Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Gerald R. Molen
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp
Released by Universal
Produced by Arnold Kopelson
Directed by Andrew Davis
Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy
Released by Warner Brothers
Robert Warshow, one of the best critics of film we ever had (all serious moviegoers should read his collected essays, The Immediate Experience), wrote that the most difficult thing about reviewing movies is “admitting that you were there.” I thought I understood that gnomic pronouncement 30 years ago when I realized, one dreary morning in a Manhattan screening room where I sat drinking coffee, nibbling on a Danish pastry, and watching Annette Funiccllo cavort in some beach party movie, that . . . I was enjoying myself. One way or another, I would have to contrive a way of admitting that.
But I have been reconsidering Warshow’s reviewers’ koan, because I have come to understand that it is more complicated than I thought—perhaps even more complex than he thought. The trick)’ word is “there.” Where? The obvious answer is in the theater (or screening room) up on the screen, where a work of art is filtering down through the enlivened motes in the air from the projectionist’s booth behind us.
But the moviemakers know better. The movie, the big moxie anyway, is everywhere, in the snippets we see on the Tonight Show, or in the trailers and ads, or even on the giveaway novelties at MacDonald’s. A big movie floats through the ether, and much of its transaction occurs before the patron has entered the theater. The producers and the writers have bet millions of dollars on the accuracy of their reading of our dreams, which is what they are manipulating and selling back to us, and above and beyond the commercial hype there is a kind of Jungian collective unconscious on which the movies draw and to which they also of course contribute.
In the case of two of the commercially successful films of this past summer, the dream is easily definable, a clear theme on which the screenplay and the direction were mere embellishments. In the case of Jurassic Park, what we have is an elaborate revision of Frankenstein—which is to say, an expression of the ordinary person’s suspicion (and resentment) of the arrogance of scientists and intellectuals. On the one hand, there is the scientists’ belief in progress; on the other, there is our commonsense understanding of the inexorability of the operation of Murphy’s Law. Something will go wrong. The clumsy assistant will produce the wrong brain, or the venal and disloyal assistant will—most implausibly—turn off the electrical fences and the computerized security devices. Then there’s carnage, which is the fault of the overweening pride of these guys in their white coats. And then order is restored.
Spielberg’s film is not very interesting, not even very amusing to watch. There are a few impressive special effects, but those don’t sustain our attention for more than a few minutes. But to talk about what was up on the screen is to miss the movie’s presence, a strange phenomenon that ranged up and down the cultural scale from the Dino-sized fries and the Jurassic Park souvenirs for the kiddies to pompous intellectual pieces in prestigious journals—like Stephen Jay Gould’s in the New York Review of Books, which tells us not to worry, that you can’t really graft strands of dinosaur DNA into frog embryos and produce a triceratops. (Who really thought so?) There was even an op-ed piece in the New York Times to explain that Crichton’s book and screenplay hadn’t allowed enough time for animals of such size and tonnage to have matured from these manipulated ova and to have reached their fighting and maiming weights.
The bothersome part of it, though, is at the other end, the lucrative world of the kiddie toys, tie-in books, and souvenirs. The Jurassic Park souvenirs are like trinkets from the Titanic, after all. As the film makes clear, the park is a disaster and is destroyed. But the kids mostly don’t know this, or they oughtn’t. I was pleased to hear that one of my children had gone to check out the movie to see whether it was too violent for his seven-year-old son (and he decided that it was—even gratuitously so, mentioning in particular the shot in which the fleeing girl feels a hand on her shoulder, thinks it means that she now has an ally and savior, but then discovers it to be a discarded morsel from one of the technicians: an altogether cheap and contrived horror-show gesture). Many parents, I should expect, made such a judgment. They may have been able to protect their children from the movie, but there was no way on earth that they could shield them from the metamovie.
In The Fugitive there is the memory of the television series of the 1960’s. . . . But no, not just the 60’s, for the scries and David Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble are still running on A&E every afternoon at four o’clock Eastern time, as energetically and absurdly as ever. With the passage of the years, the show seems woefully clumsy; each program begins with a teaser, a small snippet from the climax, and there is crudely intrusive narration to explain to us what they have already shown us vividly enough. The dream—or nightmare—which is hardly subtle, is that the government, the Establishment, the system is capricious, unreliable, and often wrong, and that any of us might drop through the cracks, lose his credentials, his identity, his very right to exist. In each episode. Dr. Kimble is teased out of his anonymous work as a carnival roustabout or a bartender when he encounters some other poor slob who was also the victim of an injustice. Kimble finds himself getting involved in this other person’s troubles, and then, because of the decency and goodness of his actions, he discovers that he is suddenly at risk himself. The best parts of the show are the cuts at the end of each 12- minute-long segment—Quinn Martin programs like this and Hawaii Five-O grandiosely labeled the stuff between commercials as “Acts,” and the graphic that marks each curtain is a five-second cut of Kimble running, down an alley or across a gully. That is the locus of our horror, the quick glimpse of a world external to the puerile contrivances of the television script, in which a man is running, or walking slowly and deliberately not running. Such a flash is all that remains after some nightmares and what stayed in our minds after the program had ended, like that dot that used to remain on the screen after you turned off the set.
