Spielberg: Jurassic Park part 1

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Like many Spielberg protagonists, Alan Grant has an obsession. In his case, dinosaurs. Nothing could possibly fulfill his dreams of a lifetime more than an island full of living dinosaurs. Over a wild 24 hours of adventure and terror, he comes to realize the price of his obsession, and the futility of it.free web site hit counter

As I have mentioned before, Jurassic Park is the most theme-heavy of movies from Spielberg, the most theme-heavy of directors. The theme here is “life finds a way,” specifically that life finds a way around the technology that tries to control and define it. Every scene in Jurassic Park, literally almost every shot, finds a way to express this theme in one way or another, sometimes subtly, sometimes with characters explicitly stating it in long complicated speeches.

Jurassic Park, like many of Spielberg’s movies, has four clearly-defined acts and goes like this:

ACT I (0:00-24:00) Act I of Jurassic Park is “let’s get everybody to the island.” The Problem arises in the first scene — a worker is attacked by a velociraptor, which leads to the unseen Investors getting panicked about the titular park, which leads to them hiring an oily lawyer to pressure island-owner and dinosaur-breeder John Hammond into making certain assurances, which leads to Hammond contacting a trio of scientists, including protagonist Alan Grant, and bribing them into coming to his island to give it their okay and calm down the investors so that the park can open and make everybody a fortune. There is a subplot introduced regarding disgruntled employee Dennis, who plans to smuggle dinosaur embryos off the island to sell to a rival company. The act climaxes when Grant sees the dinosaurs live in the flesh for the first time, and in that moment looks ready to follow antagonist Hammond to the ends of the earth.

ACT II (24:00-1:00:00) Grant, his girlfriend Ellie, chaotician Ian, the oily lawyer and two of Hammond’s grandchildren are led on a tour through the park. Nothing goes right and great emphasis is placed on the limits of technology. There are several long, expository scenes, some of them necessary to understanding the plot, some, mysteriously, not. Alan, although still clearly fascinated by the prospect of live dinosaurs, admits to having some qualms about the scientific value of bringing ancient life into the modern world. Dennis’s plot to smuggle embryos is set into motion. We learn that his plot involves shutting down the power for the entire island, a decision that leaves Alan, Ian, the lawyer and the kids stranded next to the T. Rex paddock, at night, in a rainstorm.

ACT III (1:00:00-1:28:00) Act III begins at the one-hour mark, on the dot, with one of the all-time greatest action-suspense scenes ever created, ten minutes of superbly-orchestrated brilliance, and we’re off to the races. From here on out, the concerns of Jurassic Park become largely mechanical and situational — and substantially more entertaining. After the attack of the T-Rex, we cut to another part of the island for Dennis’s death at the hands of a Dilophasaurus, then come back to Alan, who is stuck on the wrong side of civilization with the children, whom he will guide and guard for the remainder of the movie. At 1:14:00 we have another wonderful action-suspense scene involving an SUV in a tree, at 1:18:00 we have Ellie and Ian chased by a T-Rex. There is a respite as Alan finds a place to rest with the kids, and an end-of-third-act low point where Ellie and Hammond have a little heart-to-heart, complete with a death-of-my-kitten speech from Hammond.

ACT IV (1:28:00-2:00:00) The sun comes up and Alan and the kids are still alive in their resting place. Alan’s fascination with dinosaurs remains, in spite of everything. Meanwhile, Team B tries to figure out how to get reboot the island’s power supply. There’s another superb suspense scene where we crosscut between Alan trying to get the kids over an electric fence as Team B restarts the island’s generator. The velociraptors attack the park headquarters as Alan and the kids arrive safely. As Alan and Ellie see about getting off the island, the kids are attacked by velociraptors in the movie’s fourth or fifth virtuoso action-suspense scene. Alan and Ellie come back for the kids and are all attacked by the velociraptors again. The T-Rex becomes a sudden, unlikely ally in a moment of crisis and the group flees the island. Alan, we see, has had his obsession for dinosaurs dulled by his experience of the past 24 hours, and as he contemplates Hammond’s grandchildren he reflects that it’s probably just as well that his dream remains a dream.


