Statement of Intent
It bears stating that in this sprawling series that it is not my goal here to change anyone’s mind with regards to Jurassic World (or any other film in the franchise), and how it fits in the larger Jurassic empire. It is merely my intent to discuss them, especially the most recent, why I enjoy it quite a bit, and how it fits into the series to date. This is something I’ve been mulling over for a while. The reason is not that the movie is incredibly deep or dense, but it has a lot to do with how it plays against the series to date, which required re-viewing to underscore certain salient points.
So while I am on the pro side of the argument it is not my intent to do the flip-side of what’s discussed here.
I will discuss some of the flaws in the most recent one, as well as in the series as a whole; as well as why I really like it and why certain critiques don’t jibe that well with me.
First, since I haven’t had an opportunity to discuss Jurassic Park much here in the past a bit of history may be appropriate. Even in my Spielberg retrospective, after his lifetime achievement award, I didn’t cover it specifically.
Many children run the gamut of a select few jobs they dream of doing when they grow up. I did most of them as well, the only one that was probably a bit out of the ordinary when I was young, and that I came back to, was my desire to be a paleontologist. Yes, all kids seem to inherently love dinosaurs but not all of them take an interest in the applied study of learning about them and hypothesizing about them based on fossil record.
My reborn interest was sparked in my partial-reading of Chrichton’s novel, I then acquiring more mature scientific texts than I had before. In grade school, my first book in a writer’s workshop class was on dinosaurs (pictured above).
As a child I’d seen Baby, the random Dennis the Menace film with dinosaur involvement, Denver the Last Dinosaur, and whatever else I could with dinosaurs in them. Clearly, Jurassic Park was going to be different, which is what had me anticipating it greatly.
Jurassic Park (1993)
This film was huge for me and many others. When I first saw Jurassic Park it was clearly my favorite film of all-time to date. At a time when I was very into retroactive creation of BAM Awards from the year of my birth to 1995 (before the extemporaneous ones started) Jurassic Park owned a bit of hardware in 1993 as well.
The set-up for the film is a classic such that it was used as the go-to example of a “What if?” inspired scenario in my introductory screenwriting course in college. “What if dinosaurs were brought back to life and walked the earth with modern man?” really cuts to the heart of the awe of the first film.
Truly, it’s a sensation that will not be duplicated. The story hadn’t been tackled yet, effects had reached a new threshold, you add something that sparks a childish curiosity and excitement in adults; in a film told through the lens of a director who defined adventures for millions of kids and brought that youthful outlook and wonder the to oldest of soul; and you had a virtually can’t miss formula. And it didn’t.
Furthermore, for me in my doe-eyed innocence it not only played into that wish-fulfillment but also brought before me a nightmare I had never truly contemplated: how wrong it could possibly go, and how two species who’d been the dominate forces on earth during different eras really couldn’t co-exist.
What will also invariably set the first film apart from all those that follow, this is true of any series but particularly this one, is that it’s so new that the audience and characters are eased into it. There are questions that need to be answered, rules that need to be established. One thing that is tremendously well done is that Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler really don’t know what they’re signing up to go look at.
The world is isolated and small, the park has not opened and is seeking investors; it’s more focused in its narrative than any subsequent film. With everything being new, with great pains being taken to suspend disbelief, with brilliant scientific debate; the first film sets a rock-solid foundation upon which all other follow-ups can build with confidence regardless of how successful they are.
However, amidst the wonder and the blinding brilliance of the film as a thrilling adventure, with impeccably defined characters, contrasts, and spectacle; it seems at time we don’t take into account that there was hubris, miscalculation, and at times downright stupidity from some of the characters. And as great as it is there is even a pretty big “Oh, come on!” Now, most of what I have to say will be about what it sets up because those pave the way for decisions made further down the line.
With so much of this being new, and also with Jurassic Park being a story that was interested in actually living up the name of science-fiction properly, there was more time and more need for the characters to question how such things were done.
Among the scientific points of discussion that come up are: The Lysine Contingency, lysine being a necessary enzyme to sustain life is something the engineered dinosaurs do not produce but the park geneticists administer. It is a theoretical fail-safe should people die or the animals need to be euthanized.
The scientists rightly ask how gaps in the genetic sequence are filled. They learn that amphibian (Tree frog) DNA to fill in, this is what opens the door for spontaneous change of sex (they were all engineered to be female). Due to the single-sex environment the scientists believe they have instilled another control, and will be able to ensure a stable population.
