by Becky Ferreira
On June 11th, 1993, I had my one and only “religious experience.” It began, as is tradition, by staring into the cold hard eye of a raptor. It lasted for 127 minutes, in which I was in a complete state of raptor — sorry, rapture (these words are synonyms to me). I emerged from the movie theatre a changed person. I was like Saint Paul after he fell off his horse and realized, “Holy crap, Jesus is a god-man-thing!” Only my revelation was about dinosaurs, and so is obviously superior.
I had borne witness to the birth of Jurassic Park. I had seen it bite through the fence of public anticipation and burst into the public sphere. And oh, how it bellowed.
I was 8, but I remember how completely earth-shattering this film was right away. My friends and family laughed off my obsession, and chalked it up to childhood dinophilia. Exactly 20 years later, I have signed portraits of the characters framed all over my room, two sets of Jurassic Park toys splayed across my work desk, and all of the dialogue of the movie memorized (and that includes the dinosaurs’ “lines”). So who’s laughing now? Answer: Ian Malcolm, like this.
To say that Jurassic Park is my favorite movie would be like saying Earth is my favorite planet. These are prejudices over which I have no control. I love the movie’s subtle foreshadowing, such as the helicopter landing scene in which Alan Grant — that’s Sam Neil as the paleontologist — has two female seatbelt buckles that won’t connect. But Dr. Grant finds a way (just like the dinosaurs’ lil gametes). I love how Jeff Goldblum makes a tyrannosaur bite look really sexy. I love that when Jurassic Park owner John Hammond is forced to cut the tour short, he whines, “Why didn’t I build in Orlando?” This throwaway line summons magical visions of raptors and Rexes marauding around the Magic Kingdom eating Mickey mascots off of Porta Potties. People on the Jurassic Park theme park ride wouldn’t know what the Fukuiraptor was going on! Makers of Jurassic Park 4, take note: this alternate universe is where you should set your movie.
The minor characters of JP are also beyond phenomenal. For example, Robert Muldoon, the game warden, who has spent months embroiled in crazy staring contests with raptors, and it completely shows. By the time we meet him, he’s too far-gone into this weird rivalry with the “big one” in the pride, like he’s slowly losing his soul to her or something. Indeed, one of the great insights of the movie is that Grant learned more about raptors by studying them as wild animals than Muldoon learned by observing them in captivity. If only Muldoon had overheard Grant’s take-down of that bratty kid at the beginning, he might have understood the most important thing about raptors — they attack from the side. Clever girls.
I’m even an apologist for the movie’s many mistakes. I mean, the Rex footsteps’ produce these monstrous impact tremors, but when she arrives to save the day at the end, she literally materializes out of nowhere. It definitely makes you wonder if she learned to tiptoe. Also, could Dennis Nedry, the park’s computer programmer, have made a more suspicious exit speech? Would that even be possible? Try to sweat and stutter a little more there, guy. And did you notice that the embryo vials for Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus were both spelled wrong? I think that screw-up might actually be intentional, a subtle endorsement of Malcolm’s criticism of how Hammond slaps stuff on lunchboxes before he even knows what he has. Indeed, if you watch the movie closely, you can see that Hammond’s charismatic hypocrisy is a running gag. My favorite example is that he claims to be present for every raptor birth as it helps them to, no joke, “trust” him. Cut to: the highest security paddock in the park. Because trust.
But I digress, and on this subject, I always will. So let’s get down to the meat, which is what the dinosaurs would want. What I really love about Jurassic Park is that it is about everything. Or at least, it’s about the everything of science, and that is the most interesting kind of everything.
It’s nominally about dinosaurs, so it’s already starting light years ahead of most movies (what I wouldn’t give for more tyrannosaurs in romantic comedies, for instance). But underneath that layer of awesomeness, it’s a parable about what I call the Triforce of Science. This Triforce is not exactly wisdom, courage, and power, but it’s actually not far off: it’s theory, empiricism, and money. As in Hyrule, each viewpoint brings its own prejudices to the table — and this literally goes down around a table in Jurassic Park. Over plates of Chilean sea bass, the characters lock horns like Triceratops over the very nature of science.
Hold on to your butts.
