1993 Film Favorites, Part 1: The Technology and Ethics of Jurassic Park
Ancient predators. Murderers. Homophobia. … And that’s just Schindler’s List.
Just kidding… kind of. Nineteen ninety-three was an epic year for film. Consider the films referenced above: Jurassic Park, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Philadelphia, Schindler’s List, and others like Groundhog Day, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Fugitive.
Over the course of 2023, this series will celebrate what’s special about each individual movie, how culture was impacted over the past thirty years, and why these cinematic achievements remain influential.
To begin the series, we’ll put on our high-waisted khaki shorts, jump in the Jurassic jeep, and experience dinosaurs like never before. If you’re worried we’ll investigate the film’s premise of life from death, yes, this is Christ and Pop Culture, but no, we’re not doing a T-Rexurrection comparison to Jesus (and I can’t bring myself to watch The VelociPastor either). We will mine Jurassic Park’s technological impact on bringing extinct species to life in the present day (as we’ll see, it’s actually happening!) and on computer special effects. Then we’ll examine how the film’s tension is used to heighten ethical and spiritual discussions.
Triassic Technology: Entomology & (Special) Effects
I was introduced to Jurassic Park in 1993 through a neighbor friend who told me how his sister was so scared when the T-Rex appeared that she screamed, threw her popcorn all over the packed audience, and wet her pants. I was simultaneously uneasy and intrigued. Stories like this abound: the film’s realism was a monumental event which naturally bred unforgettable memories.
Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park came out in 1990, but director Steven Spielberg was already vying for the film rights before the novel was complete. Having Crichton as co-screenwriter ensured the adaptation would be faithful to the source material. An intriguing narrative with good storytelling was only part of the magic. Casting was crucial and Spielberg got his first pick on every major role.
Entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) finds dinosaur DNA and makes a park with real live dinos. Needing testimonials, he invites paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and his grandkids to the not-so-soft open.
The storyline relies on believable technology—and two innovations of 1993 set up Jurassic Park for success. The first, Crichton’s idea of extracting dinosaur DNA from a preserved mosquito, was considered theoretically possible by scientists at the time. The second, advancements in CGI and animatronics, meant the film’s visuals would be convincing.
There is some controversy on where Crichton originally got the scientific idea. In 1982, entomologist George Poinar Jr. published a study on a preserved fly, which Crichton read. But in an early draft of his novel he thanked writer Charles Pellegrino for his inspirational speculative fiction story “Dinosaur Capsule.” I believe that the, ahem, science…fiction coalesced, and Crichton’s imagination did the rest.
Nevertheless, legitimate science existed, and the day before the film premiered, Poinar published a new study having extracted DNA from a preserved weevil that lived alongside dinosaurs. Although slightly suspicious timing, the article and film benefited from each other in ways that wouldn’t have been possible except by being released at the same time in 1993. And the science is no longer hypothetical. The Woolly Mammoth De-extinction Project is bringing prehistoric mammoths back to life in Russia! We’ll talk more about how these achievements in science have ethical and spiritual implications in a bit.
Regarding the other technological advancement, that of CGI for the film’s visuals, believability was key. Spielberg hired the legendary Phil Tippett to animate all the major scenes and ensure the dinosaurs’ movement looked natural. Adding minor support, famed effects house ILM was also brought in for some incidental CGI animations. But a few animators at ILM had worked on a CGI version of the T-Rex, and one rebellious artist, Steve “Spaz” Williams, broke protocol.
Although instructed otherwise, Williams looped the test footage on a monitor where producer Kathleen Kennedy would be sure to notice. The gamble paid off, Kennedy told Spielberg who then ordered a full CGI rendering of the T-Rex (The Movies that Made Us, “Jurassic Park”). The director was so blown away by the rendering that he asked for all stop-motion sequences to be replaced with CGI. This one decision changed movie making forever. In fact, when Tippett saw the CGI footage he told Spielberg, “I’m extinct,” which the director homaged in the film when Malcolm tells Grant that archeology is now extinct.¹
CGI revolutionized movie making, but some feel the pendulum has swung too far into an unhealthy dependance. There is an interesting parallel here with on-screen programmer Nedry’s betrayal, chief engineer Arnold attempting to reboot the system (“ah, ah, ah, you didn’t say the magic word”), and Hammond’s takeaway that they were too dependent on automation. Hammond resolves that they will regain control and improve the technology. Horrified, Ellie argues control is an illusion and all that matters is getting back the people they love.
And that relatable, relational element, well-written, well-acted, and balanced with great action effects makes Jurassic Park special. Even Williams, the man who pushed computer animation onto the big screen, is blunt about how a reliance on CGI has degraded the film industry. And, in my humble opinion, the Jurassic Park franchise is a perfect example. When Jurassic World rebooted the series, it was okay, but each subsequent film has gotten worse. There is a reliance on effects without the skeleton of a good story begging to be made. Again, for the original, Spielberg made a point to hire great actors (not just movie stars) to supplement the authenticity.
So I was disappointed to see how abysmal the most recent Jurassic World: Dominion was, despite great actors like Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt being joined by the original team of Laura Dern, BD Wong, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill. Concrete proof that the original was unique because it had phenomenal components balanced together. The closest Dominion came to a meaningful message was a spotlight on ecological collapse (which a concluding voiceover promises Henry Wu [BD Wong] solved), followed by a reminder that we need to co-exist with animals. So what about the original storyline’s philosophical and spiritual discussions were so meaningful?