Being a film that postulates on the return of dinosaurs long-held debates in the scientific community could be settled (theoretically) here. The behavior of herding in the first film is confirmed; the debate as to whether the creatures are endothermic (warm-blooded) or poikilothermic (cold-blooded) is settled. At least theoretically, and like in almost any work of science-fiction most of the facts are built-up and supported to make them plausible, such that the instances of artistic license are more earned. In this film license is taken with the Dilophosaurus, a species wherein there exists no evidence to support either the claims of a neck frill or venomous expectoration. Even more license is taken with the Velociraptor, which is made a bit taller than that specific raptor.
Crichton modeled his raptor after Deinonychus, which per Gregory S. Paul’s classification would be of the raptor family. Incredibly, as fate would have it, the discovery of the Utahraptor shortly after Winston Robotics created the first vindicated this visual impression and use of a more dramatic name (as opposed to Deinonychus), of the raptor by looking very similar to what they built, though strictly speaking the actual Velociraptor is a much smaller predator.
Motifs and Themes
Jurassic Park never would have been the hit it was around the world if all it was concerned with was dinosaurs. What it has to say about its characters and humanity in general is what takes it a place above and beyond many other films in its genre. Aside from a ground-breaking idea and technology there also is an exploration of important themes in a universal light against a preternatural backdrop.
“We can talk about sexism in survival situations when I get back,” quips Ellie Sattler as she’s about to head off to try to power the park back up manually when Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) was concerned about her leaving. If there is one thing that has been a constant throughout it’s that the series has made attempts (this film was the most successful) to put smart, intelligent, skilled women in key roles.
Ellie is a very rounded character. Aside from her obvious professional acumen she is also not averse to marriage and children. This is one of the things that make her and Dr. Grant great foils. He doesn’t like kids. Therefore, there is tremendous comedic payoff when Hammond’s grandchildren (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) come and Grant gets saddled with them.
Furthermore, it introduces kids into the series as participants which is a constant. Much like I started writing about these films talking about my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, kids have to be brought into the action in a story like this so kids engage even closer. In 1950s sci-fi films there was almost always a kid involved so those kids going to the double-features had someone they could more closely relate to; the same goes here based on the tale as Hammond says they are “the target audience.” So if your tolerance for child actors happens to be low you better check that at the door because kids will be part of the proceedings in this series for better or worse.
The kids are the target audience and the park clearly has to be made safe for them as Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) humorously observes “When the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” Which links up with perfectly to the conversation Ellie has with Hammond in light of his flea circus story: “It’s still the flea circus, John. You never had control. That’s the illusion!”
And the lack of control, and the self-deception is apparent when you think back on the rebuttals the scientists had for Hammond when they were talking over dinner.
“I tell you the problem with the scientific power you’re using here, it didn’t take any discipline to attain it.”
“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could.”
“…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
“How can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem?”
“Dinosaurs and man, two species separate by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have any idea of what to expect?”
I know many know those lines but bear them in mind for I feel they echo throughout the series to date.
Perhaps the most balanced character and the most centered in terms of accepting what the reality of the situation is, and having sufficient respect and admiration for these creatures is Muldoon (Bob Peck). He’s the game expert, and has been out on safari and seen most, if not all, the world’s large land predators, sure he is essentially a hunter but he has no delusions of control and knows better than to underestimate these creatures (consciously), and that is the cardinal sin of most characters in the series and how they meet their end.
Speaking of their end. This brings me to the biggest “Really?” moment in Jurassic Park. Yes, I love it but even this movie has one, the electrified fence. Now, this isn’t a bad horror film where I wanted a character to die, but based on the way it was staged I had trouble believing Tim would survive. It was tense, I was nervous, and relieved but from the beginning, since I first saw it was the biggest head-scratcher for me.
Even with that incident it’s still great, it’s just that one moment that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Conclusion: The Nostalgia Factor
I re-watched Jurassic Park before writing this piece. I could probably watch it again right now, and then tomorrow. My contention here is not that I think that Jurassic Park a bit more unfairly looked upon through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia than most. My contention is merely that whether our view of the first film is nostalgia-tinged, realistic admiration or honest dislike each film deserves judgment on its own merits and to not be beholden to its source material, a previous installment, or prior version of the film. Sure, certain factors can make this difficult but it bears saying. “It’s not as good as the first” is not a valid complaint, and even though I despise the next installment, I won’t play that game rather discuss the issues there.
Sure, the next films are going to take some liberties and make some jumps but they’re building upon what occurred first and expanded from there. Some better than others.