Jurassic Park, in all its dark consumeristic negatives and heartless colonial instincts, exists in the real world as a film in the same way that the park exists in the world of the movie. We’re rooting for monsters in a system making tons of money on our criticism of people who make money. We’re buying plushies even as people lament that “creation is an act of sheer will.” Then we buy the t-shirt that has that on it.
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A dinosaur that walked the earth would be a sight of such irrepressible awe that the world would reject its religions. Popes would be defrocked and history would crumble under the weight of its rewrites. Entertainment would realign in this image of our collective imagination, displacing every video that ever featured a living thing, every belief in the illusion of the living world, and every fleeting notion of mankind’s dominance over its elements. If cats go viral, dinosaurs go plague. Such a thing could never be a monster to the human eye. Its frightening beauty could never acquire a different name than God.
Jurassic Park begins with such beauty, with the clear objective to give us the dinosaur as we would really get it, from within its shadow, in stunned silence. John Williams composes in epic reverence as the principal characters stare without blinking at their first dinosaur, which plucks leaves from a three-story tree and bellows at the horizon. It is one of the film’s great scenes, of which it has several. But it is the only one in which the dinosaurs possess their unmatched allure, which not only would progress unflinchingly through the sinewy hearts of every human that ever saw one, but which also was the energy that produced this film and conceived it as more than a movie about teens in a haunted house. The way Steven Spielberg combines the means of production with the very heart of his material, generating dinosaurs out of digital thin air the way John Hammond does out of drops of blood, makes Jurassic Park as much a spectacle in both of its continuums. The attraction is not less potent as a park than it is as a film. Or less misguided.
The greatest flaw of this story that has so burrowed into the millennial generation’s willing heart, that has so many great scenes it successfully pantomimes a great film, is that it takes not long at all after the brachiosaurus makes the screen tremble with the weight of its footsteps for the characters to be trembling in a haunted house. They flee from the escaped dinosaurs without the intellect to realize that the grand scheme of things is now a new scheme. In fact, though several other scenes are somber (one in which the children feed another brachiosaurus, though irreverently, calling it a “large cow” before it messily sneezes on them), awe will not enter into the picture again. This process of spaying the wonder from the dinosaurs will continue on its trajectory even after the first film (in the sequel, we will be dispatching the dinos with cartwheels; in the third film, they will become a running gag; in the latest films, they are self-parodies).
Fear takes a good close second to awe in the original film, but it also dilutes its intentions: Jurassic Park becomes a horror film almost immediately. Stan Winston had the industrial verve to concoct living things from imitative latex and steel bones, and it makes the appearance of the effect all the more engrossing, even in the service of cheap thrills. His animatronics sing electric, and provide Industrial Light and Magic’s animation the best possible standard: a real thing. It’s still some of the best in the business. In fact, the computer work on this film by stop-motion animator Phil Tippet is as revolutionary as the stop-motion work he did on Star Wars. Jurassic Park is so convincing that I believe it may be the moment when blockbuster films discovered how to make fake things without the fantasy. I might still crave stop-motion in the early morning hours, that inimitable nightmare realm of invisible human hands and plasticine marvels, but the more mechanical fakery serves better to encapsulate John Hammond’s disaster, by making a film that continues to ruin film. Under Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong) or Ray Harryhausen (The Valley of Gwangi, which Jurassic Park often copies), the dinos would have been sovereign in their fantasy, not dinosaurs so much as fantasies of our image of them. Instead, we have the reality of these images, a real representation of a fake thing, a denial of fantasy in the pursuit of realism. As much as they are imitative of life, these dinosaurs disenchant life.
Spielberg clearly conceives the dinosaurs with all-encompassing effort, bringing them to life with the ruthless intensity with which he simulated the shark in Jaws. But despite the grandeur of the material, Jurassic Park lacks the mythmaking, the abstract, of his other films. Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be the film Spielberg could not make by the time Jurassic Park came along, for fear that conceptualizing first contact, the idea of the extraterrestrial, would bore an insensitive audience champing for a blockbuster. Where Dreyfuss and Scheider and Shaw lacked nothing in Jaws, in comparison the humans in Jurassic Park are all gentle archetypes, unfocused generalizations of people running around and beating up dinosaurs. They enable grandstanding lines but they are not themselves grand.
