Hugosauriad 3.6: Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg & Michael Crichton

The aesthetic objective of a “sense of wonder” has been much debated as a goal or a specific quality of science-fiction. A full treatment of that long and on-going discussion is beyond me and beyond this project. However, I believe it would be fair to say that Steven Spielberg is a film maker who has been very much concerned with and influenced by some of the aesthetic aspirations of science-fiction. I’d contend (and not just because it suits this specific project) that a specific scene in his film version of Jurassic Park (1993) was an attempt by Spielberg to capture the more visceral aspects of the numinosity of the emotion. You probably know the scence I mean:

The scene starts with the jeeps taking Allan Grant (Sam Niell), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) from the helicopter landing pad to the centre of the park. The focus is on Grant with Sattler in the background puzzling over a strange leaf she has found. We can see that Sam Niell is overwhelmed by what he is looking at even though we can’t see what it is yet. He fumbles his sunglasses off as if he has forgotten basic movements. He can’t take his eyes of what he is seeing or string words together to get Laura Dern’s attention and just sort of tries to point her head at what he’s looking at. It’s like the view point of the camera is controlled by Laura Dern’s attention because as she now begins to stare the camera allows the audience to see the huge dinosaur.

Computer Generated Imagery had already been making great strides in film making but it’s use here is exemplary. It is just beautifully done and still looks stunning despite years of advances and over-use of CGI. The technology had reached a point that the dinosaur was simply impressive as a dinosaur rather than just as an impressive special effect.

The clip goes on with the two paleo-scientists excitedly sharing observations. When John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) also reveals that the park has a T-Rex, Dr Grant is simply overwhelmed and struggle to stay on his feet, finally having to sit down on the grass, only to look out over the valley to see more dinosaurs moving in herds across the rolling countryside.

I still get just a bit teary at that scene (no, really I do) because I remember watching it in a cinema and just being blown away by it. There is a kind of wholly justified sumgness to Spielberg’s direction. He knows that the scene is impressive (or at least he was banking that it would be) and matches the audience emotion to seeing dinosaurs that had escaped from the bounds of stop-motion on screen.

Jurassic Park is a film where the sub-text is wholly at odds with the text. Dr Malcolm present multiple arguments throughout the film of varying degrees of validity from the dangers of unintended consequences to more basic ‘don’t play god’ style warnings about hubris. The eventual deaths and chaotic collapse of the park structures the story into a clear morality tale that warns about doing things just because you can without asking whether you should. The message is written in bold and underlined. Yet, visually and viscerally the film is a non-stop propaganda for the idea that WE SHOULD BRING BACK DINOSAURS. If on leaving the movie I had been presented with a magic button that would magically return the dinosaurs to our world, I would have pressed it before more rational aspects of my personality could stop me. My inner Jeff Goldblum wouldn’t get a chance to be heard.

The rest of the film is a showcase for so many of the tropes we have already seen. The palaeontologists of course but also the big-game hunter (Bob Peck) as well as the cowardly characters who character flaws get punished by being eaten by a dinosaur (Genarro the lawyer for cowardly abandoning the children and Nedry for being a greedy bad guy). T-Rex gets a starring role, naturally but we also have the intelligent dinosaur trope represented by the ‘velociraptors’ (closer to deinonychus in how they are depicted).

Michael Crichton’s original novel was just the most famous in a number of stories that had raised whether dinosaurs could be returned by capturing their DNA. I’ve already discussed Robert Silverberg’s Our Lady of the Sauropods but Silverberg was directly referencing an earlier story, Robert Olsen’s 1974 “Paleontology: An Experimental Science”*

The film won a huge basket of awards, including Oscars for effects, an MTV award for best film and the 1994 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The Best Dramatic Presentation category has been around since 1958 but remains an eclectic and sometimes unpopular category. ‘No Award’ has topped the ballot on at least four occasions and more unusual winners include the Apollo 11 news footage and Gollum’s acceptance speech at the MTV Award’s (Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form 2004).

Jurassic Park‘s contenders in 1994 included Adams Family Values, a Babylon 5 episode, Groundhog Day and A Nightmare Before Christmas. As much as I love some of those, I think Jurassic Park was manifestly the best choice.

