“Let’s be clear. The planet is not in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven’t got the power to destroy the planet - or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves.” -Ian Malcolm
I saw Jurassic Park in the theater when I was thirteen years old. It’s possible that I was that kid who obsessed over dinosaurs. It’s conceivable it was taken to the point that I would have informed you matter-of-factly that the correct name for Brontosaurus was actually Apatosaurus or that the plates on the back of the Stegosaurus ran in two alternating lines instead of the old interpretation of a single row.* So yeah, I’d read Jurassic Park once or twice and saw the film on opening day. And, yeah, dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus Rex life sized on the big screen was up there with the first time I saw boobs. If there’s one thing that Spielberg gets right, it’s wonder
It’s got a big budget, superstar director, groundbreaking special effects, spectacular creatures brought to life, gigabucks of revenue, and a shallow story based on an evil selfish corporation and selfless scientists tossed into a dangerous jungle environment, the plot existing primarily to shuttle the action from set piece to set piece. Sound familiar these days?
Sometimes age does a funny thing to film: the initial impressions don’t go away, but intensify. The magnificence of the dinosaurs on screen holds up with rapturous awe, aside from some awkwardness in closeups (particularly with the raptors late in the film), while the weakness of the story seems more glaring in retrospect. Plot Point A happens for no other reason than to show Neat Thing X on screen. Rinse and repeat. That’s not to say it’s not effective in its own way. Spielberg working at his peak could draw dramatic tension out of a bored goat chained to a pole: the iconic water shaking with footsteps, the raptors hunting the children through the kitchens, the harrowing assault of the Tyrannosaurus upon the convoy.
But it loses its way near the end, and as the script runs thin on expendable side characters, the built up tension deflates. The last half hour turns almost cartoonish: Is there the slightest feeling that the velociraptors are really going to kill the faux family foursome?
Surprisingly, it’s Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm who holds up the least well over time. While he has all the best lines in both the novel and the film, his role is more caricature in retrospect than the brilliant and quotable smart ass I remember.
Life finds a way, he tells us. Progress is the rape of nature. Fine words from a computer-using, chaos theory-spouting, glasses-wearing, artificial fabric-wearing neo-hippie whose life depends on cars, planes, antibiotics, and sweet sweet morphine. Life finds a way. That includes us. Standing on the shoulders of giants? Of course we are, that’s what civilization is. Hell, that’s what life is. Hey, internet user, did you mine the copper to spin wires and refine the petroleum into plastic in order to build your own computer built on electromagnetic theories that you derived from scratch with a quill you plucked from a raven and ink distilled from the blood of a bear you killed with a sharp stick from a tree that you chopped down with the axe you carved by beating two rocks together in just the right way? Velociraptors don’t evolve their own six inch claws by themselves in a lifetime, they grow on the shoulders of their ancestors, raw species memory. Memes or genes, it’s the same principle: life always stands on the shoulders of giants.
It’s a flaw in the novel too, if you give it a reread, a sense that there’s something hollow at the heart of an otherwise gripping yarn. Crichton’s got a lot of brilliant ideas, and wonderfully researched and synthesized information, but it never comes together into any sort of gestalt. On one hand we gape at the brilliance of the scientific methods used, the audacity of the plan, the wonder of the dinosaurs, and in the other we have street corner philosophy about the dangers of science. The Frankenstein myth is just a Luddite wet dream unless it is tempered with an awe for the act of creation. Malcom’s rants about the inability to control or place limits on life apply equally to his admonishments of the park’s designers. That impulse to create stupidly and shortsightedly is the exact same impulse that drives the dinosaurs to worm around every control placed upon them. Life is creation. Each implies the other.
Jurassic Park is a beautifully filmed movie that still has the capacity to awe, but its attempts at deeper meaning fail to resonate.
“But we have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as something that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is.” -Ian Malcolm
* If you find yourself compelled to argue these points, please take a deep breath and realize that my passion in dinosaurs faded soon after. So, if you insist upon parading your doctorate in paleontology and pointing out that the correct name is now Snookisaurus or that the plates of the Stegosaurus are now understood to be its testicles, remember, you are arguing on the internet with a teenager from 1993.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.