Jurassic Park is nothing short of miraculous. It's a film that Spielberg completed as he was heading into production on another project, and it's a film that did us the great service of cementing the cinematic dinosaur in the minds of the mainstream. It was a leap forward for visual effects, one that spawned two sequels and, most recently, a pseudo-reboot that coasted on its nostalgic imagery to become one of the biggest films of all time, just like the original did back in 1993. It’s everything people tend to associate with Spielberg the blockbuster director, a spectacle-laden adventure laced with special effects, as seen through bewondered eyes.
However, there’s something almost weary about it as well, a certain melancholy that’s often brushed aside in favour of its bigger moments. Despite all its beauty and all its memorable images, Jurassic Park is a conflicted film by a conflicted man, but that’s part of what makes it great. It’s precise in its conflictions.
Precision is Spielberg’s greatest weapon, or rather, his greatest tool. Precision in rhythm, precision in length of shot, precision in performance, and in the case of Jurassic Park, precision in meaning and metaphor. The film’s overarching narrative is about humankind’s attempts to control nature, in the form of bringing back extinct creatures that once roamed the Earth. Many of the film’s iconic scenes evoke this theme, and constantly remind us of our meddling. On the helicopter ride to Isla Nublar, Dr. Alan Grant finds a way around the problem of having two ‘female’ seatbelt buckles by tying them together, just as the female raptors on the island adapt in a way that allows them to reproduce. Later on in the film, a DNA sequence is projected onto one of these raptors, as what was once a mere scientific experiment comes to a head as a dangerous force of nature. And, in a very literal instance of foreshadowing, a painted mural of a raptor aligns with a real raptor’s shadow, as the reality of what we’ve brought upon ourselves creeps up to us. These, and several of the film’s famous lines (“And woman inherits the Earth”) are part of Spielberg’s broader treatise on man’s stubborn ego, and when I say ‘man’ I don’t mean humanity in this case, but men. Attempting to control the uncontrollable has been part of science fiction for as long as it’s been around, and while Spielberg approaches the idea better than most, it’s still a rather broad concept to begin with. And yet, Jurassic Park is a film that’s distinctly personal. In it, Spielberg projects some of his deepest ambitions and anxieties, embodied by two central characters.
Dr. Alan Grant is a further statement about our inability to control the uncontrollable. Not just because he’s thrust into a world of chaos brought upon by the hubris of men, but because of those thrust into it alongside him. His introduction in the film involves him scaring a child, and while Dr. Sattler certainly believes they’re going to end up having kids together, Grant seems firmly against the idea. He reviles Hammond’s grandson Tim, and finds him to be annoying despite his enthusiasm for Grant’s line of work. His reactions to children don’t seem typical of someone who’s disinterested, but rather someone who’s overcompensating because they’re afraid. Still, Grant’s journey to finally learning to love and accept the children is a simple one. It involves spending time with them, not just in a situation where they need protecting, but in one where Grant himself has to re-orient everything he thought he knew and understood about nature. The uncontrollable that he was trying to control was his protective paternal instinct, and it’s off-set not only by proximity to Tim and Lex, but the alignment of their goals with his, the fear of them being lost, the subsequent responsibility he feels for them, and how they give him an extra reason to push forward and survive. It’s simple, but there’s also clarity to it, and it feels a lot like Spielberg’s own experiences while making E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, where spending time with the kids on set as he made a film about the bridging his childhood and adulthood finally made him want to be a father.
The second avatar for Spielberg in Jurassic Park is John Hammond. He plays a paternal role as well, bringing his grandkids along to see his creation, but more than anything, he’s a stand-in for Spielberg the filmmaker. It’s serendipitous that Spielberg would go on to bear a strong resemblance to Hammond in his later years, because watching the film today, it’s nearly impossible not to see the character as a mouthpiece for him. His goals are simple. He wants to create unparalleled spectacle, and instill a sense of wonder in as many people as possible. His obstacles? On one hand, lawyers and logisticians telling him which of his ideas are too risky, much like the studios and producers behind films. On the other, there are the uncontrollable elements within the park itself, and a couple so uncontrollable they’re out of reach (the rain and storm). Malfunctions and unforeseen elements are things Spielberg no doubt had to look out for as a filmmaker, but even in his darkest hour, Hammond still speaks of his ambitions as they relate to what he wanted to give the world.
“I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion. Something that was real.”
Hammond spares no expense, be it financial or emotional. As the camera lingers on the unsold merchandise, Spielberg makes no attempt to divorce the film from its industrial considerations. He, like Hammond, is aware that creation costs money. Films are made for the sole purpose of making money, and yet it’s his responsibility to get in between the product and the profit, and create something that lasts. Hammond is eventually overwhelmed by his own spectacle, and upon leaving, he turns to take one last look at what he hoped would be a magical experience to be lauded by generations. Instead it turned out to be a disaster, and who better to comfort him and lead him away from his failure than the man who had just discovered a different kind of emotional connection to fall back on?
These two men best embody the two sides of Spielberg, the director who hopes to bring joy and wonder to the children of the world, and the father who has a responsibility to protect his own children. As he was making Jurassic Park he was also prepping to shoot another film, just as John Hammond was already getting ahead of himself before solving the debacle he was in. “Next time, it’ll be flawless,” Hammond responds to Sattler’s claim that he can’t think through this one. “You have to feel it,” she tells him just moments earlier.
The other film in question? Schindler’s List, a movie that Spielberg held off on for an entire decade, because he didn’t have the right kind of life experience to help him understand his place in the world. The missing puzzle piece, and his impetus for feeling whatever it was that needed to be felt before stepping into the headspace of the Holocaust? Fatherhood. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Schindler’s List are two of Spielberg’s greatest films, one dealing with his own childhood and the other with his lineage, and while Jurassic Park is a horse of an entirely different colour, it feels like a nexus between the two. A stepping stone that retroactively contextualizes his journey to becoming a father, and a landing platform for where he hopes his journey has led him (as a filmmaker and as a person), as well as an uncertain ground upon which he’s about to tread.
Jurassic Park is awe-inspiring to this day. Thrilling moments like “Must go faster!” as the T-Rex approaches hold up just as well as any individual note of John Williams’ evocative score. It’s a timeless film, and at its center is a timeless struggle between creativity and nature, two things that can be dangerous when there’s hubris involved, but under the right circumstances, they can also be each other’s safety net. It’s about our place in the grand scheme of things, and more than anything, it’s an important step in the evolution of Steven Spielberg, 65 million years in the making.