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Film Theory Generating Audience Expectation


Audience expectation is the name of the game for mainstream movie-makers. The more a film-maker can involve an audience and have it waiting expectantly for the outcome, not just of the story itself but of a myriad of smaller points en route through the story, then the greater success he wili have with the film. “Jurasslc Park” has been an immensely successful film exactly because of its success in generating audience expectation. Let’s see how it achieves this.

1. In the opening sequence of the film, a presumed audience preconception that the film is about dinosaurs is effectively played on by an extended series of shots depicting a massive (unseen) beast crashing through the jungle towards us. The surprise is that it is a man-driven fork-lift truck The beast itself, a dinosaur, is in a cage being transported.

2. The first scene in whicli we meet Dr Grant (Sam O’Neill) and Dr Sapper (Laura Dern) generates a detailed description of the velociraptor. Audience sophistication is such today that we just know we are going to meet this lovely little creature later (and sure enough we do). This device of setting up an expectation is strong enough to produce one that lasts perhaps an hour of film time or more before being satisfied.

3. A small example of expectation generation can be seen in the Costa Rica scene where there is more visual space given to Dodson’s bag than to its carrier, as he walks from the taxi to the cafe table. We know of course that the contents are significant, even though we don’t know what they are. Our curiosity is soon allayed: the bag contains a large amount of money and a clever smuggling device.

4. A major example of very skilful expectation generation is the sequence leading up to the first shot of brontosauruses. Thls is extended almost to the point of anti-climax, as one after the other the passengers in the vehicle turn, see, rise and stare in wonderment at the unseen creatures. Even when everyone’s eyes are popping out of their heads and we are desperate to see what they are looking at, Dr Sapper (Dern) is still happily chattering on reading something aloud. But no-one tells her to shut up and look. They are too dumbstruck to do so. Dr Grant physically has to turn her head towards the beasts before she registers them. Even then, we have to wait for her to rise very slowly to her feet before at last we get to see them too.

5. Amongst these examples we have to include a slightly different form of audience expectation generation. It occurs when Dr Malcolm (Jeff GoldbIum) sardonically mouths what might validly be labelled the theme of the film: “Life breaks free – it always does”. We just know he’s going to be proved right, and we know this for the self-referential reason that if he’s wrong then it’s going to be a bloody boring film! Sure enough he is proved right, and this is exactly the crux of the movie.

6. Another possibly more contentious example of generating an audience expectation lies embedded in the assertion that long experience of mainstream movie forms has created a very sophisticated audience. Audiences can read the signs like they can do crossword puzzles. And they can especially read them with Hollywood movies, because they above all others are always true to form.

If Dr Grant states positively at the start of the film that he can’t stand kids, and this is then reinforced by his behaviour, and if he has a positively loving lady-friend who is definitely interested in him, then my bet is that we all know he will end up liking kids! Apart from anything else this is a Spielberg movie and we all know Spielberg is just a kid at heart. And then there’s the fact that Grant appears to qualify best to be the central character and protagonist, and therefore he is someone whose worst faults are going to get ironed out by the end. This one aspect of his character appears to be the only bad fault he has – ergo, he will end up loving kids! Stands to reason!

7. A more conventional approach to building tension lies in the fact that both the cute little spitting beasts and the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex do not appear when they are expected to at the start of the island tour. A significant level of expectation is built up then and there waiting for the T. Rex, but in both instances the pay-off comes much later and very effectively when these creatures do eventually make their entrance.

8. An effective short-term creation of tension and expectation followed by rapid pay-off that really works in spite of the odds, occurs when Dr Grant and the kids are climbing the high wire at the same time as Dr Sapper is preparing to switch the current back on. We are carefully shown all the problems to be faced in climbing the fence, and in the final minute or so we are shown in advance exactly which button it is that Dr Sapper will be pushing that will “light up” the fence, and we are therefore given the chance to make an assessment for ourselves as to whether the three will have a chance to clear the fence in time. In general we assess that it’s going to be an extremely close thing, but of course we feel that they will do it. (Surprise surprise!) However, she pushes it sooner than expected, the boy is still on the wire, and he gets such a beIt of high voltage that his hair stands on end for the rest of the film. If we in fact had time to think about it, we could safely assume that he wouldn’t have been killed – not in a movie of this family-orientated genre – but we don’t in fact have time to think about it, which is a key reason Spielberg gets away with this one.

9. It is worth briefly identifying what I would consider a standard technique of generating an audience expectation of a closely-approaching moment of terror, as it is as much used in Jurassic Park as well as in countless other mainstream movies.

A cast member senses danger and becomes visibly wary. There may be two or more on the scene, in which case the potential danger is communicated through the group. However the effect is stronger when there is only one cast member involved, as s/he is therefore more vulnerable. As the actor’s fear grows, the camera moves closer, sometimes by cutting, other times by zooming. This achieves two practical effects: firstly it hides the approaching danger itself until it becomes unavoidably apparent to the actor, as well as allowing it to strike from much closer whilst still being unseen; secondly (and again this is a reflection of the sophistication of modern audiences) this camera movement is in itself a direct sign to the audience, inviting them to get themselves prepared for the forthcoming shock, to let them generate a level of fear in anticipation. It’s tried and tested as a technique, and never fails to work.

10. Finally we might discuss a major structural example of the generation of audience expectation. The crisis of the film centres on the inadvertent release of the prehistoric creatures to the direct danger of all the human inhabitants of the island. The climax involves the endangered central characters finally escaping from the most terrible of these creatures. And the resolution involves the survivors fleeing the island by helicopter. The key narrative event (what Robert McKee calls the “inciting incident”) is in fact three-fold, and as each of these three causes of the drama becomes apparent in turn, the entire outcome of the film becomes the major source of audience expectation.

In Jurassic Park these three strands to the key narrative event are:

1) the approach of a cataclysmic hurricane

2) the first ever tour of the island is in progress and is showing up a number of elements that need to be ironed out and improved upon

3) Denis’ scam, a sub-plot that has been built up from the start, is being set into immediate, premature operation because of the approoaching storm, and this involves the cutting off of the power so that Denis can get out with his stolen goods. This goes wrong (of course) with Denis getting killed, and the irony is that he is the only one who knows how to counteract his own hi-jacking of the computer system and restore the power.

With all three of these narrative elements in place the rest of the plot will run on its own steam.

Jurassic Park is an extremely well-made mainstream film, employing the generation of tension and expectation in the audience with great skill and to good effect, not least in the basic underlying structure of the story.