Spielberg: Jurassic Park part 2

It sounds kind of dumb to say it, but it occurs to me upon reflection that Jurassic Park is a movie of ideas. It sounds kind of dumb because it doesn’t seem like a movie that involves chases, crashes and giant stomping lizards could be considered about “ideas.”free web site hit counter

And yet, look at our protagonist. Alan Grant is, if not passive exactly, then reactive throughout the narrative. In Act I he gets rooked into coming to the island by a manipulative John Hammond, in Act II he sighs and kvells as he gets squired about the park, in Act III he flees from dinosaurs, and in Act IV he guides the children back to the camp. He’s not even there for the penultimate set-piece where the kids are terrorized by the velociraptors in the kitchen.

That’s not a very strong through-line for a protagonist of a movie that one expects to make a billion dollars, but what are the alternatives?

John Hammond is a much more likely protagonist — it’s his park, after all — but he’s even more passive than Alan. He spends most of the movie fretting at headquarters while the others cavort about the island. Ellie is clearly “the girlfriend,” that most depressing of female leads, Ian is injured at the top of Act III and remains reactive for the rest of the movie.

We could, perhaps, say that the movie has multiple protagonists, but really all of their through-lines are weak and Alan’s is definitely presented as the “a-story.” And yet his “arc” — his gradual acceptance of children — has little or nothing to do with the “big ideas” of the movie (cloning, the limits of technology to control nature, the inevitable evil of capitalism, etc).

And yet, the movie is hugely effective, for which one must gives props to Spielberg. He took a script with a reactive protagonist with no clear through-line and turned it into a terrific thriller and one of the biggest box-office smashes of all time. The “ideas” of Jurassic Park were ones the audience were, apparently, ready to receive, and they are given center stage through the whole first half of the movie.

(This is also why Theme is so prominent in the movie. In fact, we could say that Theme is, in fact, the “star” of Jurassic Park.)

So where were we? Paleontologist Alan Grant has been lured by super-science capitalist John Hammond to Jurassic Park. Hammond has exploited Alan’s life-long fascination of dinosaurs to ensure his park’s success in the face of possible lawsuits and, while Alan has some doubts about the project, he cannot stop swooning like a little kid when faced with the prospect of a live dinosaur.

Moving forward into Act II:

24:00: Hammond shows the team a video presentation that explains the science behind the park. This is a scene of dense exposition, exposition without which we would not understand the action. Spielberg makes it tolerable (on a first viewing, anyway) by presenting it as a pitch-perfect send-up of grade-school science movies like Frank Capra’s Wonders of Life series. He also makes the scene thematically relevant by having the video’s audience break out of their mechanical restraints to get at the reality behind the image.

27:50: Alan gets to hold a baby velociraptor in his hands (although its egg is snatched away by a robot hand) and chaotician Ian Malcolm delivers a stern warning about the dangers of Hammond’s enterprise.

32:50: The velociraptors are presented but not shown, in order to keep their mystery and terror at a maximum. Muldoon, the big-game hunter who’s in charge of keeping the velociraptors in line, is here charged with delivering another long expository scene about the nature of velociraptors.

34:28: The principles dine while strangely old-fashioned slide shows play on the walls of the restaurant. In another remarkably long expository scene, they argue about the morality of Hammond’s enterprise.

38:00 The kids arrive, and Alan does his best to avoid them — and fails. They look at him as a rock star as he grows visibly uncomfortable.

We learn that not only is Dennis Nedry involved in a nefarious plot to steal dinosaur embryos, he is the only IT guy employed by Ingen. Yes, at a theme park designed to cater to tens of thousands of visitors a year, with a museum and a restaurant and a motorized tour and a sophisticated audio-visual setup and dozens of laboratories staffed by scores of Ph-D-level scientists, with a heliport and pilots and boats and a dock and drivers and office staff and cooks and caterers and waitstaff and god knows what else, there is one IT guy, without whom Jurassic Park would founder.

