in 1993 I had never read a Michael Crichton book before. But, I remember talking about it with my friend Steve as we sat enjoying some Klondike Kate’s nachos on the patio along Main Street, Newark. I was in my first of three senior years as an undergraduate and had just recently declared a major in biology. My interest in biology took the usual route: Beginning college as an undeclared student trying to get into a Physics or Civil Engineering major until I discovered that Calculus A for engineers was pretty damned hard if you didn’t study much and Physics wasn’t a picnic either if you didn’t have the Calculus under your belt already. That naturally led directly to my entry into the Philosophy department while I tried to figure out what the hell Philosophy majors did when they graduated (the answer is they sell insurance). Another thing Philosophy majors do is turn to scientists once they realize that Philosophy majors have to write long papers on boring dead men. Since I considered Biology too easy to be interesting, I tried something a little more exotic and took some entomology classes, which really engaged me. Unfortunately, it’s only the biology part of entomology that’s actually fun, otherwise it’s just a bunch of geeks catching bugs for college credit.
So, by the time I got around to actually declaring as a biology major, I had quite a few credits and had completed all of my requirements other than the major classes. So, I was a perfect zealot – completely immersed in biology and amongst a group of equally engaged friends. Actually, it was a great time. I didn’t mind studying biology – it was easy and fascinating – not to mention that several of us were highly competitive (Namely, Steve and I), so I had something to prove.
So, we sat, eating our nachos and talking about this new book, Jurassic Park that proposed a theoretically do-able method for bringing dinosaurs back from the dead.
Flash forward about twenty years. I’ve read the book and seen the movie a number of times, but this last time, I was really listening for the story. What’s the message of the film? -not just the content, which is cool, but fairly well entrenched in science fiction rather than science fact (see this article about the half-life of DNA for why).
What are the major themes in Jurassic Park?
1. Unpredictability- Jeff Goldblum is here to make sure that we understand that this is science (chaos theory), not just a literary device.
2. Social Responsibility – “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – again, thank Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum)
Chaos /Unpredictability gets explored at almost every turn – and why not? It’s not just a theme, but it’s also one of the best devices for keeping an audience engaged. It’s the film equivalent to writing a great jingle to sell hamburgers.
One of the first introductions we get to unpredictability is when the dinosaurs don’t show up for the tour. If you’ve ever been on a safari tour, this is pretty much what you can expect. The more interesting the animal, the less likely you are to see them.
(OK, I can’t remember the ‘hacker / nerd’s’ name, so I’m just going with Newman. That’s his name on Seinfeld and he’s never going to live that role down as long as he lives) Newman also gives us plenty of servings of chaos. He’s both a perpetrator and a victim of it. His very role is defined by greed and a willingness to betray his employer for profit. In order to do it, he arranges for a shutdown of all the park’s systems so he can sneak through security and deliver frozen embryos to a currier as a form of corporate espionage. Unfortunately for him, this means that he gives the attractions free range of the park during a heavy storm that gets him dangerously off track.
Not only does Newman’s chicanery lead to his own demise (come on, you’ve had twenty years to see this, it’s not a spoiler), but he also sets up everyone else to be in a world of trouble as the park’s most dangerous creatures figure out how to outwit technology-dependent humans at every turn.
What else adds to the chaos? Preternaturally intelligent dinosaurs, naturally foolish children, an over-ambitious Richard Attenborough, who lets his passion overwhelm his better judgement (come on – he sends his only grandchildren on the test tour of his dinosaur park). Ironically, a good portion of the action in this film takes place in what is referred to as the ‘control room’.
And, lastly, our other theme, social responsibility. This theme has come up in science fiction stories since Frankenstein (probably before). Because science pushes the frontiers of what is possible, it will regularly butt heads with social responsibility and morality. Should we be playing with the stuff of life (DNA)? Do we owe it to humanity to do everything we can to feed and maintain the health of our population? Doesn’t saving lives in the hospital just keep more ‘poor’ genes in the gene pool?
Goldblum comes up with the quote again saying that scientists don’t respect their power because they ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ – a quote attributed to Newton as he was disparaging his (short) rival, Robert Hooke.
I’d say that RT is right here. It really is a good film. It gives us an excellent blend of computer animation and puppets that makes the dinosaurs incredibly life-like, it follows some simple themes and hammers them well, the acting is fine, it contains enough levity to keep it from ever becoming a horror film inappropriate for younger viewers. And… did I say this? It has dinosaurs.
12 Down, 88 to go.