~ an essay on the 1993 film Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park was one of the first big movies I ever saw, and it remains one of my favorites. Instantly and irrevocably, the adventure and spectacle of its experience turned me into a ‘dinosaur kid.’ I didn’t just know how to pronounce their names, I bought tons of picture books of dinosaur classifications and stat blocks to learn as much as I possibly could about them. Even back then, I understood the truth about velociraptor vs. deinonychus.
Rewatching JP for the first time in many years, and with those initial childhood viewings readily available as indelible bits of nostalgic reverie, I am drawn in again to what makes this film magical. It remains as engrossing of a flick that you’ll ever see. This magic lies not just in its ingenious core concept (using DNA technology to bring back dinosaurs from extinction and pawn the spectacle in the form of a theme park — god-tier idea by the late Michael Crichton), but also in its underlying characterization of our country’s commercial incentives and utter dependence upon technology, as well as the starry-eyed and consequenceless glorification of scientific discovery. The characters themselves provide legs for the ideas (our ‘hero’s journey’ hero in archeologist Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), ass-kicking paleobotanist Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern), and rockstar chaotician, Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum)). The pacing is impeccable; there is no wasted time in the film’s two-hour run under Stephen Spielberg’s direction & John Williams’ score.
There is a totality within the overall cinematic experience — concept, character, ideation and execution in tandem with the narrative arc itself all culminating in what I would describe as a kind of perfection. In everything the film sets out to achieve, it hits the mark. And the arc of the story’s underlying message — that of Promethean/Frankensteinian hubris in believing one can control the raging fire of creation — all begins with the encapsulation of awe.
There is an inherent awe-inspiring wonder at the sight of something you never, ever thought would get to see. This kind of awe (of seeing something dead brought back, of the wildest imagination’s vision made real and tangible) is something we can only theorize about, vaguely dreaming of its effects, all the way up until the moment of its realization. It is in that moment of connectivity between the dream and the reality that the awe is summoned without restraint or recourse. It happens without speech, in the compulsorily reactive language of the body. And the early scenes of JP capture this perfectly. In the chopper ride to the island’s majesty, backed by the uplift of JW’s score, we and the characters understand something special is in store for us. When the first sight of the brachiosaurus is dawned from the red and yellow JP Jeep, there is nothing but the purest form of awe on the face of every character, no matter to their personality, their past, or their posture in coming to John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) mysterious island. Just like them, the audience shares in this experience. We revel in the possible powers of science, but also, on a meta-level, in the advancements of cinema up to then. There is revelrous shock at the astounding capabilities of computer-generated imagery that, in 1993 and for years hence, looked as nearly equivalent to reality.
Dinosaurs are back!
But just as this moment of awe is powerful, in the sight or the discovery, it is fleeting. The undertones of fear at this experimental ‘park’ brought about from the film’s prologue — of the caged raptors being brought into the walls, still managing to attack and devour one of the park’s workers — return in force and remind us that much more than this simple, ordered profundity awaits us within Jurassic Park. On the tails of this fading high, chaos is coming.
Before any of the ooh’s and ah’s or the running and screaming take place, the first scenes of the whole Jurassic Park franchise depict it first and foremost as a business proposition. A lawyer representing the investor class of the park’s sponsors speaking incessantly of funding and inspections shows up at a dig site. We see a cadre of workers with branded JP hard hats bringing down a crate full of some of this park’s most precious cargo, i.e. the velociraptors/the assets. When these wild animals ram against the walls of their bondage and a juicy morsel in the form of a live human being falls into their jaws, they do what predators do and attack. The first vestiges of JP’s critique of the explicable melding of business and science, and capital’s sprawling hold over all forms of innovation and discovery, are made here when the cries of Muldoon’s “Shoot her!” go unheard over the sounds of the inept shock sticks upon the raptors at the consummation of their kill. The raptors are, of course, significantly more valuable than the price of a single, nameless human life (a chump change insurance settlement, relative to JP’s capitalization). They were instructed never to shoot the creatures. The value arbitrage of inhumane profit motive — capitalism’s core tenet — is already set firmly into place within our park of awe-inspiring discovery and adventure…
After seeing the extinct beasts alive and in the flesh, the scores of awe achieved upon Hammond’s chosen marks in Grant, Sattler and Malcolm, he moves them to the next phase of his pitch. The sale is on from the moment he appeared before them, whether they know it or not, and his most advantageous card is played first in order to arrest their attention completely to the remainder. Cartoonish depictions of DNA and its power to map out the genomes of species, present or past, are explained to the visiting scientists. Mosquitoes in amber are the key to usable dino DNA; frog DNA, similar enough to their targets, fills in the gaps to create the dinosaur embryos. The exposition scenes — and the attitudes of Hammond and the young scientists surrounding him — fly through us without a snag. At first glance, they are acceptable, even welcome motivations and executions upon the idea. Action in the light of discovery! Look upon our works, and delight… Perhaps it is because we want to believe in such a project. It is certainly wonderful to see dinosaurs again, to know that we are capable of regenerating some of the planet’s extinct species.
