It isn’t a stretch to say that Steven Spielberg is the father of the franchise film — the Jaws, Indianna Jones, and Jurassic Park franchises are all some of the most successful of all time. Following its 1993 release, Jurassic Park has since spawned three (soon to be five) sequels, the most recent being Collin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, which was notable only in its mediocrity.
To my mind, Jurassic Park is the perfect Hollywood movie and has never been topped before or since. There are multiple reasons for this: its swelling John Williams score and charming performances are timeless, the special effects — practical or CG — still hold up today and even surpass many modern efforts of big-budget movies. Phil Tippett, who was originally hired to produce stop-motion animatics for the dinosaurs, was replaced during the film’s production by digital artists from ILM. It was said that when Spielberg and Tippett saw a digital animatic of the T. rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, Spielberg said, “you’re out of a job,” to which Tippett replied, “don’t you mean extinct?” This exchange was later worked into the script as a conversation between Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm.
Quite simply, it is a visual, narrative and principled masterpiece, the likes of which we will probably never experience again. Before the film was even released, it was billed as one of the biggest of all time. In a post-release report for Empire magazine in 1993, Rufus Sears described it as “already-legendary” after witnessing its production process and because it made more money on its opening weekend than any film in history at that point. There is, however, more to this picture than fiscal profit — below are three reasons why.
Moral Story And Characters
The moral elements of Jurassic Park — present in both book and film — are well documented at this point, as they all essentially boil down to 1) playing God with nature is a bad idea, and 2) corporate greed should not prevail at the expense of humanity (ironic given that the Jurassic Park franchise is now one of the biggest going, but more on that later).
What I want to touch on here, though, are the moral compasses within the movie’s characters. Of them all, Sam Neil’s performance as paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant and Laura Dern’s paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler are both masterclasses in not only playing the moral epicenter of a story, but also in representing the audience.
From the minute John Hammond (Richard Attenborough’s industrialist-turned-Walt Disney showman) touches down his personal helicopter in the Badlands, they are skeptical, not only of the kind of person who would land a chopper in the middle of a paleontological dig site, but also of the contents of the park itself. Yes, Hammond all but bribes them into coming with him by offering to fund Grant and Sattler’s dig for a further three years, but it’s a small moral blemish that Hammond remains quiet about the true nature of the park. They are, naturally, bowled over by what they find — the scene where we first see the colossal Brachiosaurus, bathed in the golden light of a tropical sunset and set to John Williams’ delicate theme, at once captures the majesty of this piece of cinema. Welcome to Jurassic Park.
From there, however, the couple are the only ones of the group who truly question the morality of the park (Malcolm tries, but is too preoccupied with either hitting on Ellie or spouting some garbage about chaos theory). “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?” poses Grant while the group discuss the park’s commercial viability at a no-expense-spared dinner.
Then there’s Grant’s effective character arc, which sees him having to protect Hammond’s grandchildren despite coming to terms with the possibility of one day having children with Ellie. This thought in particular is apparently scarier than facing live dinosaurs if his near-allergic reaction to Tim and Lex at the beginning of the film is anything to go by (compared to his morbid fascination with being just yards away from a feeding Tyrannosaur). He fancies himself a stoic spectator of nature, not a custodian.
Feminism And Equality
While many argued that Jurassic World was a feminist movie because one of its protagonists, Claire (played by Bryce Dallas-Howard), was a woman in an executive position, she still spent the whole movie being told what to do by man after man. This wouldn’t be such a problem if she was given the chance to defend herself by the screenwriters, but she wasn’t. She was only permitted to tell a male employee to “be a man for once,” because apparently two wrongs do make a right according to Colin Trevorrow.
Jurassic Park, on the other hand, deals far more even-handedly. Laura Dern plays a woman who, although having to eye-roll her way through half of the movie, gives as good as she gets and beyond, swatting away Malcolm’s advances with ease. She also has time to restore power to the park’s failing electricity grid while outrunning Velociraptors and scolding Hammond on the topic of sexism in survival situations.
She is a driving force for the movie rather than a love interest, mother or archetypal female in a Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, it is Grant who takes on the role of the mother, shepherding the young children through the park and keeping them from harm, all while Sattler takes point in getting off the island and back to the mainland. Even when the story is at its fervent conclusion, it is the young girl Lex, a veritable computer whizz and self-proclaimed “hacker,” who saves the adults from death-by-raptor after reactivating the compounds’ electronic door locks.
Human characters aside, there is also the fact that every dinosaur in the park is female, yet find a way to breed regardless — a true matriarchal society and a fine way of putting every man on Isla Nublar in his place. In summary, Jurassic Park shuns expectations both as a movie and as a metaphor for breaking past the shackles of patriarchy.
The Pinnacle And Parody Of Hollywood
Jurassic Park may be the pinnacle of modern Hollywood, but it could also be a parody of the business itself. Beloved as it is by a generation of directors and fans, today the franchise is seemingly flouting the principle lessons that both the book and original picture precisely extolled. The center of both was not only a stark warning about the morality of genetic experimentation, but also about greed, lazy money and exercising restraint.
Jeff Goldblum’s charismatic performance as Ian Malcolm serves not only as the film’s comic relief but also as a (perhaps on-the-nose) harbinger of ‘90s sensibility. During the board-room scene following the group’s first experience of the park, he makes a speech which dumps this moral quandary onto the viewers’ lap, and in so doing presciently highlights the very problem that the Jurassic Park franchise now faces. To quote Michael Crichton and David Koepp’s screenplay:
“I’ll tell you the problem with the power you’re using here, it didn’t take any discipline to obtain it.
“You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any of the responsibility for it.”
Regardless of the successes Jurassic Park’s sequels, none of them required discipline to obtain. Of course, there is great discipline and dedication by those cast and crew involved in the production process, but to further paraphrase Crichton and Koepp: they stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as they could, and before they even knew what they had they “patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunch box.” Now they’re selling it, quickly and voraciously, like the velociraptors which will now stalk every Jurassic Park movie until the human race gets incredibly bored.
To cite Sears’s set report once more, the journalist draws particular attention to the scene where the camera pans across a shelf filled with Jurassic Park lunch-boxes, t-shirts and fluffy toys, “trinkets that could literally be plucked from the set and sent to Hamley’s to sell on the back of Jurassic Park The Movie.” It’s all an illusion.
Now, this could all either be seen as serendipity, given Jurassic Park’s already legendary status, or something far more prescient on the part of Spielberg, Koepp and Crichton, considering that the Jurassic Park franchise has now sailed past $3.5 billion at the worldwide box office. Whether you think it’s poking fun at Hollywood or not, Spielberg not only expertly adapted a best-selling novel laced with humor, morality and humanity, but also brought into clear and uncomfortable focus the extraordinarily intertwined relationship between books, films, theme parks, merchandising and marketing.
What do you think makes Jurassic Park such a classic?