Top 20 Sci-Fi Defenses: Cassander (Jurassic Park)
Cassander’s list can be found here. Below, he discusses Jurassic Park, tomorrow he’ll hit Dark City, Inception, and Gattaca.
When my best friend introduced me to Jurassic Park, the book, I think my mind dissolved a little bit in happiness. He described the plot to me like it was scripture, the fulfillment of our long, eleven year idolization of all things dinosaur. What I think excited me most was that the book sounded so plausible that it would only be a matter of time until someone decided to undertake the creation of a real prehistoric nature preserve. For two kids who had spent so much time looking at picture books full of cross-sectioned triceratops, putting together balsawood pterodactyl skeleton puzzles, and even getting our parents to swing by the fossil-centric Dinosaur National Park on a trip out west—in short, attempting to resurrect them ourselves by proxy—the promise of Jurassic Park weighed more heavily in our minds than the disastrous events described in the story. And when the info reached us that Steven Spielberg was making a movie and that the movie wouldn’t be using robots or stop-motion but some new kind of ultra-realistic animation, well, we lost our collective shit. For a while it was hard to determine which newly learned acronym was more important to us: DNA or CGI.
So when Nacho chided me that Westworld is the real “attraction turned killer” movie to see and others scoffed that Jurassic Park is just some kid’s adventure movie, I took pause and tried to determine if my nostalgia for that long 18 months between when I first read the book and finally got my adolescent ass in a second row seat and felt an eruption of expectation in my gut when the Universal logo lit up the screen was the reason for claiming it in my Top 20. In that time I’d suffered through delays, speculated about which dinos would make it onscreen, creased up a JP fanzine to disintegration, fought with my parents that maybe the movie would be too violent for my little sister and brother, but that I was perfectly capable of tolerating its over-hyped visceral nature, and had even gotten in a fight with a collectibles vendor in the mall about consuming tie-in merchandise before I’d even seen the movie. Dinosaurs were my life. To me, Dr. Alan Grant wasn’t a hero, he was a role model, a believable version of Indiana Jones who re-ignited my desire to turn my long-time hobby of dirt-digging into a career. Maybe my mind is still persuaded by these dreams, but I don’t care. Jurassic Park is classic sci-fi and remains satisfactory.
We start with a classic “what if,” and one that’s been an almost constant in movie history: what if modern man was confronted by dinosaurs? Whereas old movies like the many iterations of The Lost World go with the convenient “there’s some dinosaurs out there in the isolated jungle” approach, Jurassic Park drew a great amount of interest for its hypothesis that species, even ancient, extinct ones, could be recreated with enough DNA manipulation. Crichton’s argument in the book (through Ian Malcolm, the prophetic mathematician) is that any such unknown creature could not be expected to be confined within a modern framework, that attempts by man to build fail-safes into a lifeform to contain them were foolish from the start and proof of a simultaneous over-enthusiasm for the magic powers of science and an ignorant insubordination to its realistic laws and principles. The movie simplifies these ideas with the Zen-like phrase “life will find a way.”
After spending about 45 minutes establishing the plausibility of the re-creation of dinosaurs and hinting at the great effort it takes to keep them contained, the movie does take a turn away from “what if” and veers into a strange, horrifying pathetic fallacy mode wherein the guilty are punished by their own creations. Nature, Jurassic Park tells us, will command our respect one way or another, and through the course of the movie we audience members are allowed to vicariously enjoy the death and mutilation of a number of egregious bastards. Nedry’s self-confidence in his technical prowess coupled with his weak ethics is the first to go, first made powerless and blind then savaged before he can fulfill his treason. Take that, smarmy IT geeks! Gennaro, the lawyer whose desire to limit exposure to lawsuits and readiness to set exorbitant prices gets it the worst, ripped apart by a T-Rex after cowering on a toilet. You deserved it, you prick! Muldoon, the game warden-like head of security, gets tooth-raped in the bushes after failing to convince the others of the high risk involved in breeding velociraptors. The ones who survive, our “good guys,” all respect the dinosaurs and, by extension, Nature itself. They are inquisitive as to its actual methodologies, sympathetic to its wild changes in course, disciples to its rules. Though they are in constant danger, they are spared in the end, though more by a pardon than a triumph of their own adaptations to their surroundings.
Cautionary tales are a dime a dozen in the sci-fi world, however, and what makes Jurassic Park different from, say, Frankenstein, is the setting itself, an idea so powerful that it made its way into the title. Hear those words again for the first time, like I did when I was 11. The idea of a combination zoo and island resort operating under the guise of a scientific and educational enterprise is so easily recognizable as a possible ploy to us, but Spielberg and his art direction team really brought it to life with the brightly-colored, automated SUVs, the animated Mr. DNA ride, and those giant King Kong doors. The attraction to kids is immediate, and here, of course, the movie starts to get meta. Is it wrong to manipulate kids and their parents by putting something dangerous yet irresistible on display? Kind of. Does it make it a little better if you dress it up with science? Maybe. Did Crichton and Spielberg partake in the same kind of manipulation that InGen did? Oh hell yeah. This movie isn’t “hard,” and it doesn’t keep you up late at night philosophizing, but it’s one of the most successful combinations of spectacle and Miriam Allen de Ford’s “improbable possibilities.”
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