On the Populist Genius of Jurassic Park, the Greatest Blockbuster of the ’90s

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On the Populist Genius of Jurassic Park, the Greatest Blockbuster of the ’90s

Jurassic Park is a great film, by just about any estimation one can use to judge such things. It’s thrilling as an action epic, a prescient sci-fi premise, and as a special effects spectacular that modernized (and yes, “evolved”) the entire industry by quantum leaps in the early ’90s. Its influence was pervasive, from the obvious copies (looking at you, Carnosaur) that quickly flooded the home video market to the general ballooning of blockbuster film FX budgets, which were suddenly being held to much higher standards by filmgoers. Let’s just say that in the years after Jurassic Park, you could no longer get away with putting out “Billy and the Cloneasaurus,” in any format.

But Jurassic Park isn’t just a pinnacle of ’90s popcorn entertainment. It’s also an incredible blueprint for the art of populist filmmaking—making films that effectively and effortlessly appeal to a wide audience and work partially outside of that audience’s understanding to give them all the information they need to get the most out of the viewing experience. Because it does this so well, Jurassic Park is both instantly accessible and surprisingly deep upon more detailed inspection. It can be enjoyed just as thoroughly by a student of film as it can by a 10-year-old kid in a T-Rex t-shirt, and that’s because the 10-year-old has been given tools he’s not even aware of that are intended to boost his enjoyment. Those tools are some of the building blocks of filmmaking. So let’s talk about a few.

Jurassic Park and the art of foreshadowing

Steven Spielberg, along with screenwriters Michael Crichton and David Koepp, do a masterful job of hinting at future events throughout Jurassic Park in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Perhaps it helped that Crichton was the author of the novel and had the surest grasp of its themes, but the instances of foreshadowing they include in the film go a long way toward boosting its “rewatchability,” rewarding second and third viewings.

The most unmistakable instance of foreshadowing in the film happens early on, during our first introduction to protagonist/super paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant. Confronted with the world’s most annoying, portly ’90s child, our favorite safari hat-wearing paleontologist lays into his delicate psyche with surgical precision, detailing exactly how he would be stalked and subsequently disemboweled by a pack of Velociraptors working in tandem. The attack, he tells the now-quivering child, won’t come from the raptor he sees in front of him, but from the sides, from the other raptors “you didn’t even know were there.”

This is of course exactly how we later witness the death of anti-raptor advocate Robert Muldoon, the park’s game warden—the exact hunting strategy described by Grant. It also serves to give credit to Grant’s dinosaur expertise, given that he’s ultimately more successful at predicting raptor behavior simply from his research on the fossil record than men who have physically studied raptor behavior in the flesh inside their enclosures. Grant’s knowledge implies that he wouldn’t have been taken by surprise with the same raptor ploy.

A far more subtle instance of foreshadowing is present in the helicopter riding sequence, in which the main characters arrive on Isla Nublar. Fighting choppy updrafts, Hammond instructs the riders to all put on their seatbelts, but Grant faces an impasse. Due to some kind of design flaw, his seat presents him only with two “receiving” ends of the seatbelt, rather than two corresponding pieces that naturally fit together. Cleverly, he jury rigs a solution by tying the two parts of the belt together in a knot, before smiling at Ellie, clearly proud of his little display of resourcefulness.

This entire sequence is a beautiful visual metaphor for the phrase Jeff Goldblum eventually coins as the mantra of the entire Jurassic Park and Jurassic World franchise: “Life finds a way.” Consider the fact that the two seatbelt ends Grant is presented with are the ends we refer to as “female.” Later, as the characters explore the dinosaur breeding lab, Dr. Wu explains the park’s chief tactic for population control—all of its animals are female, and thus can’t breed. But as we know, the amphibian DNA used to fill in the genetic gaps in the dinosaur’s DNA allows for some species to spontaneously switch genders, which eventually leads to a breeding population. Thus, Grant’s seatbelt confusion foreshadows exactly what will happen on the island. It’s yet another symbol of man’s hubris—we introduce errors into our design, thinking ourselves infallible creators, but our arrogance is exposed by the complexity of the natural world. Life finds a way, even if it’s a crude one.

Jurassic Park and exposition

Jurassic Park is a film that contains a pretty fair amount of exposition, but it manages to handle it with unusual deftness/entertainment factor that distracts the viewer from the fact that it’s happening.

The preeminent example of this is the sequence where Grant, Sattler and Malcolm are put onto the moving theater contraption, which proceeds to answer pretty much every question the audience would ask about how InGen was able to clone the dinosaurs, complete with pithy animation. It lasts a few minutes, which can feel like an eternity when someone is simply explaining concepts in a movie, but it passes by effortlessly thanks to the goofy way, Mr. DNA voiceover in particular, that it’s being delivered, and the bemused/wondrous expressions of our main characters—lots of so-called Spielberg Faces here. In this sequence, we learn the key information of how the genetic gaps were filled (with frog DNA), along with the purpose of the amber that is being excavated in the film’s second major scene. It tells us practically everything we need to know about the science/technical side of Jurassic Park, with a few more tidbits filled in by the conversation with Dr. Wu, which is handled even more smoothly. The only other exposition scene in a blockbuster movie I can compare it to, in terms of length and effectiveness, is the sequence in The Matrix when Morpheus uses a computer program to tell Neo about the entire history of the man vs. machines conflict for almost five minutes.