Next time: our last stop in the Jurassic as we get a new take on those cold equations with James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur”.

*[Which I haven’t read but which sounds fun. A pseudo-academic discussion of scientists who bring back dinosaurs.]

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12 responses to “Hugosauriad 3.6: Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg & Michael Crichton”

  1. I watched it again for the first time in ages recently, and it has held up well. It’s interesting to see the notion that dinosaurs evolved into birds presented as still under debate, given how widely accepted it now is. I wonder how much role the film played in putting that scientific question into the popular imagination.

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    • Well, it wasn’t a new idea by any means– at least from my point of view, granted that I was pretty dinosaur-obsessed as a child; any such child would’ve seen plenty of pictures of Archeaopteryx with explanations of how this kind of thing almost certainly evolved into birds. But at that point there just wasn’t enough good skeletal evidence for there to be a scientific consensus. I think Jurassic Park somewhat exaggerated or at least oversimplified the nature of the debate, which I think at that time was not so much “Hey, what if birds are dinosaurs?” as “It sure looks like birds are dinosaurs but we’re not sure yet how to explain the clavicles.” But the evidence started piling up faster around that time and as soon as scientists felt comfortable taking a firm pro-birdosaur stance in public, they did so with great gusto because it’s cool. So I think it’s not so much that JP put the idea in the public imagination as that it happened to come along at a time when that was going to happen anyway.

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    • I’m so glad *somebody else* has heard of Olsen’s short story! I read it in High School and was surprised it was never referenced by Crichton — who probably read it, too — or anyone else after the phenomenal success of “Jurassic Park”.
      I cannot find any information on Robert Olsen; he remains so opaque to my research, and his story of cloning dinosaurs so similar to Crichton’s, that I have often wondered if “Robert Olsen” was a pen name for Mr. Crichton himself.
      If so, I can’t see how we’ll ever know, now. But if the real Robert Olsen is still out there, or just known to anyone who reads this, I’d love to know more about the man.

      Don Hawthorne

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  2. I never saw the film (not a film-goer because deafness), but that clip made me terrified for the people. I was reading articles juet yesterday on the dangers of being too complacent near wild animals, especially big ones, and you can’t get much bigger than that. I wouldn’t want to spook an elephant, either.

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  3. No love for Carnosaur, the 1984 novel by “Harry Adam Knight”? Surprisingly prescient about JP in many ways. (No, I’m not suggesting that Crichton or Spielberg ripped off John Brosnan – just there’s only so many ways to tell resurrected-dinosaurs stories.)

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  4. You’re exactly right about That Scene. The characters are being amazed by Actual Real Dinosaurs, but at the same time in the reveal we’re being amazed by just how damn good the CGI is. Speilberg put both effects in one shot – genius.

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  5. A few things to mention:

    -I think the fact that Dr. Malcom’s stark warnings stand in contrast to the visual propaganda is part of the film’s brilliance. While having a very persuasive and charismatic man warn us – we also can totally sympathise with why other characters ignore him. Its possible to understand both Hammond’s recklessness and Malcom’s concern. The choices of the characters don’t come across as idiotic in their decisions/morally corrupt – as the film gives a lot of sympathy to both sides of the argument. That’s actually brilliant and rare.

    -That T-Rex attack scene is one of “the” great horror scenes. Even though it isn’t a horror film. On a side note – Rogue One also had a brilliant horror scene (That bit where Darth Vader turns his lightsabre on in the dark room and then kills lots of good guy mooks made him a genuinely terrifying character).

    -Re obvious tropes of punishing of moral flaws (also borrowing from horror). College Humour did a hilarious parody where the lawyer is genre savvy enough to realise that due to his profession and being in a car with children he is doomed.

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    • 100% there’s lots of layers, and mixed empathy. The ‘clever girl’ line is another example: the velociraptors are the main ‘monster’ of the film but Bob Peck plays it as worthy adversaries

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      • Agreed, it also occurs to me that pretty much every character (bar the lawyer obviously) gets at least a hint of backstory to make them more empathetic (Gambling issues, Flea Circuses, Divorce) as well as animals being treated with respect. A lot of heart in the film – not sure how much of that come’s from the Crichton novel (never read it) or how much was Spielberg.

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