The tour gets underway, and Ian delivers yet another long expository speech, this one about chaos theory. Now, I read the novel Jurassic Park and I’ve seen the movie many times and I’ve read The Lost World and seen its movie many times as well, and it’s still unclear to me why Ian Malcolm needs to be on these trips. First, it’s unclear to me why Hammond’s board demands that, of the three experts brought to the island for the tour, one is a paleontologist , one is a paleobotanist and the third is a chaotician. What board member suggested that? What Ingen board member stood his ground and said “unless we get the approval of an expert in chaos theory, this park will not open!”? What does chaos theory really have to do with what happens in Jurassic Park? I don’t mean in terms of “ideas” that the author wishes to discuss, I mean in narrative terms. There is, as far as I can see, nothing that happens in the narrative that requires the application of chaos theory. There’s a T-Rex chasing your jeep, your understanding of chaos isn’t really going to change anything. Ian’s actions in Jurassic Park, as I see them, are: he complains about what Hammond has done here, he makes a pass at Ellie, he delivers a speech that has nothing to do with anything, he gets attacked by a dinosaur, and he helps Ellie negotiate the power shed. Strangely, he is the only one asked back for the sequel, which calls for his expertise even less.

We meet a sick triceratops, and Ellie gets her moment to shine, if by “shining” you mean handling a detective scene about what’s bugging the triceratops. Significant screen-time is devoted to Ellie’s expertise in botany and animal diseases, and yet the mystery of the sick triceratops is left unsolved and unmentioned again. I understand that, at the root of the narrative, there is an argument being made about capitalist-driven science pressing ahead into areas it doesn’t understand, and how a simple decision at the inception of a project leads to all sorts of unintended consequences down the road (which is what Ian is doing there), but as the narrative of Jurassic Park develops, the sick dinosaurs (which turn up later as well) and the discussion of chaos theory become window dressing that add little to the narrative, except as fuel to feed the tensions between the scientists and Hammond. But let’s face it: a movie that involves people being chased by dinosaurs doesn’t also need lessons in mathematics to help “sell” the drama of science-vs-capital or technology-vs-nature.

52:00 — A storm is coming in, and everyone leaves the island. What? Come again? There is a storm coming, severe enough to force the entire park staff to leave the island, yet Hammond is still going to let his crucial, all-important park tour continue?

54:00 — Ellie splits off from the group to go look for triceratops clues, while Ian chats with Alan about family. Ian, it seems, has many families, many ex-wives and children, and seems perfectly comfortable with that reality. Alan, on the other hand, still can’t quite stomach the notion of children at all. His life is his work — or, more properly, his obsession.

It’s worth noting that, while the movie supposes that technology fails in the face of the power of nature, it is, in fact, not “technology” that fails at Jurassic Park — it’s Dennis Nedry. For all the narratives high-minded notions of chaos theory and the complexities of ecosystems, the failure of the park comes down to a fat guy shutting down the system so that he can swipe some embryos.

(There is, pointedly, a photo of Oppenheimer stuck to Dennis’s monitor. I noticed it and understood its implication from the first time I saw the movie, but it wasn’t until this time around that I noticed the post-it attached to the photo, a note that reads “Beginning of the Baby Boom.” That is, the birth of the atomic bomb, to the unnamed post-it author, was a sort of biological Big Bang, a technological explosion that led, somehow, to a biological explosion. Which also ties in to Ian’s theories, but still does not explain his narrative purpose.)

And now let me pause here, half-way through the movie, to address the latest episode of Venture Bros, and pick this up later.


38 Responses to “Spielberg: Jurassic Park part 2”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    I wish you’d stop calling them scientists. They’re not convincing scientists for me. Once again, Hollywood proves that it doesn’t know a thing about scientists, despite the presence of UCLA and a lot of research institutions not too far from it. It doesn’t want to know a thing about them.

    On the other hand, the fat nerdy guy who dreams of using his IT omnipotence to gain riches (and a den of sin, perhaps) is convincing as hell to me. He’s a concentration of a lot of math-strong, fat/sickly/smelly IT guys I’ve met or read about.

