinely uncanny thrill in the form of the Velociraptor - a dinosaur smart enough to use a door handle - the sequel is content to focus on the bigger, dumber T Rex. It's like sending Arthur Mullard to do George Cole's job. And in making such explicit allusions to King Kong, Spielberg exposes the lack of poetry in the reptile soul: this Tyrannosaurus wouldn't know what to do with Fay Wray, beyond pass her through its digestive system, and it's left to occupy its time with some roaring and a spot of disruptive jaywalking. As anyone who's seen people banging their keys on the glass at PetSmart will know, reptiles have a frustratingly narrow emotional range.
Technically, the film is extraordinary. Not so long ago, we had to put up with scaly sock puppets, or iguanas covered in rubber spikes: a mixture of digital effects and animatronics makes these creatures unsettlingly realistic. And since Raquel Welch is the only actor in history to have upstaged a dinosaur, that's tough on the cast. Spielberg chooses his actors largely for their goggling and screaming talents - he's hopelessly attached to two- and three-shots in which the camera zooms towards a small bunch of people with their gobs hanging open. Think of the children staring goofily into the wardrobe in ET, Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss gazing skywards in Close Encounters, or Laura Dern gawping at the lizards in Jurassic Park. The main requirement is to be able to look gobsmacked in the presence of something that isn't actually there.
Look to the bottom of the cast list, and characters named as "Screaming Woman" and "Unlucky Bastard" reveal the actors' status as mere dino-fodder. Even the leads don't get much to do but run and hide: Jeff Goldblum, a survivor of the first expedition, spends the film warning his compatriots that the plot hasn't changed since last time; Pete Postlethwaite appears as a great white hunter in a role that's little different from the one filled in the 1993 film by Bob Peck; Vince Vaughn, the centre of attention in last week's Swingers, is just another face in the crowd; Richard Attenborough's contribution is limited to a cameo, in which his Scottish McAccent is as variable as the mists around Brigadoon. They all do what they were paid to do, with only Arliss Howard's performance as a sneaky corporate villain standing out as genuinely poor. (He is largely incomprehensible, almost as if Brian Sewell was employed as his dialect coach.)
This year's real stars are the Compsognathi - jittery, chattering lizards which scutter around their victims in packs and then jump on them en masse like a meercat/ piranha cross-breed: we see them leaping all over big-game hunter Dieter Stark (Peter Stormare) and trying to tug a chunk out of his lower lip. The inclusion of this material has forced the film to carry a health warning: the poster comes with a sticker - yellow as a Velociraptor's eye - deterring the sensitive. But while these images allude to The Birds, they're a lot less graphic than the sequence from King Kong in which the ape cracks the jaw of a dinosaur like a brazil nut, and Willis O'Brien's stop-motion blood issues forth. The children sitting behind me (aged about seven) thought the attack of the Compsognathi an uproarious lark. I, on the other hand, was chewing up my press kit in terror.
Like most summer-holiday blockbusters, there's not much going on between The Lost World's ears. That said, many of its scenes kick like a mule, and the film peddles a simple-but-palatable eco-message about leaving wild animals to their own devices: it's a more attractive sentiment than the fascism-on-steroids that informs Batman and Robin's seduction tactics.
When you see those grinning acolytes cooing at toddlers from the doorway of your local Disney Store, it's easy to believe in the corporation as a cross between McDonald's and the Church of Scientology. Lady and the Tramp (U) lolloped back into cinemas this week, and though the gags are great and the widescreen animation is the dog's bollocks, it worried me for two reasons. First, for a spaniel, Lady looks weirdly like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Secondly, the film has a subtext that reaffirms why Mickey Mouse and American economic imperialism go together like apple pie and ice-cream.
No one's expecting consciousness-raising or cinema verite, but this is canine whimsy leashed by suffocating conservatism. (Sometimes this becomes literal - the hatbox in which Lady arrives as a present has no airholes in it.) We're in a world free of the smell of wet fur and full of wilful ignorance: Lady's owner Jim, for instance, approves of her savaging the morning paper - "We see less and less of those disturbing headlines," he coos. But the domestication of Tramp is Disney's prime ideological battleground: "We've got no room for mongrels with radical ideas," warns the Scottie dog next door, and he's right. A little later, Tramp takes Lady to the park and they stand and gaze at the distant mountains like a doubled, canine version of Caspar David Freidrich's The Traveller. But the film flirts with the itinerant mutt's can-do individualism only to poop-scoop it out of view. It dangles the pleasures of freedom in front of us like a juicy bone, and then frightens us back to the picket-fenced homestead by filling that liberty with bloodthirsty terrors like Baskervillean hounds and the dog pound, with its powerful overtones of death row. My advice is don't take your kids unless they've read some critical theory.
Remember Me? (PG) - a British farce constructed by Michael Frayn and shot by Nick Hurran - is altogether less interesting. As the cast includes Imelda Staunton, Rik Mayall, Robert Lindsay and Brenda Blethyn, I was eager to be pleased. Unfortunately, this isn't an option: the plot's complications are strained and tiresome, and the actors seem to struggle through its paltry 81 minutes. Only Mayall keeps his head, while the rest - particularly Blethyn, Haydn Gwynne and Natalie Walker - play the script in cartoon- strip terms. Frayn's Clockwise found a convincing reason for its protagonist's mounting hysteria - the need to get from A to B. But the plot of Remember Me? has to be imported into its central household in the form of implausibly eccentric visitors, and the result is a degree of contrivance that makes Rookery Nook look like Chekhov.
You're much better off with Fernando Colomo's The Butterfly Effect (15), which is possibly unique in being an Anglo-Spanish farce, so long as you don't count Carry on Abroad.) Equally uncommonly, it's a romantic comedy about incest. The plot is an unconventional rite de passage for its hero, Luis (Coque Malla), an introverted Spanish student lodging with his aunt Olivia (Almodovar veteran Maria Barranco) in her Battersea flat. The film's bilingualism is the source of much of its humour: a scene in which Olivia's Trekkie neighbour Oswald (James Fleet) tries to explain the plot of the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" in O-level Spanish is terrific. The Butterfly Effect is a very small film, and won't change the face of movie comedy, but it's bright, well-constructed, truly funny, and has the good sense to motivate the movements of its plot. It's a breath of fresh air that will be appreciated by any cinemagoer wearied by cute dogs and dinosaurs.
Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.
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