Ian Malcolm, played with alarming expertise by Jeff Goldblum, represents theorists, the scientific equivalent of prophets. Theorists derive their ideas from real world observation, but they are not beholden to it. Chaos theory, for example, aims to understand complex phenomena like the stock market or the weather. But the field itself is mathematically bound. Chaos theorists aren’t typically out chasing storms to get their data — they’re working with computer models and simulations, abstractions of what actually occurs in nature. This is because theorists take on questions so big and vague that there’s often no hard-and-fast empirical framework for testing them. Accordingly, truth from this perspective is not limited to what can be proven to exist via our sensory experience of the world. This is echoed in the table scene: Malcolm argues that Hammond’s park is an inevitable failure based on probability — just math — which shows that statistically, “life finds a way.”
Across the table, Grant is repping hard empiricism. He’s pegged as a “digger” before he’s even on screen, which is important: unlike Malcolm, Grant has dirt under his nails. Truth is a much harder sell on an empiricist because they base their ideas solely on physical data. Grant, as a paleontologist, relies on the fossil record and biological behavior for his deductions, both of which can be concretely observed in nature. So when Grant says that birds are descended from dinosaurs, it’s because he’s already accrued hard evidence to support that claim. As soon as he’s introduced he’s calmly explaining that his conclusion is self-evident if you actually look at the similarities between raptors and modern-day birds, such as the shape of the pubic bone, and how its vertebrae are filled with avian-like airsacs and hollows.
That’s why Grant’s instinct in the table scene is not to voice an opinion, but to ask a question: “dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back in the mix together. How can we possibly have any idea what to expect?” Grant, a true empiricist, doesn’t “want to jump to any conclusions” because he doesn’t have the facts and he hasn’t observed the effects for himself. He won’t budge until he sees some hard evidence. Spoiler alert: he sees some hard evidence.
Finally, we have John Hammond, who represents the commercial side of science. He is an entrepreneur who has selectively chosen what kind of science to support based on its potential return. But there are some serious complicating factors with money and science (…pretty much with money and anything). First of all, patrons tend to expect payback on their investment in research. Despite often having a genuine philanthropic or academic interest in the work they sponsor, as Hammond does, the bottom line for any entrepreneur is an increase in power, be it political, social, religious, or financial. That’s a lot of pressure for a thought system like science, which can’t produce convenient answers all the time, no matter how much money you throw at it.
Patrons aren’t typically scientists themselves, and because of that, they lack insight into the discipline required to solve such gargantuan problems. They don’t, as Malcolm says, “earn the knowledge” for themselves, and thus they don’t take responsibility for it. Hammond’s defense in the table scene perfectly illustrates this shortcoming. Instead of absorbing Malcolm’s point, he accuses him of being a Luddite and asks the painfully idealistic question, “How can we stand in the light of discovery, and not act?” It’s classic political rhetoric, and it talks beyond Malcolm’s critique instead of acknowledging it. Like other powerful men and women who have used doublespeak to get their way, Hammond appears to actually buy into his own words, unintentionally fulfilling Malcolm’s prophesy of avoiding responsibility. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.
This friction within the Triforce reaches its apex around the table, but it’s substantiated throughout the movie. Early on, Malcolm jokes, “God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers,” establishing his discomfort around concrete thinkers. Even his wry joke that he’s always looking for “a future ex-Mrs. Malcolm” suggests that he prefers marriage as a theoretical idea than as a reality. Grant is just the opposite. He only grasps the crux of chaos theory when he discovers hard evidence of it: a dinosaur nest in the wild. And he’s not open to the idea of family life even on a theoretical level because he’s observed overwhelming evidence that children are noisy, messy, expensive, and that babies smell. Having cutie-pies Tim and Lex fall asleep on him twice may sway his prejudices slightly, but tellingly Grant remains a childless bachelor in Jurassic Park III (and the fact that Ellie Sattler’s dumb toddler dicks around with the phone while Grant is about to be eaten by a Spinosaurus probably doesn’t do wonders for his opinion of children).
Meanwhile, despite his grandchildren being hunted by Rexes and raptors, Hammond repeatedly retreats into high-minded rhetoric to eschew responsibility for his guests becoming Lunchables. He snaps at Malcolm when trying to lead Sattler through the Maintenance Shed, defensively saying “I know how to read a schematic!” But he doesn’t know how, not at all, and Malcolm has to forcefully take over to show him how it’s done. This is a beautiful little microcosm of their difference in perspective — Hammond always confidently overestimating himself, Malcolm always able to see the simplest truth in a complex situation. Follow the goddamn pipes.