    Same thing with the position of omnipotence he’s found himself in. There are so many places out there where, by accident or design all the true IT power (invisibly off the org charts) has fallen into the hands of an extremely small number who really know how the OS systems and the networks function. They actually like to know about stuff like that. They do bother to read the manuals and they do have the little extra bit of intelligence needed to understand the math they read.

    • travisezell says:

      Personally, I have to agree with Todd; I found Dennis the IT guy a cartoon character at best.

      And while I’m being contrary, I think it’s worth noting that this isn’t (to me) a case of “Hollywood prov[ing] it doesn’t know a thing about scientists” so much as Hollywood proving it knows real scientists don’t make adventure heroes. I’m not even sure a “real scientist” would make a good protagonist of any kind, dramatically/cinematically speaking. The last thing they’re going to do is act with consequences.

      A movie isn’t showing you reality, it’s showing you a shorthand of reality to make a point, at best. And in cases like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones movies, I don’t think the intent was ever to give lessons in or proper representations of paleontology or archeology.

  2. mimitabu says:

    “What does chaos theory really have to do with what happens in Jurassic Park? I don’t mean in terms of “ideas” that the author wishes to discuss, I mean in narrative terms. There is, as far as I can see, nothing that happens in the narrative that requires the application of chaos theory.”

    what’s worse is that his inclusion on the team presupposes that someone on the board has already thought of the themes in the movie and expects some crazy random detail to fuck everything up. unless you (as you are meant to) just don’t question ian’s presence at all, you’re more or less forced to either accept that someone already saw the danger that ian points out (someone who prefers to notify everyone of the danger not by simply telling them or refusing to approve funding, but by hiring someone predisposed towards appreciating the unpredictability of reality to go to the island and whine at people), or acknowledge that his presence as flatly inappropriate.

    as for the “1 IT guy” thing, there’s always the “given the current technology, only this one genius could do the required tasks!” excuse. i love that excuse.

    • Todd says:

      Oh sure, there are unlimited genetic engineers available to clone dinosaurs, but IT guys are scarce as hen’s teeth.

      • mimitabu says:

        it’s a terrible excuse, but i love the trump card aspect of it, and the “see, we’re talking about SUPER ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY!” second bird with the same stone aspect.

        really, i have no idea why he’s the only IT guy in jurassic park though. whatever narrative economy it provides could be taken care of with like 1 line of dialogue or ad hoc detail. it’s such an unnecessary plot hole that it’s baffling.

        • Anonymous says:

          Wasn’t Sam Jackson another IT guy?

          • Todd says:

            He seemed to be familiar with the system, but he also seemed to be more of a general manager. Dennis was the guy who wrote all the programming, Sam (“Mr. Arnold”) seemed to know more about park operations.

        • travisezell says:

          Let’s also note that the daughter was fully capable and excited about the so-called “Unix platform” (if memory serves), that she in fact could navigate the “super advanced technology” simply by looking at it, somewhat negating the brilliance and scarcity of Nedry’s position.

  3. black13 says:

    I agree about Ian (however, from what I had heard, they only brought back Jeff Goldblum’s character for the sequel because neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern were interested), but Nedry being the only IT guy there kind of makes sense if you presuppose that everyone else had gone ashore for the weekend, he had volunteered to stay behind to hatch his egg-stealing plot (and he possibly made the other IT guys go away, so he can do it undisturbed), and besides they sort-of had Sam Jackson as Nedy’s backup.

    On the other hand, that puts too much responsibility of connecting the dots on the audience.

    And would today’s Sam Jackson still be eaten by dinosaurs?

    • Todd says:

      My memory is that Crichton liked Goldblum’s performance in Jurassic so much that he intentionally made him the protagonist of the novel The Lost World.

      Nedry isn’t just the only IT guy on the island, he’s the only IT guy at Ingen. When the system goes down, Hammond asks Sam Jackson to see if “any of the guys at Harvard” are available to sort out the mess — he has no one else on staff.