0:00 – 3:28: The theme is stated visually in the very first scene. A bunch of workers (in their snappy Jurassic Park-brand hardhats) hold guns and peer nervously off into the distance at something scary coming through the bushes.What is it coming through the bushes? Is it a dinosaur? No, it’s just a forklift. A forklift carrying a dinosaur in a crate, but a forklift nonetheless. Dinosaurs, this scene says, are not the problem — the problem is the technology intruding into nature. Here, not only is the forklift shown knocking over trees to get through the jungle, but we see that it’s carrying that velociraptor in that box — and what do you know, the velociraptor finds a way to, if not get out of the box, at least exact some revenge on the men who put it there. Technology (men with guns, with corporate logo) in nature, face off not with nature but with another piece of technology (the forklift and box), which contains Life (the cranky velociraptor), which Finds A Way to get around the technology trying to control it.

5:30: Alan digs for velociraptor bones in the Badlands — with the help of the latest dinosaur-hunting technology. Which he doesn’t understand, and which seems to fail due to his merest touch. Alan, we see, is mistrustful of technology — he’s told that soon, due to technological advances, paleontologists won’t even have to dig for bones, to which he replies “Where’s the fun in that?” Alan sees that if technology advances far enough, life won’t have a chance — and yet he’s devoted his life to getting close to these creatures that obsess him.

9:08: The movie’s first expository scene, where Alan explains to a child why a velociraptor is scary, as though we might have a hard time believing it, given the evidence. The scene also serves to express Alan’s dislike of children — he pointedly terrorizes the kid as Ellie rolls her eyes. In the following scene he goes to absurd lengths to list the reasons he doesn’t want children, which Ellie, apparently, does.

I’ll admit I have a hard time connecting Alan’s growing affection for children to the theme of the movie. At the end of Act III, Alan pointedly gives up his dinosaur obsession in favor of protecting his unsolicited charges, but that speaks more to Alan’s Spielbergian obsession and less to the subject at hand. It’s almost as though the protagonist’s desire in Jurassic Park is more of a sub-plot, the “A-plot” being the technical explanation of how the dinosaurs came to be and why these folks are on the island.

10:30: Hammond appears, the jolly capitalist. He’s got lots of money and he’s going to make a lot more of it. Hammond is interesting to me as the kind of capitalist who thinks he’s really hit on something that isn’t evil, that somehow he’s managed to circumvent the age-old rule of capitalism, that business must be based on plunder and rape. He really thinks his park is a positive good and that he’s thought of every possible contingency. “Spared no expense” is his motto, catchphrase and sacred vow: he’s not just out to make a quick buck, he sees himself as a kind of Medici, bringing great works to a benighted world.

13:45: We meet Dennis Nedry and hear a little about his plan to abscond with the embryos. Wayne Knight’s performance is so broad and bizarre that it seems like it belongs in a different movie. I’ve seen Jurassic Park many times and I still have trouble assimilating it into the whole. I wonder if Spielberg saw some kind of problem with the role and felt that it had to be played this way in order for the movie to maintain the specific tone he was looking for, that perhaps if Dennis Nedry’s scheme was played straight the narrative might become too ponderous. Recently Spielberg has mentioned his affection for Dennis Weaver’s gonzo performance in Touch of Evil; I wonder if perhaps he was hoping to create his own Weaver-esque performance with Knight. Or maybe Knight just amused Spielberg with his delivery and Spielberg, on the set, simply pushed him to be bigger.

17:11: The “Jurassic Park” logo is on everything — helmets and jeeps and gates and signs and doors. This is a brilliant touch, because thevillain of the piece isn’t really technology but capitalism. Capitalism wishes to turn everything into a product, and the point of the narrative is that Hammond has attempted to put a logo on life itself. He’s much worse than Dr. Frankenstein: he doesn’t just want to create life, he also wants to market it as well, with all the trappings. Hammond knows that the world is fascinated by dinosaurs and he’s going to cater to that fascination, even though it’s clearly the wrong thing to do. Not coincidentally, the movie also knows that the world is fascinated by dinosaurs and plans to cater to that same fascination, and tell us it’s wrong, and reveal the disaster awaiting, and make tons of money off it anyway, partly through ticket sales and partly through, yes, slapping a “Jurassic Park” logo on everything conceivable.