Consider the misguided attempts to recapture Jaws in films that use the special effects realism pioneered by Jurassic Park (last year we had 47 Meters Down, this year we have The Meg, and the less said about Jurassic Shark, the better). The shark’s present absence in the Spielberg original – signified by barrels, by the idea of his pursuing them – makes him mythic enough to stand in for all sharks, or even for the feeling of being hunted by something too ancient to control. By contrast, the T-Rex in Jurassic World bears the scars she obtained from the first film even as she is becoming another deus ex machina in this new one, exactly as the abysmal Jaws 2 attempted to do. She is not conceived as a dinosaur but specifically as this one, the exact one we recognize. The studio apparently believes that the effect would be lesser if she was new, just as with the hacky Jaws sequels. The difference is that while we defame Jaws 2 for its transgression, we accept the T-Rex as nostalgia gold, and the reason is that she never stood for much in the first place, so we don’t notice her being manhandled.
Hammond is in the business of illusions, though he wants to make something real, that people can “see and touch.” He doesn’t want to make flea circuses anymore. But since he has now unveiled genetic science, since his creations no longer hide but flaunt the devices that made them, his creations have not become real: they have become simulations of reality. As Dr. Sadler said, “You never had control. That’s the illusion.” So it is in film.
Spielberg does not hide the devices of his dinosaurs’ creation from view, as many directors would. Instead he burlesques them for us, making the means of the device as important as the device. Observe a moment of stunning introspection: a velociraptor sniffs the room in the light of a projector that lights her up with the 1s and 0s of the computer code of which she’s made (which is also genetic code). The dinosaur effect is really made by a computer, so why does the film point this out instead of hiding it? Jurassic Park weaponizes its simulations into illusions of power that afflict both an entrepreneur and a director with the belief that an image can stand in for reality. Fantasy is not enough for Hammond, or for Spielberg, and their downfalls are the same even if their paychecks are different.
The brutal realism of the effect is that the park stands in for the institution of the film. We were brought to the theater by the same barbaric intensity that would have drawn people to Hammond’s island of primeval boyhood dreams. Both the genetic code in the film and the computer code in real life enable the same disenchantment of the same illusion of control: the control of the image. Spielberg could not successfully make this a cautionary tale. He could not render up these monsters and scare us, or thwart our capitalistic ambitions: anyone who sees Jurassic Park thinks of the T-Rex’s victory with more joy than the humans’, and leaves the film, depending on their age, either wanting to go out and make dinosaurs or go out and be them. These images fail so comprehensively to communicate their message that they stand in for the blockbuster itself, particularly when its images of blatantly destructive entertainment are made in the service of a cautionary moral (Avatar comes to mind). I think Jurassic Park is a cutoff for Spielberg, when he would no longer take “low-concept” films like Jaws with more seriousness than the spectacle of a flea circus of flashy illusions. Despite a wonderful panning shot of real Jurassic Park merchandise, which leads us into Hammond’s lament over ice cream about the illusion of his dreams, not the people but the blockbuster (and the dinosaur) would be empowered by the spectacle. In real life, we are compelled by every conceivable power to buy those toys. Consider the cruel transformation of this director into the one we have today, who delineates very clearly whether he’s filming a work of serious representation (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post) or silly illusions (The Adventures of Tin-Tin, The BFG, Ready Player One). He never made this distinction, before these dinosaurs.
Hammond’s sense of childlike wonderment is a ribbon of ironic flavor running through a film that features children specifically to “feel out the target audience” both behind and in front of the camera. Richard Attenborough embodies the film’s ineffable charm, rum-pum-pumming to the imaginary orchestral track he has yet to insert into the park’s introduction video mere hours before his legal attorney will be eaten by a T-Rex. This image of Hammond indulging in whimsy despite tapping into infinite biological power, like a clown juggling an A-bomb, is the best demonstration in Jurassic Park of the lessons it wants to teach us but cannot. If it had, then we would not be looking forward to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the fifth film, nor hoping that its dinosaurs would be bigger and more uncontrollable than ever.
I am reminded despite the production values that this is a haunted house film when a character’s entire role entails either running for their life or expounding the theme as intrusively as though a lever’s just been pulled on the fortune machine of their mouth. “Life finds a way,” Dr. Malcolm says (and says). Jeff Goldblum offers another great reason to get on board Jurassic Park, but more for his snarling happy smile and glistening bare chest than for his role in the film. All roles die out, to make room for more dinosaurs.