The dot is back as a megabucks movie, with Harrison Ford as Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as the relentless marshal, Sam Gerard. Ford brings to the picture more or less what Janssen brought to the television series—an attractive, rather boyish face (he’s a victim, you see) with a deep baritone voice (he is not without such masculine resources as cunning, strength, and perseverance). Tommy Lee Jones’s work is interesting, because his character is ambiguous. He’s on the wrong side, after all, being the system’s enforcer. The plot requires that he be outwitted, outmaneuvered, and outrun at each confrontation (otherwise the film is over) but it can’t ever have him looking like an utter boob.
The Fugitive is a nice little picture, but its best parts are its nostalgic looks back at the series. The television show managed to exploit locations, and the suggestion it made of the underbelly of the world was quite convincing as they gave us Janssen darting through automobile graveyards, railroad yards, and other Antonioni-esque industrial wastelands. This was always television’s natural forte, I think. In Hawaii Five-O or The Streets of San Francisco, there was a certain energy the producers managed to wring from the dissonance between the attractive surroundings and the sordid goings on that the cops were investigating. In The Fugitive, we had an even more interesting scries of possibilities in that the hero had been broken in rank from high status doe to lumpenprole. It was bargain-basement Camus, and that made up for a lot of the dopey artificiality of the scripts.
In the film, we get one chase sequence in the pipes and conduits of a dam where there is a clever kind of wave back to the series and then beyond to its ancestor Javert in Les Misérables. There is also a nice moment when Kimble is inspecting a cheaply furnished room he declares to be “perfect,” but there isn’t as much exploitation of the déclassé pathos as there ought to have been. We do get some spectacular and expensive movie stuff the television producers would have loved to use—a splendid crash of a train and a bus, for instance—but their financial constraints worked, I think, to their advantage, as constraints often do in art. Not having the big budget for spectacle, they had to fall back on the emotional truth of Kimble’s situation, which was what the audiences wanted anyway.
By sheer coincidence (not!), A&E happened to run the two-hour concluding episode of The Fugitive the evening after the film opened, and one could compare the conclusion of the series, in which Kimble finds the one-armed man, with the movie version. The final TV episode was utterly dopey, and, worse, irrelevant to the important energy of all the earlier episodes. It’s an altogether pointless story of a friend’s cowardice and betrayal: the friend was there in the house, saw the murder, could have cleared Dr. Kimble, but was embarrassed about having to admit that he froze in terror and did nothing to protect Mrs. Kimble from the attack of the one-armed burglar. What’s wrong here is that, all during the series, there arc small acts of kindness in which people acknowledge their debt to Kimble, or their liking for him, and shield him from the authorities. Strong and shrewd as he may be, Kimble’s luck sometimes runs out and he must depend on the kindness of strangers—who do in fact help him. What the series was offering was its assertion of these personal decencies over and against the unthinking and relentless bureaucratic persecution. This was consistent with and supportive of the show’s underlying paranoid fantasy. The only good part of the concluding episode is the locale of the final shoot-out, an abandoned amusement park—there arc garish structures to run around, climb on, and fall from, a benign milieu that has turned suddenly sinister and dangerous, as it did for Joseph Gotten and Orson Welles in The Third Man.
In the film, we get a banal notion of conspiracy in which big business is evil, and the bigger the business and the more grandiose its claims, the worse it must be. Therefore, a drug company with sales in the billions is, for all practical purposes, the equivalent of the archfiend. (This is perhaps a paradoxical position for companies like Time Warner, Sony, and Transamerica to espouse, but never mind.) Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford wind up playing hide-and-seek in a hotel. The director, Andrew Davis, manages this sequence with brisk efficiency (his previous credits include some Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal action romps), and he wrings some psychic energy out of the abrupt contrast between the luxurious public rooms and guest areas and the service sectors like the laundry. As in the television series, Gerard comes inevitably to realize that Kimble is almost certainly innocent, and he becomes the intermediary between The Fugitive and the Chicago police, who want to shoot Kimble on sight.
This is interesting, but it takes the focus away from Kimble. Jones’s Gerard steals the movie. Or the one on the screen. Kimble is still the star in the ads—Harrison Ford is running just as in those powerful five-second signature cuts of David Janssen running. That was what we came to see on a big screen. And two days after we’ve left the theater, if anything has remained, that’s what stays in our minds like the white dot.