The Duality of Progress in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park

The following is an essay I wrote as my final paper for my Film History class at Northwestern. Enjoy!

Over 25 years after its release, Jurassic Park stands today as a quintessential Hollywood blockbuster, a film with both unprecedented box office success and strong cultural and critical acclaim. Director Steven Spielberg amazed audiences with groundbreaking special effects that breathed life into dinosaurs and fit a relevant, compelling story in between the dinosaur attacks. In this paper, I will argue that Jurassic Park uses its horrifying fable of a prehistoric theme park gone wrong to caution against reckless ambition and the pitfalls of progress.

Jurassic Park hints at the sinister side of its achievements in the opening scene, in which a worker is mauled and eaten while trying to move an off-screen dinosaur from its cage to an exhibit. This frightening loss of life is succinctly brushed aside when a lawyer interrogates one of the excavators in the following scene. The scene is calm and well-lit, in stark contrast with the tension of the dark opening sequence, and the horror has been replaced with unbridled optimism. Not only does the excavator ignore the expensive pending insurance claim from the victim’s family, but he expresses disdain at having further investigations at Jurassic Park, noting that he “hates inspections” because “they slow everything down.” While the audience has not seen the park yet or its dinosaurs, the excavator’s nonchalant reaction to fatal consequences of dinosaur recreation is unnerving. 

The rest of the first act follows protagonists Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler as they experience the grandeur of Jurassic Park for the first time and depicts the deceptive beauty of progress. As the helicopter approaches the island, the shot pans up from the expanse of the ocean to the gigantic, lush site of Jurassic Park, with composer John Williams’ triumphant fanfare underscoring the Park’s epic scale. Yet Grant and Sattler’s amazement is supplanted by an even greater degree of disbelief when the scientists encounter their first living dinosaur. The close shot lingers on the scientists’ awe at seeing the dinosaur without showing the dinosaur itself, then pans up to the treetops and clouds to reveal a towering brachiosaurus (this time the theme is a softer, more elegant piece). That the brachiosaurus wins over the most skeptical experts of the dinosaur field is evidence of the magnitude of the discovery, and by using a harmless herbivore, Spielberg alleviates his characters of any feeling of imminent danger from this innovation. Later, Grant and Sattler witness the birth of a raptor (which projects innocence rather than danger), suggesting that the curated beauty of the dinosaurs justifies the risks of innovation. Even the lawyer, whose job was to take a critical look at the park’s viability, falls for its grandeur. 

After the tour, chaotician Ian Malcolm challenges the idealistic presentation of Jurassic Park. Malcolm sees the park’s control of the dinosaurs as an illusion and challenges creator John Hammond’s negligence, likening Hammond to “a kid holding his dad’s gun” and arguing that “your scientists were so preoccupied with if they could, they never thought if they should.” In response, Hammond attempts to gloss over these risks by claiming the inevitability of progress, proving Malcolm’s point entirely. “How can we stand in the light of discovery and not act?” Hammond asks, adopting a wholly optimistic view of innovation and dismissing the risks that come with these fleeting joys. At this point, however, Malcolm’s musings are purely hypothetical — their terrifying manifestations are yet to come. 

The sunny, picturesque vistas of Jurassic Park are replaced by massive storms as the park’s visitors embark on their tour, and as complicating factors initiate chaos in the park, the curtain is pulled back to reveal a park on the brink of chaos. Hammond’s overreliance on Dennis Nedry to run the computer system backfires spectacularly as Nedry shuts off parts of the power grid to facilitate an embryo heist. Nedry’s betrayal exposes Hammond’s lack of control over Jurassic Park and, most crucially, puts Hammond’s loved ones in the most vulnerable spot on the island — right outside a Tyrannosaurus Rex pen. One by one, the constructs that had kept intact the illusion of control over the dinosaurs fail, from the power grid supplying electricity to the physical barriers that keep the dinosaurs from the road to the cars promised to provide a safe, automated ride. The visitors are at the mercy of history’s most terrifying predator, with no safeguard left between them and the T-Rex but each other. 

The catastrophe forces Hammond to critically examine his approach for the first time during a dinner scene with Dr. Sattler. Hammond and Sattler sit across from each other on opposite ends of a long dining table in a vacant and dark Jurassic Park restaurant, itself a sobering monument to the unchecked ambition of Hammond to turn the unpredictability of nature into a commercially successful theme park. The chaotic motion and sounds of the Tyrannosaurus Rex chase are replaced by an eerie quiet, with Dr. Sattler’s loathing of Hammond’s giddy outlook palpable. Hammond’s hushed tones as he talks of his past experiences convey his understanding of the weight of the situation, yet he still claims that “next time everything’s correctable.” Sattler sees through his hubris and urges Hammond to look beyond his lofty, blinding aspirations and that “the only thing left is the ones we love.” Sattler’s words force Hammond to realize what was in front of him all along — that he overlooked risks in the name of progress, and by doing so he has put lives, including those of his grandchildren, in grave danger.    

While discussing Nedry’s betrayal, Hammond says, “I don’t blame people for their mistakes, I ask that they pay for them.” While Hammond’s flawed approach to building Jurassic Park does not cost him the lives of his grandchildren, his decisions result in the losses of lives, investments, and Hammond’s assuring guise of control. Jurassic Park marked the dawn of a new era with its CGI special effects and cultural resonance, but through it Spielberg sends an inspiring message that thrilling action on the big screen can coexist with, and even enhance, a compelling and complex story.

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