But then there’s the practical information about dinosaurs, and for those purposes the film turns to another character, game warden Robert Muldoon. Put simply, the raptors are nothing without Muldoon. This guy practically exists within the screenplay as the personal hype man for Velociraptor as a species. The scene where the group of (hidden, not yet revealed) raptors are making mincemeat of a cow lowered into their enclosure is masterful in the way that Spielberg counterpoints the horrified characters observing the paddock with the information that Muldoon is simultaneously giving to Grant—and by extension, to the audience, if they’re paying attention. In just a few moments, Muldoon suggests everything you need to know about the raptors. They’re big. They move at “cheetah speed.” They’re “astonishing jumpers.” And most importantly, they display extreme intelligence, even “problem-solving intelligence,” which will be key to the entire final act. The audience is given all this information long before they’ll ever need any of it, so it can sit in the background of your short-term memory.

And this is key, when it comes to …

Jurassic Park and misdirection

At the same time as the exposition of Jurassic Park is equipping you with the information you need, the plot works hard to make you put that information out of your mind until you actually need it, later on.

Consider: Which dinosaurs are the ultimate antagonists of the original Jurassic Park? The answer is the Velociraptors, but they’re practically absent from the entire first two acts. The chilling opening scene of the film implies the messy devouring of a worker to establish how dangerous they are, and Muldoon and Grant’s spiels about them whet the audience’s anticipation, but we don’t ever truly get to see the things until they escape and start hunting Lex and Tim. It’s as if Spielberg was applying the lesson he learned from the mechanical failures of Bruce the animatronic Great White Shark in Jaws—less can be more, and the build-up is everything.

And yet, the film doesn’t want you to spend your time wondering “but when are we going to see some raptors?”, so it manages the difficult task of referencing them regularly while then diverting your attention with its other shiny baubles. The Dilophosaurus or Triceratops for instance, which ultimately prove fairly inconsequential to the plot. Or the much-ballyhooed T-Rex sequence, which while amazing, ultimately has less significance to Grant’s character arc and the movie’s primary themes. After seeing the film, it becomes clear that everything is ultimately a build to the raptor scenes, but this is never obvious to a first-time viewer, because they’re too busy being entertained. That’s populist Spielberg for you.

Jurassic Park and the portrayal of women

It can be shocking to watch Jurassic World, the most recent entry in this series, and then go back to watch the original Jurassic Park, only to find that somehow, the portrayal of female characters has somehow drastically regressed in the past 22 years. You’d think we’d be headed in the other direction, but no—the character of Claire Dearing, played by Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World, is a pale shadow of Ellie Sattler in terms of aspirational and populist appeal.

Allow me to restate: If she’s not already, Dr. Ellie Sattler should be considered a feminist icon, and one that was somewhat underappreciated in her time. Consider, for instance, the nature of her relationship with Dr. Grant. Practically everything that exists between them is implied rather than stated. Never is the actual nature of their relationship codified. Are they dating? Hooking up? Engaged? I have no idea, and it doesn’t matter, because her character isn’t defined by her relationship with Grant. The only reason we know for sure that they’re together is that she offhandedly mentions having “little Alan Grants someday.”

In fact, Dr. Sattler is apparently so comfortable with their relationship that she even flirts a bit with Malcolm, without it ever coming close to being an important plot point. And when reunited with Grant after the long absence/trek through Jurassic Park/surviving the raptor attack, do they share a passionate kiss? Hell no! There is no kissing, and no tacked-on, overinflated romance in Jurassic Park. It seems totally novel to us today, because what modern Hollywood film could bear to leave the relationship between Grant and Sattler so unspoken and nebulous? If this was Jurassic World, Grant’s character would have to be a well-muscled douche-bro alpha male who eventually wins back a “frigid” Dr. Sattler through acts of macho derring-do. Which is what happens between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World, if you’ve forgotten. This video essay does a nice job of expounding on these points.

And honestly, that’s just scratching the surface of how much more capable and assertive the female lead was presented as in 1993 compared to 2015. Who points out Hammond’s arrogance to his face while he sits eating pity ice cream? Sattler. Who reminds everyone that “survival situations” don’t excuse sexism? Sattler. Who singlehandedly gets the power back on, despite Hammond’s objections? M-F’ing SATTLER, folks. And that’s key to a populist blockbuster, because guess what? Half the audience members in the theater are women. And as it turns out, women are interested in seeing aspirational representations of their gender in film, the same as men are—characters with agency and story arcs that aren’t pandering or misogynist. The obvious question is “Why were our blockbusters better at this 22 years ago than they are today?”

All of these reasons are factors as to why Jurassic Park was not only such a massive success in 1993, but why the film still plays so well to a new audience in 2018, and most of it comes down to the magical touch of Steven Spielberg. In him, we see a director with exceedingly rare insight into the hearts and minds of the multiplex audience—all of them, from the child to the film scholar. His powers as a populist filmmaker may never be matched, and he’s got the box office receipts to prove it.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and childhood dinosaur obsessive. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.

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