Hammond’s hubris is most evident in his drippingly self-pitying flea circus speech, in which he rationalizes that the park was “an aim not devoid of merit,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Sattler is there to hear him out, and set him straight. She is a fantastic character (even more so in the book) and acts as Grant’s sidekick in empiricism throughout the story. She’s actually a little farther ahead than Grant is when it comes to understanding the dangers of the park. Early on, she chides Hammond for putting poisonous plants in the lobby just because they be pretty lil flowahs. But nobody really pays attention to her because they just saw a bunch of raptors demolish a cow, so who gives a crap about some dumb plants? Speaking of crap, Sattler makes her commitment to empiricism unflaggingly clear when she dives elbow-deep into Trike poop (she’s…uh…tenacious), showing that she’s a kinesthetic problem-solver who, like Grant, acquires evidence before she makes conclusions. So she lets Hammond throw his little pity party for a while, but refuses to let him get away with saying “next time, it’ll be flawless” about his death trap of an island by tossing him a very heavy reality check. Luckily, there is plenty of ice cream to console them both.
Now for some caveats: I’m sad to report that our world is not as cut and dried as Jurassic Park and that science in general is far too complex a venture to be boiled down to just three perspectives (especially the non-commercial “big idea” stuff). Also, “theory” is an incredibly slippery word, and I don’t mean to suggest that theorists aren’t attentive to the evidence — they are. But their job is not only to interpret data, but to take speculative steps forward into a bigger picture that may not have direct evidence to support it. I’m definitely generalizing with the term, and I own that, okay nerds? It’s also worth noting that most truly brilliant scientists aren’t only theorists or only empiricists, but a healthy mixture: such is the case with Archimedes, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Galileo, Tesla, and Darwin, to name a few all-stars.
All that said, the Triforce of Science is all over the place in science history, because theorists and empiricists do typically rely on patrons of some kind to advance their findings, and in return, the patron enjoys increased personal power. Archimedes relied on King Hiero II of Syracuse to finance his crazy circle drawings. King Hiero II got a great deal out of this too, because Archimedes was an amazing military engineer who helped cement Hiero’s place in history as a legendary defender of his Kingdom. Another good example is the partnership between theorist Johannes Kepler and empiricist Tycho Brahe, who were brought together by their mutual benefactor Rudolph II of Prague. Kepler was a prude and Brahe was utterly debauched, so they really hated each other. But with Rudolph’s money, they managed to create modern astrophysics together nonetheless. Triforce FTW.
While often symbiotic, this trio of perspectives can also quickly become hostile, and that’s when science history becomes pyrotechnic. Hippasus, an empiricist of the 5th Century BCE, was murdered by his theorist patrons after he discovered irrational numbers. Considering Hippasus was as right as the angle on a Pythagorean triangle, this makes his patrons as irrational as the numbers Hippasus pioneered. Conflict has also repeatedly risen between the patrons and the scientists, perhaps most notoriously in the case of Galileo. Up until the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo had Pope Urban VIII’s friendship and support. But his vehement defense of Copernican cosmology incited the Dope to bring charges of heresy against Galileo, which landed him under house arrest for the last nine years of his life. Boy, does Galileo hate being right all the time.
I don’t expect Jurassic Park 4 to dwell on these themes the way the original did. None of the other sequels have, though they are both well worth watching. The Lost World is very stupid, but I don’t know how anyone can resist a T-Rex rampage through San Diego or the film’s adorable mother-son bonding session, in which the Rexes eat the villain (sooo cute! Seriously!). Jurassic Park III is one of the most underrated comedies of all time, in which, no joke, a Spinosaurus eats a cell phone so you always know whether it’s around by listening for the freaking Nokia ring tone. Brilliant.
But even though the sequels aren’t about the everything of science, every Jurassic Park film pays homage to the Triforce in one meaningful way: the dinosaurs themselves. The artist Miranda Dressler has an amazing piece called “Jurassic Park’d,” in which each character is drawn as a dinosaur. She drew Malcolm as a brachiosaur, an animal whose unrivaled far-sightedness perfectly represents theory. Grant is a raptor, an empirical animal that thrives on testing and interpreting hard evidence. And Hammond is the Rex. The blunt force instrument. The catalyst of all the action. The beast that can’t see what is plainly in front of him.
Happy 20th anniversary, Jurassic Park. And thank you for sparing no expense.