Upon closer inspection of the origin and procession of Jurassic Park’s enterprise, however, one begins to see the cracks. Hammond, the company’s head and the mind behind the idea of the park, betrays a profound lack of respect for the art of science. He choppers in on a live archeological dig site — threatening to ruin its functioning — unannounced and uninvited, in order to fetch the people he wants and needs to see his park, in Grant and Sattler. Answering their complaints with promises of funding from his theme park empire’s no-doubt endless hoard, he allies them on to the idea easily, for they are in no position to turn him down. Hammond can be seen as a man who solves most every problem before him with money, of which he has an endless supply. As a result, the man is used to absolutely getting his way.
“We’ve made living biological attractions so astounding that they will capture the imagination of the entire world.”~ Hammond
But Hammond’s lack of respect for science and its steady, painstaking development can be understood, for he is a man of business, a venture-funding macro decision-maker and not a man in the field, in the thick of the detailed work required for scientific discovery. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), the lead geneticist of Jurassic Park, young, arrogant, ‘stander-on-the-shoulders-of-giants’ and as sure of his work’s solidity as he is proud of it, has a much more subtle and therefore compelling disrespect for science.
Coming from a man doing the work, he has lost the forest for the trees, as Dr. Ian Malcolm masterfully details in his rant to Hammond over lunch, after all of the awe has fizzled away from their nascent experience at the park:
Wu and Jurassic Park’s team of scientists delight in the work and achievement of discovery, but they seem to take no sincere responsibility for it. Concerns for how the live dinosaurs can be sold as a spectacle become paramount; concerns over the systems of security in the park, and the care and control over the creatures are all necessarily secondary. Relative to the visiting scientists, absorbed entirely into their art and their theory and unconcerned with their commercial rewards, JP’s scientists and their discoveries appear to be a means to an end, and not an end of themselves. The scientists reflect no deep understanding of what they are doing here. They don’t get the gravity of making life, of remaking a breed of superpredator.
“The point is, you are alive as they begin to eat you. So try to show a little respect.”
~ Dr. Grant
What species is this? / Uh, it’s velociraptor. / You bred raptors. / *Simple nod*
~ Dr. Grant and Wu.
JP spelunker Rostagno declares to the lawyer, “Grant’s like me, he’s a digger.” Dr. Grant, first introduced as a self-serious child-resenter, wants to get to the bottom of the world and understand it. The same goes for Sattler and Malcolm. They wield a baseline respect for the work of science because they are engaged in it for the sake of passion, for the intrinsic motivation of discovery itself. As a result, through the lense of their respective arts, they have a healthy respect for the world, for its cultured history and its chaotic possibility.
The concept of Jurassic Park, a theme park “experience for all, and not just the super-rich,” in Hammond’s starry eyes becomes a potential avenue to sell wonder itself to the masses. For him, ‘Jurassic Park’ is the sole end, and the returned dinosaurs are simply means. By using the commodified products (the live dinosaurs) of this grand, utterly unique discovery (ancient genetic manipulation) as packaging and marketing material for a deeper, more long-term objective — the power of science to create wonders and solve all our problems (or at the very least, entertain us to no end) — Hammond provides the most shareholder value to his company’s future (and his own wealth). “We can charge anything we want” is the proclamation from the lawyer. Which is true, they certainly have a monopoly on dinosaurs. The capitalist understands monopoly power is the ultimate weapon in the game of commerce, affording one the ability to set the terms of your enterprise from the bottom up, starting with the ability to charge whatever you want. Like most monopolies, this kind of position is achieved through innovation, such as what comes in a scientific breakthrough. The realms of commerce and science align, and incentives go wayward as profits become maximal. There is no respect, there are only the possibilities. Whether ‘everyone’ can come to the park or not becomes irrelevant just as long as everyone is aware of its existence, and the necessary boons from such worldwide exposure can be achieved.
Given this implicit profit motive, and the developmental financialization of the industry of scientific research at that point in the late 20th century, perhaps Wu and the JP scientists can be forgiven for their relative blindness as to the moral and societal implications of their work. They could only see the upside because they were not being compensated to think of the downside. It seems likely that the work was only ever going to be done if such capitalist ends were in mind from the beginning. Funding for the hard science of such kinds of research never comes without the prospect of a “Dinosaur Disney World.” What else would be the purpose of reviving the dinosaur if not to show them off? (…or use them as soldiers of fortune in America’s forever-wars, such as how the Jurassic World sequels theorize.)
Discovery, already a “violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores,” threatens to become a sprawling corruption of both human life and the natural world when it is undertaken primarily through the prism of enterprise.