      Today’s Sam Jackson would, of course, eat dinosaurs before he was eaten. But then, there’s the Sam Jackson of Deep Blue Sea.

      • My memory is that Crichton liked Goldblum’s performance in Jurassic so much that he intentionally made him the protagonist of the novel The Lost World.

        Malcolm’s presence as lead of the novel The Lost World is even odder considering that in the novel Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm dies from his wounds and doesn’t make it off the island, so Crichton’s novel is really a sequel to the movie, and not his own book.

        I’m fairly sure that several of the loose ends you mention are actually dealt with at length in the book (I know the sick dinosaur plot is, I think the presence of the chaotician is, and maybe the “one IT guy” is, but I’m less sure about that) – and it always struck me odd that they bring up the sick dinosaur plot and then drop it – there’s a shot in the trailer not in the final film that implies more of this thread was shot; maybe it was only kept because they didn’t have another way to separate Grant and Ellie for the evening of the attacks.

        • taschoene says:

          Crichton’s novel is really a sequel to the movie, and not his own book.

          Nothing unique in that. Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010 is clearly a sequel to the film version of 2001, not to his own novel of the same name (the movie and film versions of 2001 differ on such basic details as which planet the mission goes to.)

          • gdh says:

            Of course, the famous “My God, It’s Full Of Stars!” line which gets referenced in 2010 only occurs in the book version of 2001…

        • I remember feeling very lost myself reading “The Lost World” when I was younger. Worst still, I had seen the movie of Jurassic Park first, then read the book, and then read Lost World, all in relatively quick succession.

          I was very confused as to why Ian was alive for the second book, as I remembered thinking that a lot of who lives in the movie, died in the book, and vice-versa. I loved Muldoon, easily my favourite character in both book and movie. Gets munched in the movie, flies home safely (possibly without a wound) in the book. Hammond: lives in the movie, dies in the book. Nedry… dies in both. Ah well.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    And Nedry doesn’t even fail — he probably would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids the weather. What really fails is Hammond’s ability to not spare expense. It’s arguable that Nedry would have stolen the eggs regardless, but he definitely seemed to feel cheated by Hammond.

    And what’s up with that shaving cream? When I first saw it, I thought its getting buried in mud was a setup for a sequel (which shouldn’t be necessary, given how the movie ends). But since this is Theme Park, does that mean Earth is making a statement about how humans Should Not Have Meddled, I’m Taking This Back Now?

    The inclusion of a chaotician just seemed liked something trendy to throw in there. Nature, purveyor of chaos, will use any means possible to find a way.

    • black13 says:

      I have friends in IT, and they all always feel underpaid and underappreciated.

      Then again, if he really *is* the only IT guy at a multnational corporation, then no amount of money would make him feel appreciated.

  5. chadu says:

    Now, I read the novel Jurassic Park and I’ve seen the movie many times and I’ve read The Lost World and seen its movie many times as well, and it’s still unclear to me why Ian Malcolm needs to be on these trips.

    My impression always was that Ian Malcolm was a “scientist as rock star” in the JP universe. Like Carl Sagan, only much, much cooler.

    Hammond does want Malcolm there because of chaos theory, Hammond wants Malcolm there for PR/Marketing purposes — so the next time Ian hits the talk show circuit, he’ll mention how cool the park is and vet it as “cool science”.



    • Todd says:

      But Hammond seems to disapprove of Malcolm altogether, specifically for his rock-star personality. He dismisses chaos theory as flavor-of-the-month “cool science,” which, in retrospect, seems very close to the mark to me.

      • crypticpress says:

        I believe it’s mentioned in the movie that Alan and Ellie were the scientists Hammond himself wanted, and Ian the Rock Star was who the investors wanted.

        Hammond wanted the approval of scientists whose opinions he felt mattered; the investors just wanted a scientist that would give them good press (and somehow help in the case being brought by the dead worker’s family.)

