The Greatness of ‘Jurassic Park’

Jurassic World comes out this Friday, the fourth installment in the semi-regular Jurassic Park series. As you’d expect, at this point the franchise is a pure cash-grab. How much so? Well, this movie has been in development for at least eight years and early versions of the script featured dinosaur commandos.

Dinosaur. Commandos.

But don’t worry, because it seems that the final version of the movie features not just a pack of dinosaur commandos led by it-boy of the moment, Chris Pratt, but also a genetically engineered super dinosaur.

Have you revisited Jurassic Park, the movie, as of late? Released in 1993, the film has aged beautifully and now stands as a modern classic. The pacing is purposeful and taut. The story is viscerally thrilling, yet accessible enough that it can function as a family film for older kids. John Williams’ musical score is some of his best work. Even the special effects look great 22 years later. (Jurassic Park was made during the golden age of f/x when CGI was becoming a mature technology, but was still being blended with practical effects.)

The movie’s greatness, however, is the result of its screenplay. It’s ruthlessly economical.  Take, for example, the scene early on when Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm are given the theme park tour, with a short video that explains the technology behind dinosaur cloning. This short set piece might be the most efficient, elegant, and imaginative bit of exposition in modern cinema.

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Jurassic Park is also one of the great literary adaptations of our time. That brilliant scene with the theme park video, for instance, isn’t in Michael Crichton’s original novel—it was invented to compress dozens of pages of narrative and technical exposition. There are other changes as well: some characters are merged and others are given different fates. (Most notably, mathematician Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, dies in the book, while game warden Robert Muldoon lives.)

So the movie is not a perfectly faithful rendering of Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Yet on its own terms, it succeeds, something that almost never happens when a book is translated to the screen. This rare feat was achieved because Crichton wrote both the novel and the screenplay.

Jurassic Park the movie is an action-thriller with a patina of philosophy, but the novel is hard science fiction built around a deep philosophical argument. If the animating precept of the movie is, “What if man brought dinosaurs back to life?” the book poses the question: “Is reason a sufficient governing principle for humanity?”

The main protagonist in the movie is Alan Grant, the paleontologist-as-superhero, but in the novel it’s theoretical mathematician Ian Malcolm. Malcolm is the lone voice of skepticism about the safety of Jurassic Park and the chief antagonist of park founder John Hammond. In the novel, Crichton presents Malcolm as the world’s foremost expert on chaos theory and nonlinear equations—equations that predict that a system as complex as an amusement park featuring extinct animals will tend toward disorder—and eventually, disaster.

In the movie, Malcolm cautions Hammond by noting that at Disney World, “If the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” But in the book, Malcolm’s critique is much more expansive. Malcolm questions not only Jurassic Park, but also the entire Enlightenment project. “We are witnessing the end of the scientific era,” Malcolm says, explaining the failing legitimacy of science:

[T]he great intellectual justification of science has vanished. Ever since Newton and Descartes, science has explicitly offered us the vision of total control. Science has claimed the power to eventually control everything, through its understanding of natural laws. But in the twentieth century, that claim has been shattered beyond repair . . . Science has always said that it may not know everything now but it will know, eventually. But now we see that isn’t true. It is an idle boast.

For all intents and purposes, Ian Malcolm is channeling bioethicist Leon Kass. Like Kass, Crichton (via Malcolm) argues that the Enlightenment’s elevation of reason over tradition and theology has failed because science—which is reason’s stalking horse in the practical world—is unequal to answering the most important questions. And the most important question for humans is “Why?” not “How?”

Even in the face of what looks, superficially, like the greatest advance of science in history, science’s weaknesses are glaring. Here’s Malcolm again:

Science, like other outmoded systems, is destroying itself. As it gains in power, it proves itself incapable of handling the power . . . And that will force everyone to ask the same question—What should I do with my power?—which is the very question science says it cannot answer.

This is the philosophical argument that powered the original Jurassic Park—the dinosaurs were just the MacGuffin. As Irving Kristol once wrote, all great genre fiction is really about Big Ideas. And Jurassic Park is one of the greats. Remember that when you’re sitting in the theater this weekend watching Starlord ride around on a motorcycle with his team of dinosaur commandos.

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