No one gets gutted in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” This is probably a good thing, for obvious reasons, but it makes it easy to miss the harsh existential lesson of this blockbuster man-versus-nature story.
“Jurassic Park” is out now in 3D movie theaters, 20 years after it was first released to the sleepless delight of 11-year-old me. Spielberg’s film holds up nicely, even in the modern age of $200-million blockbuster comic-book monster movies. The giant T-Rex still looks real, attacking humans in a nighttime downpour or gallimimus on a clear blue afternoon. The velociraptors are still terrifying as they stalk Tim and Lex through the long metallic kitchen.
The sense of wonder and respect for these animals is captured perfectly by Spielberg, but what about respect for science? The real theme of Michael Crichton’s classic novel gets muddled in translation. “Jurassic Park” is a movie for kids more than adults, so the story’s violence, and thus its impact, had to be ramped down.
There are still hints of theological conflict, though, as we watch rock-star mathematician Ian Malcolm, dressed all in black, debate responsibility with wide-eyed optimist John Hammond, the creator of the park, dressed in all white.
“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here,” Malcolm (played in a fine performance by Jeff Golblum) tells Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), “it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. … Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think about whether they should.”
He’s talking about whether or not they should clone dinosaurs. Malcolm is an expert in the field of Chaos Theory, which posits that systems like nature are inherently unpredictable. Hammond can create a theme park filled with cloned dinosaurs, but any notion of control on his part is an illusion, because math tells us forces like animal nature are too wild. Make all the dinosaurs female and they will still find a way to breed. Put electric fences up around powerful, once-extinct creatures and those fences will fail.
Malcolm and Hammond both survive the events of the film, but, again, this is a movie mostly for kids. Their fates in the book are packed with meaning. Malcolm dies slowly with a smile on his face, muttering that “everything looks different… on the other side.” Hammond perishes horribly, alone and helpless on a broken ankle, poisoned by the bites of small precompsognathus (compy) dinosaurs who eat his neck while he watches.
The violence in the book is actually pretty amazing. Remember Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight, best known as “Newman” from Seinfeld) getting spit on and then mauled off-screen? In the book he gets blinded by the dino’s spit “And then there was a new, searing pain, like a knife in his belly, and Nedry stumbled, reaching blindly down to touch the ragged edge of his shirt, and then a thick, slippery mass that was surprisingly warm, and with horror he suddenly knew he was holding his own intestines in his hands. The dinosaur had torn him open. His guts had fallen out.”
This is just one of multiple main-character disembowelings that occur in the novel. Dr. Wu, the island’s geneticist, “was lying on his back, his body torn open by the big claw, and the raptor was jerking its head, tugging at Wu’s intestines even though Wu was still alive, still feebly reaching up with his hands to push the big head away, he was being eaten while he was still alive….”
The survivors survive because they’re lucky, and because they fight back against dozens of raptors with grenades and bazookas.
There are only three raptors in the movie, because the action had to be necessarily scaled down – as an author, Crichton was limited only by his imagination; as a director, Spielberg is limited by the physical facts of what’s possible with animatronics and early-90s computer effects.
Spielberg also wasn’t about to make a rated-R gore-fest. It’s almost too bad, because the book is better for its brutality. Think back on Steve Irwin, the famed “Crocodile Hunter” who cuddled up to wild animals on television until a sting ray stabbed him fatally through the chest with its tail. The amazing Werner Herzog documentary “Grizzly Man” presents Timothy Treadwell, who tried to befriend grizzly bears in Alaska and wound up screaming as he was torn apart.
Brutal, but that’s what we get without humility before nature – killed horribly.