Jurassic Park
Tag: opinion

Wednesday Rewatch: Digging up the morality of Jurassic Park 25 years later

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Jun 6, 2018

Jurassic Park seems to have been around for millions of years, much like the dinosaurs it features. After it trampled into theaters in the summer of 1993, the prehistoric thriller spawned an entire franchise, though the first film will always be the dominant member of its species no matter how many sequels share its epic genes. You really can't beat the first time you see Brachiosaurus heads rising out of the mist.

Michael Crichton's novel about a theme park out of time that collapses in on itself when "life finds a way" became a monster smash after Steven Spielberg brought his vision of Crichton's work to the big screen. Critical responses roared their acclaim. And though some criticized the human characters as being dry bones next to the reanimated fossils that were the real stars, Jurassic Park went on to crush record after box office record and became the highest-grossing film of all time until Titanic sank it in 1997.

Jurassic Park raptor scene

Credit: Universal Pictures

FIRST WATCH

I wasn't allowed to see Jurassic Park when it first hatched in 1993. You can imagine the frustration of a dinosaur-obsessed eight-year-old whose friend dropped by screaming that she was going to see it in an hour, only to face a parental revolt because "dinosaurs eat people." When the forbidden movie finally came out on video, that same friend invited me over — she said nothing to the powers that be about what we were going to watch, or that we were also going to be inhaling chips, pretzels, and an entire bag of cheese puffs. Clever girl.

When you're eight years old with a herd of plastic dinos invading your room and The Land Before Time in your VCR, the one thing you're going to be watching for throughout an entire movie that questions the ethics of genetic engineering is, naturally, the dinosaurs. I knew nothing about DNA, but I had taken out every single dinosaur book that existed in the library. From the moment my friend pressed play, I was trembling with anticipation for the first dinosaur sighting. Everything else went right over my head.

Jurassic Park T-Rex scene

THE OFFICIAL REWATCH

My perception of Jurassic Park has evolved since the third grade. Back then, the extent of what my brain downloaded was dinosaurs, dinosaurs, some guy getting eaten by a dinosaur, and more dinosaurs. That first glimpse of a Brachiosaurus and the infamous Ford Explorer in the T-Rex's jaws have been forever fossilized in my memory no matter how many times I've put it on replay. So was the music. How can anyone who survived the ‘90s hear that majestic theme and not associate it with a theme park overrun by flesh-eating lizards?

What I was missing was the reason why creatures that had been extinct for 65 million years were roaming the earth on a movie screen in the first place. Jurassic Park isn't a film about dinosaurs. It is a powerful commentary on the possibilities of scientific advancement and the ethical implications lurking behind them, challenging us to think about the perils that lurk beyond the proverbial sign that reads DANGER: HIGH VOLTAGE.

Dinosaur films up until then had mostly been about the action. From a stop-motion T-Rex snapping a Pterodactyl out of the air in The Lost World to the dino-mutants of Godzilla and some extinct creatures in between, audiences wanted to see (and were used to) giant reptiles facing off. You have to admit it was kind of predictable, as a T-Rex seems inherently likely to get its opponent in the jugular.

Jurassic Park obviously wouldn't have gotten the PG-13 rating that doomed me that summer if there weren't plenty of teeth gnashing, but the difference in these attacks is the purpose. They are, above all, a warning of what could happen if we tamper with the natural order. Humans don't just end up as appetizers for entertainment value.

NOTABLE MENTIONS

Brachiosaurus — When something shocks a paleontologist and paleobotanist, you know it has to be huge. Literally. Grant (Sam Neill) gets to his feet in the backseat, rips off his hat and sunglasses, and physically turn Ellie Satler's (Laura Dern) head to get an eyeful of a towering Brachiosaurus. Just imagine the shock if the most scholarly reaction you can get out of a paleontologist is: "It's — it's a dinosaur."

By the way, the only corporeal part of that Brachiosaur is its enormous animatronic head, designed by Stan Winston's team of artists, which Lex and Timmy find safe enough to touch after they narrowly escape being devoured by the park's main attraction.

That soundtrack — Watching this animatronic reptile slowly fill the screen to John Williams' unforgettable music is an experience. Williams wanted to compose a score that would reflect the awe and majesty of seeing a dinosaur in the flesh, and to say he succeeded is an understatement. There is nothing more perfectly timed than that music reaching a crescendo when Grant, who almost fainted when he saw one dinosaur, raises his head and realizes he is breathing in a panoramic scene that last happened at least 65 million years ago.

