The following is an essay I wrote as my final paper for my Film Technology class at Northwestern. Enjoy!
Directors George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg transformed the cinema industry in the 1970s, sharing both a friendship and status as leaders in the New Hollywood movement. The 70s saw the pair release blockbusters, Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), that used groundbreaking special effects to ascend to smashing commercial success. Both directors continued to advance the field of special effects and graphics work in the ensuing decades and were at the forefront of the digital cinema revolution in the 1990s and early 2000s. Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park and Lucas’s 2002 film Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones integrated computer-generated imagery as crucial components of their blockbuster’s storytelling, using the integration of technology, in both cases clone creations, as both a selling point and an avenue for commentary. In this paper, I will argue that Jurassic Park and Attack of the Clones employ digital cinema and CGI graphics to not only to attract audiences to the movie theater, but also to criticize the economic exploitation of the promise of technology.
In Jurassic Park, Spielberg lays bare park creator John Hammond’s manipulation of technology (and of human labor) in the pursuit of profits before the dinosaurs in question even appear on screen. After a horrific, off-screen dinosaur attack on an employee to open the film — a death Hammond is all too willing to bury to avoid slowing down — Spielberg shifts the scene to the Mano de Dios Amber Mine in the Dominican Republic. In these dusy mines and abhorrent working conditions, a group of laborers work to dig up the amber-embedded DNA that helps the park bring dinosaurs to life. Lawyer Donald Gennero, dressed in a full suit, explains that the attack is prompting an investigation of the park and threatens to pull funding without one before his host reveals a newly discovered treasure, a mosquito trapped in amber. Hammond ultimately follows Gennero’s advice, and the following scene depicts his recruitment of dinosaur experts Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler to give their approval on the park’s use of dinosaurs to pave the way for Hammond to open the park to the public and swim in money. Grant and Sattler initially refuse Hammond’s weekend offer, but can’t say no once Hammond offers to fund their excavations for three years.
The last scene in the sequence, a lunch at a Costa Rican restaurant between the IT specialist/villain Dennis Nedry and an agent from another company looking to buy the dinosaur embryos for $1.5 million, provides yet another money-centric approach to the dinosaurs on the island. Nedry gladly accepts the bribe, even noting that Hammond’s mistake was “getting cheap” on his salary. The CGI dinosaurs are the main attraction, but the distinct financial motives of Hammond, Grant and Sattler, and Nedry set the film’s story into motion. Given the horror of the employee murder in the opening scene, this reliance on the dinosaur embryos, an unstable and deadly technology, has an ominous tint as the fateful weekend excursion nears.
The weekend at Jurassic Park does not go to plan, devolving into chaos due to Hammond’s arrogant assumption of control and Nedry’s devious and ill-fated scheme to transport the embryos off the island. The horror unleashed by this confluence of greed becomes most clear during the introduction of the T-Rex during a rainstorm. In the scene, Gennero, Grant, chaotician Ian Malcolm, and Hammond’s grandchildren are stranded in Jeeps next to the T-Rex cage after the park loses power. Spielberg builds up to the spectacle through subtle indications of the T-Rex’s presence, the rumblings and shaking of water in their cup, before a goat’s bloody limb lands on top of the children’s car and establishes that this dinosaur is no innocent herbivore. Then, the camera pans up to reveal the towering T-Rex, still devouring his meal.
This moment tests Spielberg’s use of CGI to resurrect history’s most fearsome dinosaur — the believability of the T-Rex within the environment is crucial to instilling the horrific mood of the scene and establishing the T-Rex’s congruence with the real-life actors sharing the screen. This concept of instilling reality in the image predates digital cinema to Andre Bazin, who says in his piece “Ontology” that cinema has the challenge of being “no longer content to preserve the object…as the bodies of insects are preserved in amber” and emphasized the aspects of the visual field as a way to create filmic images that appear real to audiences (Bazin). To achieve this effect of reality with a massive dinosaur, Spielberg couldn’t just create the most visually perfect dinosaur possible, but had to go in the opposite direction and diminish its perfection to fit in with the natural elements, from the pouring rain to the nighttime lighting, and the cinematic aspects that Jurassic Park employs, such as the film grain and resolution (Manovich 204). The T-Rex is not the first dinosaur on screen, but in a film about dinosaurs running wild and creating havoc, it is the first one to put the humans it shares the screen with in danger. The attack is also the first time that audiences see the bone-chilling effects of Hammond and Nedry’s profit-minded philosophies. Real lives are put in danger, and money becomes a total afterthought with the T-Rex escaping its cage.
Attack of the Clones, the second installment of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, trades in the cloned dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for a grand army of clone troopers. In one of the film’s narrative arcs, Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi follows a trail of evidence from the assassination attempt of Senator Padme Amidala and stumbles upon the rainy world of Kamino. Dexter Jettster, a CGI alien friend Kenobi consults about a saber dart related to the assassination, reveals the Kaminoans as cloners who are friendly “depending on the size of your pocketbook.” In search of the bounty hunter behind the assassination attempt, Kenobi arrives at the Kaminoan base Tipoca City to find that an army of 20,000 clones are waiting for him. The news comes as a shock to Kenobi, as the Jedi are not at war and the Jedi Master who supposedly ordered the clones had been dead for years.
