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Beneath the Layer of Horror: “Jurassic Park” Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

'Jurassic Park' Retrospective still
Directed by Steven Spielberg, "Jurassic Park" (1993) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

When I was three years old, my parents accidentally left the television on without supervision, leaving me to watch Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” in all its horror. Honestly, I probably had nightmares about the velociraptors for a week. However, even though my dreams clearly proved that the film’s target audience was not toddlers, “Jurassic Park” also contained kid-friendly parts—parts without dinosaurs stalking you and eating you alive. And those parts entranced me. Something beneath the horror captured my imagination.

In “Jurassic Park,” John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) brings his two grandchildren and a handful of intellectuals to an island called Isla Nublar, where he has created a park full of living dinosaurs. When a disgruntled employee shuts off park power in order to steal the dinosaur embryos, the dinosaurs break free, leaving the small group to fight for their lives. After several deaths and many more life-threatening situations, they make it off the island.

The film now celebrates its 25th anniversary—and it continues to stand alone in film history with its cinematic brilliance, cementing its status as a classic film. It features uniquely strong female characters in an era in which women in movies were just sidekicks, educates the watcher through plot and scientific theory, and explores human nature by recreating an extinct world.

As a young girl with an interest in science, I often turned to film for role models. However, the movie industry doesn’t exactly encourage this interest for girls. Scientists are played almost exclusively by white men. It is important to note that while “Jurassic Park” may be progressive with its female characters, it has only two minor characters of color: Samuel L. Jackson and BD Wong. Clearly, the film still has room for improvement. However, where so many other films fail (for example, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing of the later “Jurassic World” reboot), “Jurassic Park” still gives me powerful female role models: Lex Murphy (Ariana Richards) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern).

Lex is a young, female computer hacker, spending most of the film absorbed in things like interactive CD-ROMs and UNIX systems. Even by modern standards, “Jurassic Park” is massively progressive in its portrayal of Lex as a confident, female programmer. In one of the final scenes, Lex manages to reboot the entire park’s computer system while her younger brother Timmy (Joseph Mazzello) stands by as her cheerleader, iconically reversing gender roles in a way that still lacks prevalence in modern-day filmmaking. In an industry that repeatedly typecasts hackers as males, “Jurassic Park” shows girls like me that we have just as much right to be programmers as boys do.

Likewise, Sattler—a highly educated paleobotanist—serves as a strong female role model. She repeatedly proves her intellect and resourcefulness. In one of several scenes where Sattler puts herself in danger to help the other characters, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) suggests that he should go out into the park in Sattler’s place because he is a man. However, Hammond’s cowardice quickly wins out as he remains in hiding. Sattler casually shrugs him off: “Look…we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.” She then enters the park alone to—once again—save the day.

Seeing these role models proved to me that I didn’t have to follow in the footsteps of the stereotyped Hollywood damsel in distress. Today, whenever someone mentions strong women in entertainment, I think of Lex Murphy and Ellie Sattler—two women who laid the beginning steps of a feminist legacy that continues on today.

“Jurassic Park” also distinguishes itself in its storytelling: Each plotline is started long before the conflict begins. The velociraptor is considered to be one of the most terrifying threats to the park visitors, but doesn’t show up on screen until very late in the film. However, the need to fear the creature is established from the outset: The concept of the velociraptor’s cunning brilliance is introduced in one of the opening scenes, before several of the main characters are even introduced, which establishes a fear that continues to loom above our heads throughout the plot. Similarly, each dinosaur that poses a threat to the park visitors is introduced in one of the opening scenes. By the time the dinosaurs physically appear, we already know them and understand them. “Jurassic Park” subtly establishes its capabilities and bounds from the very start.

Furthermore, the film actually provides a reason why there are dinosaurs in the 20th century. Crichton’s explanations of how Hammond created the dinosaurs are fully fleshed out in the film, and they make logical sense. The dinosaurs’ existence isn’t just magic: it’s science. The idea was created by Michael Crichton, a graduate of medical school and a legendary writer of science fiction, and thus, it’s no wonder that the scientific base for the film is rock solid.

However, perhaps the strongest aspect of this film is how it portrays the dinosaurs and uses them to explore human nature. The dinosaurs are created as an entire class of life—through their initial peaceful appearance, they are shown to be more complex than standard movie monsters. Spielberg creates an entire world that has been extinct for 65 million years. And Hammond tries to trap and control it.

Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) hints at the moral implications of Hammond’s choices: “I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others have done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourself so you don’t take any responsibility for it.” Malcolm’s seemingly out-of-place ethical discussions actually get at the heart of the film: The dinosaurs cannot be blamed for behaving as they would in nature, but Hammond can. He takes scientific knowledge from others, and blindly attempts to use it to create entire species with which he is completely unfamiliar. He creates creatures we cannot hope to understand and tries to keep them captive—leaving the park visitors in danger. His arrogance, not the dinosaurs themselves, is what causes conflict.

Though the film physically stays in a science fiction setting, its ideas extend beyond science and scientific advancement. The concept of the morality of scientific advancement is merely a metaphor for the deeper message regarding the dangers of human arrogance. Hammond is arrogant to believe that he may be able to keep creatures he does not understand captive; thus, they escape and wreak havoc. Hammond’s attempt to control that which he does not comprehend ultimately fails—not because working toward scientific advancement is unethical, but because in this particular case, it is arrogant. This idea is what “Jurassic Park” is truly about: The arrogance of mankind is dangerous.

What makes the concept so successful is that the blame can be extended beyond just one character: Hammond creates the park, but every character is entranced by it. They are swept up by the presence of dinosaurs, and, in their awe of Hammond’s creations, ignore the arrogance of his attempt to keep things he does not understand captive. Their childhood imaginations get the better of them, and they succumb to the dangers of Hammond’s arrogance. Spielberg furthers his point when, in their first on-screen time, the dinosaurs are shown with incredible grandeur. From the audience’s perspective, our childhood imaginations are also instantly brought to life like never before. We’re helplessly swept along in its glory. Spielberg makes sure that we, just like the characters, become complacent appreciators of their captivity. The message of the danger of arrogance carries beyond the screen and into our own lives.

Though “Jurassic Park” may be best known as a dinosaur horror flick, from providing inspiration to young girls to exploring the dangers of human nature, the other layers of the film are what make it still relevant today. Since I stumbled upon it as a kid, I’ve watched the movie and read the book an embarrassing amount of times. Something about the world that Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg created continues to mesmerize me, and I can still watch the film and experience the wonder and fear all over again. Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg have left so many messages and ideas for us to unpack. 25 years later, the film still “finds a way.”

—Staff writer Bobae C. Johnson can be reached at bobae.johnson@thecrimson.com.

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