20:24: Alan and Ellie see the Brachiosaurus. I love this scene. Sam Neill and Laura Dern play it perfectly. It’s not just that they are paleontologists being presented with the object of their fascination, its that Hammond has, somehow, managed to reach deep down inside their cerebral cortices and give them nothing less than their childhood dreams come true. And it, quite rightfully, staggers them. I certainly know how I feel when I see the scene — the gentle brachiosaur lumbering up the hill in the afternoon sun is exactly what I have imagined a living dinosaur would look like ever since I was a child, but far more poetic. The scene is crucial in setting up the protagonist’s dilemma, such as it is: we really want to see this, as much as the protagonist does. Good lord, who would not? When we see the brachiosaur, we, like Alan, are ready to do whatever it takes to see more. Spielberg is well aware of this, which is why he stages the scene with maximum beauty and emotional punch, then withholds the dinosaurs, for the most part, for the next 38 minutes of exposition and argument. He has our attention and he’s going to tease us until we can barely take it any more, and then he’s going to give us what we want in a way we absolutely don’t want it.

Which brings us to the end of Act I. More later.


15 Responses to “Spielberg: Jurassic Park part 1”
  1. Great analysis so far. I keep catching bits of this on TV, but I haven’t seen the whole thing since the mid-90s. Need to watch it again for real sometime.

  2. stormwyvern says:

    If “life finds a way” is indeed the theme of the film, then I think Alan’s eventual acceptance of children fits into it reasonably well. Life, after all, does not continue without procreation. The dinosaurs on the island are initially unable to procreate since technology had ensure that they’re all female (if I remember right; again, it’s been a long time since I saw the movie.) Nature continues to find its way around the echnology seeking to limit it by drawing on the dinos’ partially amphibian DNA to…what was it? Allow some dinos to change their sex? Anyways, Alan Grant is a person who doesn’t want to have children, which goes against the course of nature and the course of most movies. (There may be a puacity of films where a parent needs to spend less time with his or her children, but I can’t think of any films where an adult is allowed to keep believing that not having kids is the right option for him or her all the way to the end.) So between having to spend time with some kids and being in a primal, natural situation in the role of “prey”, Grant finds himself to work with and protect some children. By the film’s end, he is feeling much more positive towards them and probably ready to at least entertain the idea of having kids of his own. Life finds a way.

    Though it isn’t as bad as some films (the promotional campaign and related advertising tie-ins surrounding “The Grinch” being the most egregious example), I can certainly see the irony in a movie trying to convince us that rampant capitalism and branding are bad things while simultaneously tossing the Jurassic Park brand onto everything possible. Additionally, I think the movie fails to completely convince the audience that creating living dinos for public entertainment is am inherently bad idea. That’s partly because of the effectiveness of the scenes where both characters and audience marvel at the dinos, and partly because it seems like it would be remarkably easy to do abetter job by, say, not making carnivorous dinosaurs or not hiring Wayne Knight to work at the park.

    • Todd says:

      Life does indeed find a way to convince Alan to care for children, but that would be thematically resonant only if Alan were, in fact, a sophisticated robot designed to kill children. Which would be a plot thread from Westworld, not Jurassic Park (although they are, narratively, the same movie).

      • stormwyvern says:

        Well, if you see the theme of the film as “Life/Organic Creatures finding a way around Technology”, then no, Alan learning to accept children is not thematically resonant. But if you take a broader view of the theme as “Life/Nature find a way around Modern/Human World,” then I think it works. Otherwise, there’s no point to Alan laying out his nine billion reasons for not wanting children. If he just kind of disliked kids, I’d agree that the theme isn’t there. But even though he’s not a representative of technology or capitalism, Alan is still somewhat cut off from the natural world in his desire to ignore the mission of an organism to reproduce. His experiences on the island throw him into a primal situation where he must both survive and protect the young, which seems to reignite his dormant paternal instincts. When Alan discovers the dinosaur eggs where there should be none (and figures out how this happened surprisingly quickly), his reaction is not horror that there are going to be new generations of dinos without any human control, but wonder at the ability of nature to conquer the restrictions humans try to place on it. His line, if I remember it right, is actually “Nature found a way.” So it isn’t just organic vs. technological or life vs. death. It’s Nature battling and ultimately conquering the Modern World, be it in the form of an electrified fence or a paleontologist with no desire to procreate.