In the following scene, Kenobi walks the corridors of the bright white cloning facility and sees the clones at different stages of life, from massive pillars holding millions of embryos to training computers for adolescents to a meal room with adults, each with CGI replicas of the same actor. Along the way, the Kaminoans boast of the clones’ superiority to the droid army of the Republic’s enemy, the Trade Federation and Separatists, and highlight the clones’ growth acceleration and obedient genetic structure — reminiscent of Hammond’s giddy tour of the Jurassic Park facilities and “Mr. DNA” video. The sequence emphasizes the spectacle of the cloning technology, though never resolving the mystery of the clones’ true purpose.
In the final act of Attack of the Clones, the new clone army saves the Jedi Order by taking over the climactic Battle of Geonosis and engaging in combat with the Separatists’ droid army. The Jedi survive, yet in the falling action, it becomes clear that the clones haven’t won the trust of the Jedi. Kenobi tells fellow Jedi Mace Windu that “without the clones, we wouldn’t have had a victory,” to which Yoda responds, “No, Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun, the Clone War has.” The following shot pans across millions of CGI clone troopers preparing for battle, with the “Imperial March” score (Darth Vader’s theme in Empire Strikes Back) and red tinted sky foreshadowing the clones’ insidious purpose.
In Anne Lancaster’s paper “Attack of the Clones and the Politics of Star Wars”, she writes that the film is “a rarity in content: a mainstream American blockbuster with an intensely political focus… and most notably provides a scathing indictment of the toxic combination of greed and political ambition” (Lancaster 241). Financial incentives motivate almost all sides, from the Kaminoans’ profit off the creation of a clone army to the Trade Federation’s use of robotic droids to take over systems, and the result of the climax, the instigation of “Clone Wars,” promises to boost these factions higher. And it is only through these sides’ maniacal focus on money (and the Republic’s acceptance of the clones for political gain) that the master manipulator, Darth Sidious, succeeds in rising to tyrannical power and setting the groundwork for political upheaval in the following film, Revenge of the Sith.
While most of Attack of the Clones indulges in CGI to create fantastic planet environments and new species of Star Wars aliens, the clone army, film’s namesake, provides the most compelling insight into Lucas’s integration of digital cinema and the clearest parallel to Spielberg’s prehistoric creatures. Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, these clone troopers are presented by their creators as fantastic inventions that are easy to control (though the control is an illusion), and these claims are bolstered through the computer-generated photorealism. Both directors also bask in the spectacle of these clones, from the brachiosaur in the open fields of Jurassic Park to the squadrons of millions of clones in battle formation, and leverage that believability and spectacle to conceal each clone type’s destructive potential and dark side. Similar to Spielberg’s T-Rex introduction scene, Lucas attempts to synthesize the artificial clone troopers with the mainly humanoid Jedi Order — one of the few institutions in the film with human characters — to create a believable image and the illusion of continuity between the real and the computer-generated, while later using the film’s final shots to question the ability of those clones to synthesize with the Jedi in the fight for the Republic.
Critical reception and historical relevance aside, Jurassic Park and Attack of the Clones diverge in some aspects of both in their execution of digital cinema and their commentary on technology. Spielberg’s dinosaurs unleash their fury on Jurassic Park’s employees while Lucas is content to leave the true nature of the clone army discreet — and at times heroic — until Revenge of the Sith. Whereas Jurassic Park uses dinosaurs as its primary synthetic element, the reliance on CGI for almost all elements of Attack of the Clones diminishes the paranoia around the clone troopers and makes its film more synthetic than natural (an inverse of Jurassic Park, and a driver of the mixed reception to the film). Additionally, Attack of the Clones’ commentary takes on a political dimension rather than Jurassic Park’s sole focus on economic exploitation, another factor that dilutes Attack of the Clones’ indictment on technology’s economic implications.
Of course, it’s impossible to examine the economic implications of CGI special effects in the plots of these two films without taking note of the economic implications of having CGI in the promotion of the films themselves. Jurassic Park and Attack of the Clones pushed technology to its limit and manipulated the synthetic just like its characters, with the reward of box office revenues as an obvious motive.
Fittingly, the distribution of the two films made sure to let the audiences know of their technical achievement. Each film’s name promises the presence of novel computer-generated creations, and trailers highlight their respective clone. Jurassic Park’s first trailer mimics the buildup brachiosaurus scene, showing the human characters’ amazed reactions before revealing the dinosaurs, and even includes a shot to ground the presence of the dinosaurs within the natural environment, Hammond’s granddaughter reaching out to touch the brachiosaur. The first Attack of the Clones teaser gives glimpses of the film with Darth Vader’s breathing as the soundtrack, underscoring the film’s role in inching him closer to his downfall, and waits until the climax of the trailer to reveal the spectacle of the clone army and hint at its dark side. Though the films had diametrically opposed critical reactions, CGI was praised as a main attraction in both, with Lancaster writing that “Clones is most obviously, of course, a major special effects achievement and a visual feast” (Lancaster 236). And just like the technology in the films, the subsequent decades have revealed the dark side of these achievements and digital cinema, the rise of CGI effects as a replacement for storytelling rather than a supplement, though with Jurassic Park having amassed over $1 billion in box offices and Attack of the Clones at over $650 million, those pitfalls were of little consequence to either Hollywood trailblazer.