At one point in Steven Spielberg’s original “Jurassic Park” adaptation, when its dinosaurs-reborn concept has already reared its glorious Apatosaurus head, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, TV’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), in his best wacky chaotician voice, provides the ultimate caveat: “Life finds a way.”
Eighteen years after the film’s release, “Jurassic Park” is increasingly relevant, and its themes are even more prevalent today than ever before. The film is often considered among Spielberg’s less cerebral efforts, given its six-month release window with the heavier “Schindler’s List.” “Jurassic Park” has fallen victim to flighty opinions, paying more attention to the film’s cultural effect than its content.
People might remember “Jurassic Park” for its chase scenes, lush visuals and before-its-time animatronic and CGI dinosaurs, but what people rarely mention about the blockbuster is its success in creating an effecting ensemble of human drama without much contemplative melodrama and a subtle script approach, something seldom seen in such a populist film. While “Jurassic Park” may be Spielberg’s quintessential special-effects film, it’s also one of the most affecting and cohesive pictures of his career.
In the film, as in Michael Crichton’s original novel, Jurassic Park is an island off the coast of Costa Rica morphed into a dinosaur amusement park by the genetic engineering company InGen and its cheery Brit chief John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough, “Miracle on 34th Street”). With recombined DNA sourced from prehistoric fossilized mosquitoes, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are just about the real thing — huge, majestic and vicious — but are caged up in pens like in a zoo.
In the case of Jurassic Park, as Dr. Malcolm said, “Life finds a way.” Once the electric system on the park fails, there is little to stop the assault by the dinosaurs, which we soon find have been breeding, despite genetic efforts to prevent it. Needless to say, our human protagonists are soon overwhelmed by the creatures and find themselves the prey of their zoo animals.
“Jurassic Park” became a cultural phenomenon and was, at the time, the biggest worldwide movie of all time. Dinosaurs captured the attention of adults and children alike, who had always dreamed about the museum skeletons coming to life. The understanding that all those excavated fossils once existed in the flesh was nothing compared to the experience of witnessing their realization onscreen.
Dinosaurs were a likely first step in CGI characters, which have evolved much further since, and “Jurassic Park” made dinosaurs a lasting live-action phenomenon for the coming decades. Moving forward to 2011, Fox’s new big-budget TV series “Terra Nova” would never have been so marketable without the seminal “Jurassic Park.”
Amid the spectacle of the film are the moments that make it a lasting picture: moments like when a Brachiosaurus tries to feed on the foliage near some of the characters’ resting spot. Teenager Lex (Ariana Richards) freaks out, already disillusioned by the carnivorous Tyrannosaur encountered earlier. Her brother Tim (Joseph Mazzello, “The Social Network”) reassures her, telling her it’s merely a “veggie-saurus.” Comforted, Lex feeds the gentle giant, which then sneezes, covering her in dinosaur snot.
It’s the classic lines and moments — even moments of dinosaur danger — that make “Jurassic Park” a more human movie than the common bland disaster and creature flicks. Seeing the lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero, “Gods and Monsters”) sprint away from an encroaching Tyrannosaur and toward the bathroom, Dr. Malcolm says simply, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.” And when Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), park game warden, realizes the bloodthirsty velociraptors have outsmarted and surrounded him, he says, “clever girl.”
More important, though (and seldom recognized), is the film’s underlying theme. The humans’ attempt to control dinosaurs is futile, as is InGen’s expectation to peacefully combine species from across hundreds of millions of years. Extrapolating the film to the everyday, it’s a call for human awareness of our effect upon life and an understanding of the laws of nature — namely, evolution and the fact that every species exists for a reason. The film is an assault on human superiority. The wild wins.
“Jurassic Park” spawned two somewhat lackluster sequels, and both Spielberg and Universal have hinted at a fourth installment. The series is known for its bombast and revenue, but we should remember it more thoughtfully and seriously consider its message in contemporary times. And while a chorus of film viewers might remember just one thing, we should take away from the film its true insight — that even though we may test it, nature has limits, and it’ll violently chomp you up if you push it.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified a Brachiosaurus as an Apatosaurus.