  3. charlequin says:

    Great analysis, especially on that last point with the brachiosaurus. I remember being utterly bowled over by this part when twelve-year-old me saw the movie for the first time.

    An interesting side note to the commercialization angle is the way that Jurassic Park represents the apex of the dinosaur in popular culture: on the one hand, it took an existing interest and blew it up like nothing ever had before, making dinosaurs omnipresent in every corner of the culture; on the other, dinosaurs have really just never been quite as cool since.

  4. teamwak says:

    I was blown away when I first saw this, and I know what you mean about the sense of wonder at seeing a dinosaur for the first time. You really feel their awe, along with you own (it was 1994()

    And I think the T Rex chasing the jeep is one of the great movie chases of all time. And parodied to perfection in Toy Story 2. lol

  5. craigjclark says:

    Re: Wayne Knight’s performance

    I once read in an interview that Knight wanted to be a lot more subtle, but Spielberg pushed him to go over the top with it. The way he giggles all the way through that first meeting with his contact was entirely Spielberg’s idea.

    • ogier30 says:

      Re: Wayne Knight’s performance

      It would also seem to fit with the general portrayal of the computer savvy during this time – Hackers anyone?

  6. moroccomole says:

    Since the Jurassic Park movie represents a meeting of cultural titans (Spielberg and Crichton), I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you have of how this movie captures an intersection between Jaws and The Andromeda Strain.

  7. greyaenigma says:

    Spared no expense except when it came to hiring an IT staff.


  8. chronoso says:

    EVERYthing conceivable

    i find it important to note that the jurrasic park toys actually had “JP” tattooed on what would have been their skin.


    if i recal, there was also an InGen logo, but i dont know that the dinos were branded with it or if just the vehicles (technology!) had it painted on.

  9. Anonymous says:

    When Alan sees the valley of lovely brachiosaurs, it is indeed a perfect moment, and he’s the audience stand-in character for every one of us — which is how it was intended. But I kept waiting for the other reaction to set in. He was a master of one of the few professions that was just made largely useless by this technological leap. Imagine an expert on horses, who’s only studied them through the footprints they leave behind, and an odd bone or two, but never actually bothered to go see a real one. Now try to imagine someone turning to that horse expert for any reason whatsoever.

    I kept waiting for that reaction to set in. Now it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I don’t recall if anything was ever said about it.

    Was it there and I’m just not recalling it? It would have been a great “be careful what you wish for” personal moment for him.

    The other great big flaw in the movie, and my one pet semi-minor peeve, comes (or is revealed) later, so I’ll wait until that chapter is discussed.

    I didn’t mind the over-the-top performance of Knight so much, since it could be reasonably extrapolated from the character as portrayed in the book and since at this time we were smack dab in the middle of “fat computer geek we can all despise” culture.

    Great movie though. Can’t do much better than the best running-from-dinosaurs movie ever made.

    Bill Willingham

    • crypticpress says:

      There is a joke or two about Alan being out of a job, or as Ian put it, “extinct.” But his only real reaction is looking at the velociraptor claw he’d always kept in his pocket and tossing it into the bushes.

  10. mikeyed says:

    Well, Dennis may seem unstable because one would have to be in order to abandon people on an island full of dinosaurs with no means of protecting themselves. You make the crazy guy act crazy, so to speak.

  11. Alan and Ellie see the Brachiosaurus. I love this scene. Sam Neill and Laura Dern play it perfectly. It’s not just that they are paleontologists being presented with the object of their fascination, its that Hammond has, somehow, managed to reach deep down inside their cerebral cortices and give them nothing less than their childhood dreams come true.

    It’s been said that Spielberg made his career by making films of people looking at things. (Neary and the spaceship, Brody’s “trombone” shot, the perplexed stare as Indy confronts a market square filled with baskets, etc.) But he totally nailed it with this scene. Everyone I know watched this scene with a huge, goofy, “cool!” grin plastered on their face. Grant’s utter surrender to the awesome sight of a living dinosaur is one of my favorite bits of cinema. Sam Neill completely got it right.

    [Digression] Have you considered doing an overview of the films of M. Night Shamylan? After watching THE HAPPENING, I realized that I’d love to read your take on his work. [/Digression]