It doesn't take a scholar to deduce that Steven Spielberg was one of the last great movie makers of the 20th century. Ask anybody, especially children raised through the nineties, what their favorite Spielberg film is and you'll likely hear the words "Jurassic Park". In many ways it was the perfect film to inaugurate the election of Bill Clinton, baby boomer extraordinaire. Like the Clinton Administration, Jurassic Park offered excess, escape, dramatic returns, and above all, spectacle. High art may have its devoted audience, but spectacle is universal. Jurassic Park is one of the highest grossing films of all time, and continues to earn income as a successful franchise long after its 1993 debut. In fact, a fourth film in the franchise is due for theatrical debut next year (2015)
Alas, Jurassic Park, the original film, is short on plot continuity. So distracted by the spectacle, and then panic, of dinosaurs set loose in an anthropocenic world, the audience neglects to remember or even notice certain character realities. This is where the film begins to really signify. But how?
It's still difficult for me to understand why the notion of dinosaurs brought back from extinction is so pleasurable. Why is a T-Rex unleashed from its paddock so interesting? Perhaps we can intellectualize it as the struggle between God and Man. Or we can think of it, as fictional mathematician Ian Malcolm explains, as a perfect metaphor for the nature of Chaos. But none of these ideas explain the quiet joy and excitement I feel when watching this movie. The answer I think is Proustian–both overtly literary, and having to do with my own involuntary memory of my encounter with the dinosaur. Let's begin with the overtly literary, and devolve into the subconscious.
The film was based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, published in 1990. With an iconic cover from Knopf's prolific associate art director Chip Kidd, and a wildly contrived (marvelous) plot, Michael Crichton's novel became a best-seller.
The novel began as Crichton conceived a screenplay about a graduate student who recreates a dinosaur in 1983. Eventually, given his reasoning that genetic research is expensive and "there is no pressing need to create a dinosaur", Crichton concluded that it would emerge from a "desire to entertain", leading to a wildlife park of extinct animals. –Wikipedia
Of course, as previously suggested, Crichton is retrieving themes from Herman Melville's Moby Dick; or, the Whale and Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Few stories hold our contemporary imagination the way Shelley's monstrosity has. So, as mentioned in the above quote (taken from DVD commentary), Crichton reasoned that our only reason to reconstruct these extinct beings would be for the purpose of mass entertainment.
Here I depart from fact and enter my own subconscious. The years of the nineties in America were dominated by nothing if not surplus and entertainment. I was a privileged child and the mere memory of that period makes me nostalgic for an easier time–a time when I never went without, when there was always a marketing wizard behind every brand, when one could enter a Blockbuster and revel in the impossible potential tucked between the shelves. I visited Disney World with my family. I love[d] Harry Potter. I was photographed while on roller coasters. I had fabricated fun before 2001.
Sociologists and theorists differ on the when and where of the so-called millennial generation, but it is generally accepted that these millennials were reared sometime in the nineties. I often want to excuse myself from this largely misunderstood, or not yet understood "generation". But, even if classified against my will, I am, in many ways, a textbook millennial–a privileged child of the nineties who lived through the catastrophic events of the new millennium, struggling in the early aughts and teens to deal with a radically different economy than the one I was raised in. The millennial is generally depicted as inept, spoiled, and overly-sensitive as the result of a sheltered childhood. Whether you agree with this depiction or not is inconsequential. The fact is that a generation of Americans who grew up knowing only surplus, would later experience dramatic debt/poverty, recession, and political paranoia in young adulthood. So Crichton's quintessentially 90's vision for the doomed mass-opiate of a Dinosaur Theme Park, combined with Spielberg's gift for grandiosity, made for a winning formula, a lasting metaphor for the calm-before-the-storm of our [my] childhood[s].
Which brings us to the film's significance. Jurassic Park is a film about poor parenting and childhood trauma. Let's remember the children in the film, Lex and Tim. There are several key scenes in which they are disdained and abandoned by their guardians. The first of these is the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex escape/reveal scene. Lex and Tim are left to protect themselves in an automated jeep while the T-Rex tramps suspiciously about. Attempts to rescue the children are uncoordinated and lead to further injury and fatality. Fortunately the children are rescued. Bruised, terrified, but rescued.
Yet another scene sees poor Tim catapulted from an electrified fence, his ears bloody, hair shocked, everywhere singed and shaken.
In the most flagrant and telling abandonment of the children, Grant leaves them in an open pavilion full of food while he goes to rendezvous with other adults–he leaves no explanation as to where he'll be or when he'll be back. He simply leaves them behind. And wouldn't you know it, just like millennials, the children gravitate toward the dessert table, completely disregarding the seemingly nutritious food on the table behind them (refined flour products, iceberg lettuce, salad dressings) Naturally, after the harrowing events of their exodus, they want something pleasing, something sweet and not at all nutritious, but smile-inducing. The camera pans across the table from Lex, eating green Jell-O, to Tim, eating spoonfuls of soupy vanilla ice cream, when Tim...O Poor Tim!...freezes, mid-spoonful, in fear. He has spotted the moving shadow of what looks like a deadly, stalking, velociraptor behind his sister. The camera captures Lex's reaction shot, letting the audience know that they now both know–they are [again] fucked.
Meanwhile Grant has found his unofficial partner, paleobotanist Sattler, and is now armed with shotguns. Neither gives a thought to the whereabouts and well-being of the children. The kids, yet again, narrowly escape and find the adults, culminating in the reunion of the home. A mother figure, father figure, two children (boy and girl). Almost ideal, each of them traumatized.
Finally, to add insult to injury, the adults must rely on Lex's computer savvy to lock the automated doors. Their adult technological ineptitude necessitates the presence and expertise of the children who are still young and clever enough to understand Operating Systems.
Clearly Jurassic Park is a masterful film, but its significance, some 20 years later, is that of a sad portrait of millennial reality. Jurassic Park can be thought of as a film among films in the 90's that, in a strange way, precede and mirror the terrible events that follow in the mouth of the new millennium. The collapse of our economy due to greed and thoughtlessness, the effects of trauma and national paranoia on children, and overly ambitious systems in the hands of tyrannical, unchecked authority. Perhaps we're still running from dinosaurs, in the direction of other dinosaurs.
Thank you for reading with us!
Join us next time for "The Zealot's Guide to Left Behind"