Jurassic Park

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Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park is the title of Michael Crichton's best-selling novel (1990) and its popular film adaptation by Steven Spielberg (1993). In the story Jurassic Park is the name of the theme park placed on a tropical island where millionaire John Hammond plans to exhibit live dinosaurs created out of fossilized DNA. Following the technophobic discourse originally enunciated by Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818), Crichton and Spielberg narrate how, inevitably, the supposedly safe environment of the park collapses under the pressure of the dinosaurs' instincts. The attack of the dinosaurs turns an enjoyable inaugural tour of Jurassic Park into a nightmare for Hammonds' team, his family, and his guests, including prestigious scientists. Jurassic Park was followed by a less successful sequel, The Lost World (novel by Crichton, 1995; film by Spielberg, 1997). The plot focuses here on another island where the species of the park breed unchecked and on the efforts of another group led by Dr. Malcolm, a victimized guest in Jurassic Park, to stop the dinosaurs and the men who want to capture them for commercial purposes. The Lost World is, incidentally, a title that relates Crichton's and Spielberg's work to the fiction that originated the vogue for dinosaurs: Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World (1920) and its silent film adaptation by Willis O'Brien (1925).

Like Frankenstein, Jurassic Park examines the ethical dilemmas involved in using technoscience to create life out of dead matter. The targets of Crichton's criticism are the frivolous use that business may make of biotechnology and the lack of a proper control on laboratories working with human and animal DNA. But Crichton is also concerned by the dependence of scientific research on business interests. This is shown in the relationship between the paleontologist Alan Grant, the main character in Jurassic Park, and Hammond. Hammond's funding of Grant's research places the principled scientist at the same level of dependence as his unprincipled colleagues. Ambitious young scientists and unscrupulous businessmen like John Hammond may form a lethal alliance leading to dangerous ventures like Jurassic Park and even to the extinction of human life on Earth. Dr. Malcolm, Crichton's spokesman in the novel, emphasizes the technophobic message when he protests that "there is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy. Cheat, lie, falsify—it doesn't matter." In the novel version, the dinosaurs eventually kill both Hammond and Malcolm. Hammond's death is presented as an act of poetic justice. Malcolm's somehow unjust death proves the accuracy of his use of chaos theory, but also of Crichton's apocalyptic vision.

In Spielberg's Jurassic Park, Hammond and Malcolm survive, whereas the dinosaurs are destroyed. The grim moralizing of Crichton's cautionary tale and his introduction of chaos theory are thus significantly modified to make way for hope. Spielberg's happier ending even forced Crichton to ignore the death of Dr. Malcolm to make him reappear as the accidental hero of The Lost World. But beyond its hope for the future—and for a future sequel—Spielberg's film differs from Crichton's novel in an important aspect. The technophobic message of Crichton's novel has to compete for the spectators' attention with Spielberg's skilful use of special effects. The film's appeal is based on the celebration of the technology behind the animatronics (electronic puppetry designed by Stan Winston) and infographics (computer simulations developed by ILM) employed to represent the dinosaurs. By endorsing Spielberg's films, Crichton undermines his own message. The association of technology and business appears to have at least a positive outlet in the world of entertainment: film. But this is an ambiguous message. Spielberg's and Crichton's Midas' touch suggests that, should they decide to open the real Jurassic Park, people would flock to meet the dinosaurs—hopefully not to be devoured by them—thanks to, rather than despite, the novels and films. People do go, indeed, to the Universal Studios theme parks, where the fake dinosaurs of Jurassic Park can be seen.

Feminist writers like Marina Warner have criticized a problematic aspect of Jurassic Park (film and novel): the sex of the dinosaurs. They are all created female, so as to ensure that no natural reproduction takes place on the island, and also because, since all embryos are initially female, "from a bioengineering standpoint, females are easier to breed," as Dr. Wu notes. The scientists refer, though, to giants like the Tyrannosaurus Rex as male. The irony that was not lost on feminist commentators is that the scientists of Jurassic Park also believe that females are easier to control. As the plot develops, this is proved radically wrong. After wreaking havoc on the island, some female dinosaurs mutate into males capable of starting sexual reproduction. This is presented by Crichton in ambiguous terms, as a symbol of life's unstoppable drive towards reproduction. The controversial theme of the female monster that threatens human life with uncontrolled reproduction is also the focus of films like Aliens (1986) and Species (1995). Godzilla, though, turns out to be a hermaphrodite in the eponymous 1998 film.

Dinosaurs are always popular with audiences of all ages, which helped Jurassic Park (novel and film) become an enormous hit. The popularity of these creatures is based on their unique status as monsters: they are threatening monsters of nightmare because of their enormous size, but also the fragile victims of a mysterious turn in the path of evolution. Dinosaurs send a clear Darwinian message to adult readers and spectators, inviting them to consider the thin threads on which human life depends. In Jurassic Park genetic engineering, rather than a freak of evolution, transforms the dinosaurs from relics of the prehistoric past into a threat for the future, akin to that of other monsters of science fiction, often extraterrestrial. Dinosaurs also make wonderful toys for children, as Spielberg and Universal Studios know well. But the true measure of Jurassic Park's success can only be assessed by a glimpse into the future that lets us see whether the real Jurassic Park will ever open.

—Sara Martin

Further Reading:

Blanco, Adolfo. Cinesaurios. Barcelona, Royal Books, 1993.

Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. New York, Citadel Press, 1995.

Cohen, Daniel. Hollywood Dinosaur. New York, Pocket Books, 1997.

Kinnard, Roy. Beasts and Behemoths: Prehistoric Creatures in the Movies. Metuchen, New Jersey, The Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Perry, George. Steven Spielberg: Close Up; A Making of His Movies. Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998

Warner, Marina. "Monstrous Mothers: Women over the Top." Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time. London, Vintage, 1994, 1-16.