Past Tents, Present Tense
Before rushing into the profound thoughts themselves, we need to set up camp around how the film asked and answered the questions. Spielberg knew it wasn’t enough to ask questions around controlling the lives of others (whether dinosaur or human); in order to hold the audiences’ attention, tension must be built. Not tension for tension’s sake, but weaving mysteries into a storyline where revelations and resolutions exceed expectations. Sure, the film’s first scene teases a dinosaur, yet all we see are its eyes (a classic Hitchcockian “don’t show the monster” rule, which Spielberg himself employed in Jaws). And when Hammond asks doctors Ellie and Grant to join him, he doesn’t reveal that he has live dinosaurs.
The audience is privy to information that the characters are not. And instead of egotistical omniscience, we feel both excited for their revelation and a privileged connection that we’re along for the ride (via the safety of a screen).
Even on the helicopter flight when we meet Malcolm and see personality conflicts, we’re impatiently unsure how the whole dino thing is going to turn out. Interestingly, John Williams’ iconic Jurassic Park theme (something I still hear people whistle at momentous occasions) is first played here when the passengers and audience initially see the island. Not during the title sequence and not when we first see live dinosaurs, but when we’re ushered onto the island.
Why did Spielberg and Williams choose this to be the first time those epically stirring bars were played? I propose it’s because the promise of the island, its novelty and adventure, are seductive, dangerous, and exciting. The audience is thrilled about the prospect of live dinosaurs, as long as the beasts are safely behind a fence.
Our imaginations have been slowly piqued so that by the time Grant fumbles his glasses off and turns Ellie’s head, it is both jaw-dropping and a relief to finally see the brachiosaurus. From that point on there are plenty of examples: the initially uneventful tour that becomes our introduction to the T-Rex; Ellie’s quest to get the power online, where we witness Grant’s raptor pack-hunting theory viciously proven (just to name a few).
Tension in lines of dialogue, orchestral music, even how actors exchange a look, pave the path for emotional investment in future action scenes or the fate of a character. But Spielberg didn’t just build tension to keep the audience white-knuckled, he masterfully used pressure-filled situations to involve the audience in the philosophical and spiritual discussions.
Ethics to Keep from Becoming Extinct
Consequently, most of the ethical debates happen during or directly after tense or exciting scenes. This way the audience is highly engaged due to the action, or as a relief from a heart-pounding sequence.
Having seen live dinosaurs and having broken the ride’s safety bars, the group discusses DNA with geneticist Henry Wu. Doctor Wu explains the park’s chromosome control, to which Malcom gives his famous “life will expand” tirade, culminating in, “Life…uh, finds a way.” Prophetic words to whet our appetite on the illusion of control.
After the raptors are fed, humorously the tour group has lunch. Discussions of monetizing the park upset Malcolm and he picks up where he left off. With another memorable diatribe aimed at the park’s trading responsibility for profits (noteworthy considering that within a year the film made $1B in merchandise alone), Malcolm states, “…but your scientists were so preoccupied over whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Responsible for the preservation of a much more important species, Moses led God’s chosen people out of a captivity of control. Numbers 12:3 says Moses was the meekest person on earth (seemingly ironic since Moses wrote it!). Often, we confuse meekness for “weakness,” but the word means strength under control. The idea is that Moses had the self-control to wait on God’s timing for what should (and should not) be done.
Although I’m not a leader or an inventor, as a creative I sometimes struggle with giving an idea or an action life if it wouldn’t glorify God or better humanity. This also applies to our lives when we’re tempted to be the first to post on social media, but our conscience knows it’s gossip, or exploiting ethical gray areas such as loopholes on our taxes, or sharing streaming accounts instead of paying the subscriptions. Just because we see an opportunity doesn’t mean we should take it. The truth in Malcolm’s statement shines a spotlight on the gap from Moses’ meekness to where we want to be.
And those themes of self-control and humility are evident on the tour while waiting for the T-Rex to appear. Awed, Malcom says, “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” Not missing a beat, “Dinosaurs eat man,” Ellie responds. “Woman inherits the earth.”
The first three of Malcolm’s five statements are facts about God as Creator. The fourth, on man killing God, always frustrated me, as if the omnipotent God of the Bible could be overpowered. But that’s my Judeo-Christian worldview convoluting a contextually snarky observation of humanity overextending their creative role.
There have been many debates around the ethics of cloning, “creating” life, and AI for centuries. But are the discussions purely academic? Absolutely not. Exactly forty years ago Danny Hillis founded Thinking Machine Corporation, making the first computers to process in parallel (opposed to sequentially). The “Thinking Machines” brand were eventually supposed to act human, and it’s no coincidence that four are in the background of the control room in Jurassic Park.
And three years after Jurassic Park came out, Dolly the sheep, not the first cloned animal but the most famous, sparked controversy. I personally wrestle with whether God would ever allow a living being to be technologically created with an eternal soul. My easy answer is to heed Malcolm’s could versus should warning. Maybe the only sure answer is that we can’t have a sure answer and we leave it up to God to sort out.
But it does seem we should at least have conversations about meekness regarding genetic innovation. Lest we fall into despair, Doctor Sattler offers a beacon of hope. Ellie’s response to Malcolm (“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”) is more than witty feminism: it is a promise of survival. She’s probably referring to the myth that men fly too close to the sun, while women are less likely to force boundaries at the cost of leaving the vulnerable unprotected. Granted, women would still have the dinosaurs to contend with. I may be overthinking the rejoinder, but maybe the idea is that women would learn to cope or find ways to wipe out the thunder lizards. Either way, there is a recognition of the fundamental human drive to survive.
These thought exercises dovetailing into real-life ramifications are what make Jurassic Park so impactful. Ellie’s establishing boundaries on technology in order to save loved ones corresponds with her desire to survive. And that protective passion in conjunction with Malcolm’s call to behave ethically in meekness are some of the best takeaways the film has to offer. That, and dinosaurs from 65 million (or 30) years ago are still really cool.
1. Jurassic Park Collector’s Edition DVD from 2000, the “Making of Jurassic Park” featurette.