        • travisezell says:

          Yeah. I got the impression that Malcolm was a sort of Sagan/Feynman/Hawking all rolled into one package and “hot.” Which as I recall from first seeing/reading this, left me with the impression that the investors wanted him, despite his irrelevance to the issues at hand. Corporate guys said, “Get the biggest scientists money can be. Get me that guy in the leather jacket who’s always sleeping with supermodels. The kids love him. If he signs off on the park, we’re gold!”

      • Chaos theory is alive and well, living under the assumed name “nonlinear dynamics.” “Chaos theory” was always a stupid name anyway, since the whole point is that unpredictable systems aren’t chaos; they just require a different perspective on causality and a big computer.

  6. Simply awesome

    Just a quick note to say that I’ve been reading the blog for months and months now (back since you were about halfway through the Bond movies) and commented a few times in the past, and it’s always been fascinating reading. I’m loving these posts on JP, moreso, I guess, because I’m such a huge fan and it’s one of the few movies I can sit through time and again and enjoy.

    I’m looking forward to reading the remaining posts for JP, and then watching the movie with all this new understanding.

    No insightful comments to make to add to your analysis. Just general praise.


  7. stormwyvern says:

    The fact that Dennis Nedry is such a major component in the park descending into chaos is one of a few reasons I think the movie fails to convince the audience that a dinosaur zoo is not necessarily such a bad idea. It also seems to argue that capitalism – or human greed – is a far bigger foe than technology. Technology is merely fallible and no match for nature. Greed leads people to put their own self interests above the lives of others (which may be why Hammond proceeds with his park tour in the face of a storm that sends the park staff back to the mainland).

    The sick triceratops – in addition to letting Ellie show what a paleobotanist is good for – is a good “Joy of the Dino” scene, as Alan throws himself onto the ailing creature’s side to more fully experience the rise and fall of its breathing.

    • Anonymous says:

      For me, the triceritops was one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. It was the first scene where Alan and Ellie became “enmeshed” in the park and experienced the creatures first hand, taking responsibility for their welfare. It was an intimate, tender moment, plus my 12-year-ole self liked the giant pile of dung.

      • Todd says:

        The pile of dung, of course, has been discredited by dinosaur folk as being far too large to have been made by any creature, alive or extinct.

        • Anonymous says:

          Maybe it’s a metaphorical dung pile, symbolizing the fact that these enormous, wonderful creatures who create so much excitement and awe create an equally large amount of problems and headache.

          Or maybe it’s just so the 12 and under set can go “Ha ha! Look at all the poop!”

  8. Anonymous says:

    “A storm is coming in, and everyone leaves the island.”

    I’ve occasionally felt that the set up and execution of Jurassic Park owes an awful lot to the haunted house. The protagonists are isolated, cut off, and chased by Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. For that to work, you need to have the big storm come in and drive off everyone but the protagonists.

    • Todd says:

      Yeah, I’ve got “Jurassic Park turns into a haunted house” here in my notes but I felt bad typing it.

  9. rennameeks says:

    It’s worth noting that, while the movie supposes that technology fails in the face of the power of nature, it is, in fact, not “technology” that fails at Jurassic Park — it’s Dennis Nedry. For all the narratives high-minded notions of chaos theory and the complexities of ecosystems, the failure of the park comes down to a fat guy shutting down the system so that he can swipe some embryos.

    It’s been a number of years since I’ve read the novel, but as I recall, these structural problems are not unique to the movie, which took them from the book.

    Unless Nedry’s greed is supposed to include human corruption as part of the cycle of life finding a way, there’s no reason that the electricity couldn’t’ve gone out by other means (like the massive storm hitting the island would have been an awfully convenient option).

    By that reasoning, Nedry’s existence at all seems extraneous. But perhaps he exists for another reason. Just as no one else on the island truly understands the importance of his work, so does he not understand or respect the creatures which are responsible for his presence there.

    Nonetheless, I am sure that there could have been a way to keep Nedry in the story and make this point without undermining the life finds a way theme.

