Jurassic Park

If I ever teach a class in screenwriting, I will assign Jurassic Park for the day we discuss “Theme.”

A studio executive once said to me “Well, Jurassic Park is all well and good, but you know, in the end it’s not really about character.” And I nodded sagely as if I understood what she said and thought “No, it’s about dinosaurs.”

All of Spielberg’s films are strong on Theme, but usually there’s a lot more plot and character and incident and shape to them, so we don’t think about it so much. A lot of that is pared back to minimal levels in Jurassic Park, leaving Theme and Action to dominate.

Luckily, both Theme and Action in Jurassic Park are done pretty darn freaking well.

What is the Theme of Jurassic Park? Well, it’s not a secret. The Theme of Jurassic Park is Nature Vs. Technology (for those of you playing along, the theme of Lost World is Hunters Vs. Gatherers).

Every scene, almost every beat of every scene, practically every line of dialogue hits this theme over and over again. Sam Neill touches a computer screen and it flickers. “What’d I do?” he exclaims. “You touched it,” says Laura Dern. It plays as a spontaneous exchange but it’s subtly reinforcing the theme.

Every time someone or something tries to contain life, life breaks through and, more likely than not, goes on a rampage, with much blood and gnashing of teeth. Other times, life is cornered and killed (or nearly) with technology, as when the little boy is caught on the electric fence and zapped within an inch of his life.

On the way to the park, the helicopter plunges straight down into a canyon, and we spend about a minute watching the actors jostle and buckle their seatbelts. Why is the scene there? It contains no dinosaurs and no real suspense. No, the scene is there for one moment, when Sam Neill can’t find his seat belt buckle and has to figure out a way to strap himself in. Life, as Jeff Goldblum notes later, finds a way.

Soon afterward, the gang are locked into an amusement park ride, and respond by breaking the ride and going off on their own. Sam Neill gets out of a moving car as Jeff Goldblum notes, shocked, “Who could have predicted that?”

Even tiny little things, like when Samuel L. Jackson sits down at Wayne Knight’s desk and says “Ugh! Look at this workstation!” as he brushes a week’s worth of candy wrappers and soda cans to the floor. Wayne Knight may be a computer genius, but he’s also still a big fat slob and he will pollute his environment. (of course, the same scene features a not-so-subtle closeup of a photo of Oppenheimer, who knew a thing or two about the hazards of harnessing nature.) And while Jackson is trying to make sense of Knight’s desk, Knight is off in his Jeep (technology), being overwhelmed by a thunderstorm (nature), wiping the fog (nature) off his glasses (technology), with his hi-tech dinosaur-egg (nature) smuggling maguffin (technology) in his pocket.

See? And every scene is like that. When the gang first arrives on Jurassic Park, a shiny new Jeep pulls up with a big shiny dinosaur logo on the side. At the end, a similar Jeep pulls up to the visitor’s center, but now the logo is splattered with mud. Nature has won this battle.

Of course, the dinosaurs themselves are products of hugely sophisticated technology themselves, and the movie is a triumph of technology on its own level too.

And I have silverfish in my screening room.
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8 Responses to “Jurassic Park”
  1. gazblow says:

    Two comments

    1) Damn, Todd. You are smart. When I watch Jurassic Park, the first question I ask isn’t “What might be the theme of this movie?” it’s “Where’s the dope?” I feel like such a dumbshit after reading your blog and now depend on it for your keen insights. In the words of Wayne and Garth, “I’m not worthy.”

    2) Oooooohhh. Poor baby. You have silverfish in your *ahem* screening room? I have mouse turds in my hovel in Inwood.

  2. urbaniak says:

    Those silverfish are getting a grad school film education.

    • Todd says:

      Silverfish 1: What’d you think of Jurassic Park?
      Silverfish 2: I don’t get it. He’s a smart guy, he’s got this incredible library of DVDs, why does he sit around watching this commercial Hollywood stuff?
      S1: What’s wrong with it? It’s entertaining.
      S2: Look at this: Persona, Rashomon, Tokyo Story, Rules of the Game, what’s he doing watching The Money Pit?
      S1: Dunno, must be doing research for some project, what’s the matter with you? Guy that used to live here kept the set on ESPN all day.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Sigh. I wish I had the time to screen movies at will (in my own silverfish-infested screening room, no less) and then write about them at length afterwards. Actually, I do kind of do that; whenever I watch a movie for the first time, I jot down my thoughts in a notebook. At one point I considered posting those in my own LJ, but you’ve kind of stolen my thunder here — and you go into a lot more depth than I usually do. Then again, it doesn’t take much for me to feel inadequate lately.

    By the way, if you’re wondering what that sound is, it’s the world’s tiniest violin playing just for me.

  4. goodtoast says:

    As a random side note, a class I took last quarter (Dinosaurs 101) watched this movie, and not only did we discuss Dinosaurs, but we also discussed the themes. It was the English major in a room with science majors. Definetely one of the most amusing hours of my life.

  5. rennameeks says:

    Those must be best-educated silverfish in Los Angeles!

    I’m glad that you broke down just how deep the nature vs. technology theme goes in Jurassic Park. Hadn’t consciously realized it before. In its own way, because of subtle…or not so subtle…thematic brushes, JP is a tighter movie than it appears to be at first glance.

    *quietly cheers the use of the word Maguffin* 😀

  6. r_sikoryak says:

    So, Jurassic Park is about Nature Vs. Technology, and The Lost World is about Hunters Vs. Gatherers.
    And Jurassic Park III is about…
    93 minutes.

    Goodnight everybody!

  7. Todd says:

    Very funny.

    I’m pretty sure Jurassic Park III is about Family, although there’s a lot in there about cell phones, too.

    I haven’t analyzed the career of Joe Johnston yet.

    And Jurassic Park III, the IMDb says, is not the bloated, unwieldy 93 minutes that Mr. Sikoryak suggests. It is a trim, fleet 92 minutes.

    Hey, William H. Macy and Tea Leoni are in it, it can’t be all bad.