Mr. DNA — That talking double helix followed by a Disney-esque ride that moves past the InGen lab was another thing that completely lost me when I first saw this movie. I was still mesmerized by what had just emerged in the previous scene. Not that I was going to understand anything about preserved mosquito guts containing blood with the genetic code of an extinct animal as a child. Now I get where the scientific dissonance is coming from. While filling the gaps in a strand of dino DNA with frog genes could be theoretically possible, how much frog are we talking about, and how much dinosaur?

You eventually find out the unintended side effect of merging dinosaurs with African bullfrogs, though Grant's question about how exactly you can interrupt the cellular mitosis going on in an egg also never gets answered. That kind of goes to the wayside when he sees one hatch.

Raptors hatching — Of course, I wanted a baby raptor when I first saw it cracking its eggshell. What kid who evaded their parents' rules to watch this movie didn't? Ironically, this scene gives me the chills now because I've realized what it actually foreshadows. There is just something so wrong with Hammond's (Richard Attenborough) excitement about reanimating a creature that should have stayed extinct. He isn't just hatching an irresistibly creepy-cute raptor, but making a dangerous dream tangible and allowing it to run wild. That tiny dinosaur is the chaos Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) fears just beginning to claw its way out.

Dennis Nedry— You can't not love to hate the slimy Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) and his Hawaiian shirts. Again, I never really understood what his machinations were with my limited brain capacity back then because anything related to humans in this movie was automatically boring, but it made him so much eviler when I finally did. Can you even imagine what sort of destruction he would have unleashed if that Dilophosuarus hadn't spat in his face and made him dinner before he could smuggle a Cryocan full of viable dinosaur embryos out of the park?

Something I never really noticed even after all the times I've seen this movie since 1993 is that a flash of the lizard surprising Nedry in his stolen Jeep is immediately followed by a mudslide near the river. You decide whether or not the connection to Nedry probably losing it in his pants was intentional.

T-Rex — The poster child of Jurassic Park that made me gasp in awe as a kid was another Stan Winston creation. The fully functional T-Rex animatronic had dimensions similar to those of the actual dinosaur, looming over Grant's overturned Ford Explorer at almost 17 feet tall and 40 feet long. It weighed a gargantuan nine tons and could really crush things in its teeth.

Side note: Like most of the walking anachronisms in the film, it really terrorized the earth during the Cretaceous period as opposed to the Jurassic. But we'll let them have this one because who wants a dinosaur theme park without a T-Rex? And "Jurassic Park" sounds so much better than "Cretaceous Park."

While I have to admit that the younger version of myself was jealous of those fictional kids interacting with dinosaurs in a fictional park, I can now imagine the surge of raw fear that anyone shut in a car being chewed on by a predator too eager to make you its next meal. For years I passed off that scene with Gennaro ending up in its maw as nothing more than another element of shock until I understood his unsavory motives. And then I thought it served him right. I am a horrible person.

Velociraptors in the kitchen — When you get up close and personal with dinosaurs, you have to take the carnivores with the herbivores — the things that could kill you with the things you can pet. Even being Miss Dinosaur as I was back then, I obviously didn't envy those kids anymore by the time they were trembling and panting as two oversized lizards stalked through the kitchen. I was panting right along with them until their unlikely (and inhuman) hero came crashing in.

The T-Rex brings down the visitor center and sinks its teeth into one of the Raptors, giving Lex, Timmy, and the others the opportunity to escape. Not that I condone bringing back a dinosaur fearsome enough to freak people out as an articulated skeleton, but I still want to scream for the beast every time I see it shred that raptor and unknowingly let a prime eating opportunity go. Now that's awesome.

Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

THE TAKEAWAY

"'Ooh, ah,' that's how it always starts. But then later there's running and screaming." – Ian Malcolm, The Lost World: Jurassic Park

While that quote may be from the sequel, it encapsulates my reaction to Jurassic Park when my virgin eyes first saw it versus my reaction as an adult who actually pays attention. It has no less movie magic than I remember as an awestruck little girl but is also much more unsettling when you actually realize that this is a cautionary tale about boundaries and consequences.

What now strikes me as even scarier than a ravenous carnivore is the questionable ethics and motives of the human catalysts. They set in motion a phenomenon that should have never happened, their crimes ranging from ignorance and neglect to outright scheming. Hammond and Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) are convinced this is all for science and blinded to potential consequences. Gennaro believes the end justified the means because the end was money, never mind that the means was a so-called theme park infested with predators. Nedry was so gluttonous for a payday he committed the ultimate betrayal in trying to escape with those embryos.

Dinosaurs didn't survive the aftermath of that killer asteroid for a reason. Jurassic Park is a graphic visual of what could happen if someone started artificially reordering the biological timeline and necromancing things that should stay fossils. It is also a greater metaphor for any experiments whose effects could be irreversible. There are some things that just shouldn't be messed with.