At its heart, Jurassic Park is more horror than adventure film, more of a critique upon science and technology than an advocation for its limitless potential. The core moral of the myth of Prometheus, or Victor Frankenstein aka “The Modern Prometheus,” are easy comparisons to draw. In defiance of the Gods, Prometheus, a Titan, gives humanity the power of fire — or the power to make civilization, to step themselves closer to godhood themselves… and he is punished for his transgression in the form of an eternal torment by the hands of Zeus; Victor Frankenstein creates life from death, and in his abject fear, terror and disgust at what he has done, he abandons any responsibility he has over the creature he brought into being, and an epic vengeance awaits him as a result. In both stories, it is the hubris of Man in bending nature to his will in the form of creation — without thought to the subsequent consequences or commensurate responsibility — that mark these figures for their terrible fates. ‘Playing God’ cannot go on without dire consequences.
In Jurassic Park, the hubris lies in the illusion of control over their creation. “John, the kind of control you are trying at here is simply not possible.” — Malcolm proclaims midway through, before he is proven right. It perhaps lies within our inborn natures as parents, and potential parents, to our children to believe that the mere creation of a thing instantly affords control over the thing within its creator. At JP, Hammond and Wu and the scientists and investors are all mired in the wonder of their project’s consummation. As a result, they naturally believe themselves to wield illusory bonds of control over the beasts they have created. It is a chaotic world they have sowed their seeds in, and it is a more chaotic world that they try to reap from; it is a world, this park of ancient beasts, that was created with knowledge that was not entirely earned.
‘I can see the fleas. Can’t you see the fleas?’ … I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion. Something that was real. Something people could see and feel … We were over-reliant on automation, I see that now. Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time it will be flawless. // You never had control. That’s the illusion!~ Hammond and Sattler
It is the hubris of the 20th century Man to think he can bring nature under his control through the use of science. All of our recent greatest achievements lie within such realms. Nuclear weaponry. Space travel. DNA sequencing and genome mapping. Setbacks never stall us for long, because so much promise lies upon the horizon. We don’t stop because our technological progress never does either. Our reach exceeds our grasp, but only temporarily. It all may be hubris, but that does not mean it’s not going to one day be possible. The long horizon towards realizing a possibility crashes into reality and control is then assumed, implicitly earned in all of the work up to then. But it’s rarely the case. The discovery comes, and then the maintenance and continuous execution of its newfound existence comes separately, as a different job with different objectives.
Dr. Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory contributes wholly to this theorization. Chaos Theory, a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos — ‘states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.’ Or more succinctly, chaos is ‘when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.’
The illusions of control within the park’s security become realized as such when a tropical storm comes to the island — a storm, the ultimate signifier of chaos and change. Jurassic Park’s whole operation runs primarily through technological automation — computer subroutines and sensors — which are the responsibility of a single key individual in Nedry. When he goes missing or goes rogue, or the power is cut from the force of a storm, everything falls apart in short order. The beasts escape and destroy and try to survive — and the predators hunt. This dependence upon both non-human systems and a single key man for the checks and balances upon the park’s continuity spell its doom. Too many things can go wrong, and therefore, following with Murphy’s Law, eventually they will. No one was ever in control; disaster was inevitable.
The initial conditions of the park itself deemed this to be true.
One moment of early foreshadowing that I never quite ascertained up to now comes when the chopper is preparing for landing upon the island, everyone is buckling their seat belts and Dr. Grant sees that he is stuck with two socket buckles. As they descend with turbulence, struggling with it for a moment, searching for its ‘male’ counterpart so that he can secure himself, Dr. Grant simply takes the two ends of belt and ties them together with a wry grin. Outside of providing an insight into Grant’s subtle ingenuity as a man of action, this presages the park’s fallibility in showing that 1) not everything is working perfectly correctly here in the park, and 2) the park’s all-female populations will adapt and learn to breed in spite of their original genetic makeup.
The final realizations of chaos and change and the breaking of the illusions of control come in the final scene, in the characters, in the helicopter now escaping from the island with its ‘survivors’ in tow. Comparing their demeanors and emotional lives on the chopper ride to and from the island, there are night and day changes in each of the characters. ‘Rockstar’ chaotician and talker Dr. Malcolm has nothing to say, a near-death experience under his belt. Hammond is morose, eyes lingering upon the mosquito in amber on his cane, his dream dead and gone. Dr. Sattler sees Grant has connected with the children through their collective ordeal. He is a capable father; he never hated kids, he just didn’t understand them. Dr. Grant watches the birds fly alongside them into the horizon with a smile, his vision of them as the heir apparent to the dinosaurs upon the earth is made both melancholy and heartwarming by his experience on the island. ~ We don’t need them back, they were here with us all along.