Jurassic Park
Tag: opinion

Jurassic Park's cautionary tech tale is still prescient... and terrifying as a T-Rex

Contributed by
May 15, 2018

Steven Spielberg's ground-breaking Jurassic Park celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. A film responsible for thousands of '90s kids wanting to become paleontologists, and even more being afraid of public toilets, velociraptors, and kitchens forever. Spielberg and his incredible team of wizards — Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, Michael Lantieri, Dennis Muren, and animators from Industrial Light & Magic — managed to bring dinosaurs back to life in a groundbreaking moment no other film has been able to recreate. While the sequels (fingers crossed for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) haven't been as successful in recreating the sense of awe and excitement from the original, they all share one thing — they are cautionary tales of the dangers relying too much on technology and manipulating things we don't fully understand.

On an island off the coast of Costa Rica, there is a park. The wealthy businessman Santa Claus, ahem John Hammond, puts together a team of scientist to achieve the impossible: cloning dinosaurs using DNA found in mosquitoes. At the same time, he hires programmers (though we only ever see one) to automate the park so that it could be run by just three people. Obviously, everything goes to hell when a rogue employee builds a backdoor to disable security doors. Dinosaurs escape and people die. Viewers are expected to place all blame on both programmer Dennis Nedry and Hammond's playing God — but Jurassic Park as a series has a clear villain in mind, the same one Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had in mind: Technology and automation.

What do we know about the park, exactly? From the big boss, John Hammond himself, we know that he "spared no expense." He repeats the phrase as often as humanly possible. The food? Spared no expense. The driverless electric Jeeps? Spared no expense. Getting a celebrity to do voice-over during the park tour? Spared no expense. To be clear, this characterization is much different in Crichton's novel. During a conversation with Wu, the chief geneticist played by B.D. Wong in the film, Hammond confesses the park was built only to make money:

"If you were going to start a bioengineering company, Henry, what would you do? Would you make products to help mankind, to fight illness and disease? Dear me, no. That's a terrible idea. A very poor use of new technology... Suppose you make a miracle drug for cancer or heart disease-as Genentech did. Suppose you now want to charge a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars a dose. You might imagine that is your privilege. After all, you invented the drug, you paid to develop and test it; you should be able to charge whatever you wish. But do you really think that the government will let you do that? No, Henry, they will not... From a business standpoint, that makes helping mankind a very risky business. Personally, I would never help mankind."

Jurassic Park the book makes it clear that Hammond cut corners at every opportunity, and only gloats about spending a lot of money as a distraction. But in the movie, the character is changed to be a sweet old Englishman. Spielberg wanted Hammond to change from a ruthless businessman to a kindly old man because he supposedly identified with the entrepreneur's obsession with showmanship. One thing both the book and movie versions of Hammond have in common, though, is a desire for the park to be fully automated, to be as independent of human workers as possible and, instead, rely on centrally controlled, computerized systems.

The original two Jurassic Park movies were based on novels by Crichton, who was obsessed with the idea of humanity's failure when dealing with technology. He eventually became one of the fathers of the modern "techno-thriller" genre. Crichton received a medical degree from Harvard Medical School but grew disenchanted with a culture that emphasized working towards patents rather than saving lives. His work is often cautionary, with plots focused on criticizing the influence of technology on the human condition, and scientific advancements going awry. From his 1969 best-seller, The Andromeda Strain, to his feature film debut, Westworld (1973), to Jurassic Park, Crichton's work discusses humanity's hazardous embrace of technological power with no regard for security or ethical repercussions. Even in his long-running series ER, Crichton poses we shouldn't lose sight of our humanity when dealing with the application of science and technology, and explores the dangers of relying on that same technology.

Dennis Nedry, Jurassic Park

Credit: Universal Pictures

Jurassic Park the movie makes it clear that the park already had problems before Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) visited, but it's not until Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) disables the security doors that the whole park goes down. Nedry tells Hammond: "You can run this whole park from this room with minimal staff for up to 3 days. You think that kind of automation is easy? Or cheap?" The power, security, and transportation systems are all interconnected and controlled from a single computer station. Even if Nedry was well-paid and didn't want to betray the company, he is still a single programmer who implemented most of the park's critical systems, so if he had to call in sick one day, no one could be able to make the park run. Worse yet, apparently no other employee understands Nedry's code or how to fix any of the problems. Not even Samuel L. Jackson's John 'Ray' Arnold, the park's chief engineer, had an idea of how to fix the system and had to reboot the entire park, unsure if it would actually work.

This issue is best exemplified with the electric driverless cars that guide the visitors through the park tour. These were supposed to be state-of-the-art Jeeps that Hammond "spared no expense" on. However, the cars were completely dependent on ALL systems working, from power to security to communication. The park could only work if every single thing went right, and at the first sign of a problem, the whole thing comes down. Even something as simple as locking a door became impossible with the computer system offline. Really, the words "theoretically" and "in theory" are spoken as often as "spared no expense" throughout Jurassic Park.

Chris Clearfield wrote about the subject of risk management in Jurassic Park, mentioning a lot more care went into the biology of the dinosaurs than to the park's systems. The dinosaurs are all female, and there's even a lysine contingency to kill them all if they ever got off the island. By contrast, the only contingency for if the park went to hell was to reboot the system and pray it would come back online. By relying too much on automation instead of human ingenuity and problem-solving, a simple problem turned into a horror movie.

In 2015 the franchise came back with Jurassic World and the themes of the dangers of technology and playing God came back in the form of corporate greed and a genetically engineered dinosaur.

Colin Trevorrow's blockbuster featured a world in which the park, now named Jurassic World, has operated problem-free for years. If you take away the dinosaurs killing people, the film is about humanity's non-conformity and our obsession with weaponizing every single new technological advancement.

InGen Security chief Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) visits the park with a plan to use the raptors and the newly unveiled Indominus rex as military weapons to aid and possibly even replace human soldiers. The plan obviously fails, but he does manage to get Dr. Wu off the island with dinosaur embryos in order to create more hybrid dinosaurs to use as weapons later on. Meanwhile, the very existence of the Indominus rex is due to the decline in public interest in the park. The investors decide they want a new attraction, and a genetically modified hybrid is created.

While Jurassic World isn't as focused on computer systems and the inner workings of the park, the use of genetic engineering feels right at home in this franchise — man wants to play God for stupid reasons, doesn't know what he's doing, and pays in blood for his mistake.

From the original novel to the 1993 film to this new sequel trilogy, Jurassic Park has always been about humanity's relationship with new technology. With all the news of Cambridge Analytica and the new Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom coming out soon, we should remember that blindly trusting "perfect systems" and "fail-safe technology" can be as dangerous as hiding from a Tyrannosaurus rex in an outdoor toilet.