    • Todd says:

      Nedry’s scheme to smuggle embryos drives what narrative there is in the first two acts of the movie. What little dramatic tension there is in watching the protagonists be trundled about the park arguing about morality in science would be intolerable without the suspense of “and the giggly fat guy is going to ruin everything.” And, as you suggest, Nedry’s scheme does serve the theme.

      • rennameeks says:

        Yep, it does, but like you said, it’s an individual who causes the system to collapse, rather than life itself rebelling. Now given, he is a living being, so he counts in the life finding a way theme, since he’s bucking the system. But it’s more personal because we see and understand his motivations; it’s not completely random like the T-Rex deciding that breaking through the deactivated electrified fence would be a good idea.

        It’s a subtle difference, but it irks me a little, even though both would work.

  10. stephenls says:

    In the book, the “One IT guy” thing was explained as Hammond being so obsessed with sparing no expense that he wanted a super-advanced computer control system so robust and all-encompassing that it could, indeed, be run by only one guy. He saw teams of IT guys as an outdated model — full automation was the future.

    Then he failed to spare no expense by, IIRC, witholding from Dennis full knowledge of what the project would entail when hiring him, causing Dennis to underbid, and then holding Dennis to his contract.

    There’s a bit of reference to this in the movie, when Dennis goes into his shpiel about how ridiculously large his workload is, and Hammmond dismisses it with “I recognize your financial problems, Dennis, but they are your problems.”

    Of course, book Hammond is much more of a bastard than movie Hammond.

    • Todd says:

      Well, that makes sense, narratively speaking anyway. Of course, if Hammond had seen Futureworld, the unpopular quasi-sequel to Westworld, he’d know that full automation was doomed to fail.

      Hammond not being a bastard is, I think, one of the movie’s best inventions. It creates a much more fertile environment to discuss the movie’s “issues”.

      • rennameeks says:

        It also makes him less of a cliche and a more interesting character, at least IMO.

      • stephenls says:

        “Of course, if Hammond had seen Futureworld, the unpopular quasi-sequel to Westworld, he’d know that full automation was doomed to fail.”

        Or, for that matter, if he’d seen Gremlins 2.

        “Hammond not being a bastard is, I think, one of the movie’s best inventions. It creates a much more fertile environment to discuss the movie’s ‘issues’.”

        Of course!

  11. Anonymous says:

    So here’s the other big thing that troubled me, which has already been talked about. The chaos theory mathematician was completely out of place, except that Chricton (sp?) seems to love doing this in his books: explore whatever trendy thing that catches his imagination and shoe-horn that into whatever book he’s working on. And as far as I can tell, the character’s only purpose in the movie and book both was to say the line: “all complex systems break down,” and use the authority of chaos theory, which was being interpreted at the time as nearly the mathematics of predestination, to sell it.

    And, then things break down. But blaming that on the criminal hijinks of the fat IT guy, meaning that Goldbum’s character never needed to make his silly prediction, misses the larger point (I think) that the author was saying, “No matter how many times you try this, it will break down, and if it wasn’t the evil fat guy this time, it would have been something else, so, even though things went wrong this time in this way, and all of those mistakes could be corrected when you try it again — YOU MUST NEVER TRY THIS AGAIN!

    The paleontologist Robert Bakker (yes, I’m going to do the unforgivable Woody Allen bit of pulling an expert out from behind the markee) said in an interview, following the film, that (paraphrasing here from memory): “Jurassic Park wasn’t about a predestined failure of complex systems, it was about a simple failure of zoo-keeping. But if you were to get the curators of the San Diego Zoo, for example, to run the same operation, it would run beautifully.”

    No matter how bad the failure, and how big the body count, including the big rich bastard who started it all, if Jurassic Park ever existed, it would get fixed and still exist. People figure out how to fix things and make them work.

    And oh, don’t get me started on the impossible logical olympics that were used to explain how all nations left the dinosaur islands alone following the first story’s incidents.

    But once again, with all these faults, it was a wonderful “running from dinosaurs” movie.

    Bill Willingham