As an example of what I mean, Dr. Malcolm has a very good point about the chaotic system exceeding its makers’ original parameters. Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) discovers dinosaur eggs in a mono-sex ecosystem and repeats, “Life finds a way.” This point, however, is not brought up again, as it is in the book. Dr. Malcolm is injured halfway through the film and has a diminished role from then on (his last line in the film is “Follow that!”). This discovery, however, should prevent their easy escape from the island since it nullifies the failsafe – the enzyme restriction engineered at birth – that would supposedly cause the dinosaurs to die without their human caretakers. Hammond never finds out that his dinosaurs are laying eggs. The end of the book, in which Jurassic Park is swallowed by a thermonuclear blast and this still is only an illusion of our control, since the dinosaurs have escaped already, would have been necessary if there was anything more important to the film than getting everyone out in one piece. But details hang off the film like that, after the scares have died down and it’s burned out all its computer-generated steam. Life may find a way, but it seems to need a fat hacker to help it along, doesn’t it.
More thematic cohesion, Spielberg seems to say, would not make as much well-meaning fun or nearly as many sequels as two kids with their arms sticking straight out, screaming and running as one might in a game of velociraptor tag (which on the face of it absolutely sounds like something I would have played as a youngling with the friends I didn’t have). I don’t begrudge Spielberg the childlike spirit in him, but he has more insatiable wonderment on display in Jaws than in Jurassic Park. There is no scene where Dreyfuss and Scheider swim from the shark, as it gains on them while they crack jokes, or set up mirrors for it to swim into and bump its head. The shark is never detached from his allure (though that tiny joke in the scene where the jeep is being chased by the T-Rex becomes elemental with a little Spielbergian wit, as the terror of the scene sinks right into the dark hilarity of the line, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”). Somehow, Jaws seems more ancient and primordially vicious than the dinosaurs.
Perhaps politics are getting in the way, men obstructing the monsters, but no one seems to matter much in Jurassic Park. That fat hacker (Wayne Knight) bumbles for a profit and gets devoured by the smallest dino of the bunch. His part is never more than oafish comedy. Samuel L. Jackson plays himself before himself with such thematic certainty you’d think it was the first time he ever had the chance to crack a few now-famous lines and, of course, die. As much as the death of even an unknown boy shimmered weightily in Jaws, no character is so important in Jurassic Park that you will feel anything at their passing. The audience is irrevocably on the side of the ancient evil in this case, and that’s the metaphysical bummer: Jurassic Park, in all its dark consumeristic negatives and heartless colonial instincts, exists in the real world as a film in the same way that the park exists in the world of the movie. We’re rooting for monsters in a system making tons of money on our criticism of people who make money. We’re buying plushies even as people lament that “creation is an act of sheer will.” Then we buy the t-shirt that has that on it.
Jurassic Park persists in the public consciousness as a great film in the way people grasp at these icons of child’s play looking for deep meaning, and accept as masterful any whisper that confirms their search. Jurassic Park is not a thematically deep or complete film beyond the key images that I’ve mentioned mostly just to comfort myself into believing that it’s better than it is. I, like anyone, love dinosaurs. But “Life finds a way” is a polemic just as demonstrated by the events as “crime never pays” and “don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Would life have found a way around a tank or a nuclear bomb? Underequipped people, an entire plot structure that could be solved with one cellphone, are hardly a legitimate match for brute T-Rex power imitating the predestined character deaths of a slasher flick. But a few more guns might have gone a long way (this is why Jurassic World also has to contrive a way for the characters’ cell phones to break). The point is not to reflect, but to run.
We’re left as by design with a film that warns against the very spectacle it promotes, like if drug PSAs unknowingly got kids interested in trying pot for the first time. Jurassic Park misses its own mythology, that which hides in certain scenes (the first sighting, the cartoon park tutorial, the repentant creator God rationalizing his failure over ice cream). It has music and effects to last 65 million years, but its characters are waiters and doormen at the symphony of its spectacle. Being likable and certainly more than passible as horror seems to have allowed people looking for depth in their dinosaurs to play-act its philosophy for decades. Childhood lives on in this misconception, even if film would never be the same. Despite Dr. Malcolm being everyone’s favorite character, will we ever really heed his message enough to apply it to the movie he’s been inconvenienced so much to be in? Will we ever realize that there are no fleas?
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All images are screenshots from the film.