“Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur? It’s like a miracle.”
So says Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—the most recent of the Jurassic Park franchise movies, released just last weekend. It’s a curious change of sentiment for Claire, a character who, in the previous movie was so desensitized to dinosaurs, she walked through their holograms in her park without blinking, referred to them as “its” rather than by their genders, and bargained off sponsorship rights to the highest bidders. But encounters with majestic, previously extinct creatures up close and personal tend to change one’s perspective. That’s what happened to Claire in Jurassic World three years ago, it’s what happens to several new characters in Fallen Kingdom, and, in the real world, it’s what happened to a whole generation of young people in the summer of 1993.
I’m a ‘90’s kid. Ask anyone in my generation if they remember the first time they saw Jurassic Park, and more than half of them will have a “Jurassic Park” story. Easy. Seeing Steven Spielberg’s quintessential human-survival-monster-movie-pseudo-science-fiction masterpiece (based, of course, on the bestselling novel by Michael Crichton) was a rite of passage. It set a new standard for verisimilitude in creature creation in filmmaking, and it made us believe professions like paleontology and paleobotany could be cool (much like Indiana Jones did for archeology).
In 1993, dinosaurs became real on the big screen in a way never before seen, and, for a generation of ‘90’s kids, a curious awe of the prehistoric unknown emerged with the crack of a raptor’s egg. With a sweeping shot of a brachiosaurus in a field, an impact tremor in a glass of water, and an unforgettable T-Rex roar, Spielberg managed to titillate our senses and prey on our primal fears. It was one of the most successful movies of the 20th century, taking in more money on its opening weekend than any film previously made.
But I think the popularity of Jurassic Park and our ongoing fascination with not only dinosaurs, but the genre of the film—and this franchise in particular which captures so well the tension between man and prehistoric beast—reveals more about humanity than sheer naturalism and evolutionary drives can explain. Our captivation with the natural world, and the unseen and the unknown in particular, drives exploration and subcreation. These experiences can lead to destructive exploitation, or they can point to awestruck wonder (not that these are mutually exclusive). Jurassic Park handles the material best, and while the next two films in the series each have their merits, the critical flaw of these films is in how they deliver characters who are no longer nearly as awestruck by the dinosaurs as the good doctors and wide-eyed grandkids from Jurassic Park.
Yet, awe returned to the series in 2015 with the release of Jurassic World, which reset the story on the original island with a similar premise to the first movie: two siblings—one who cares about dinosaurs and one who doesn’t—plunged into danger side-by-side at a Jurassic-style theme park. Here director Colin Trevorrow asks another important question: What would it take to shake people used to seeing dinosaurs out of their lethargy? In a way, it was a question both for the visitors to the park in the movie, and to the viewers of Jurassic World, for whom the sight of dinosaurs on the screen was not necessarily spectacular anymore. It didn’t take me long to become re-immersed once the nostalgia of the original island and those brachiosauruses were back on screen, but Zach—the older of the two brothers in the movie (played by Nick Robinson)—doesn’t put his phone down in awestruck wonder until the mosasaurus feeding show. In Jurassic World, this awe-inspiring moment not only opens his eyes to something greater than himself, it also begins a process of reconciliation with his brother.
Awakening wonder, awe, and fear can work changes inside us, as it does with Zach, and the Jurassic movies regularly reveal this quality. In addition, Fallen Kingdom asks us to consider not only what is spectacular, but what our response to it should be, right up to a heartbreaking shot of a dying brachiosaurus on a dock—a last picture of a dinosaur on Isla Nublar that is a painful echo of the first dinosaur we ever saw in Jurassic Park over twenty years ago.And this is where the real success of these films lies: not in a desire to see dinosaurs run amuck again and again, but in our desire to be shaken out of our lethargy and see something indescribably greater than ourselves.
In the first half of Fallen Kingdom, which takes the viewer on a journey back to the original island to save the dinosaurs from an erupting volcano, we’re invited yet again to experience empathetic awe as one character in particular, Zia (Daniella Pineda), tearfully says she never thought she’d see the creatures with her own eyes. Although Fallen Kingdom, like all the Jurassic movies, is unapologetically naturalistic, this idea that we should look, see, or even (at times) touch things that are greater than us is a biblical concept. The way in which it is often paired with reconciliation between characters in the films—like Zach and his brother, Gray (Ty Simpkins)—is also a biblical idea, and so, when I watch the Jurassic movies, I find in them not just an opportunity to feel awe and wonder, but a renewal of hope in God’s nature. In the natural world, God reveals and displays his glory, and it often shakes people out of a lethargy, out of hopelessness, and out of a desensitization.
Perhaps the greatest example of God using the natural world to display his glory to an individual is found in the book of Job. After Job—having lost everything—withstands the bad advice of his friends to curse God and give up, God himself shows up in chapter 38. To display his glory and answer Job in his despair, God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions about Job’s control over the natural world. Questions such as, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?” (vs. 31) and “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their thicket?” (vs. 39-40) Amongst his responses to Job, though, is a command for Job to look at various things, including a fearsome creature called the behemoth. “Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox. Behold, his strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly. He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron” (40:15-18).
The natural world and the great beasts that inhabit it—both current and extinct—are powerful testimonials to God’s greatness, glory, and majesty. We don’t know if Job was actually in the presence of behemoth when God told him to “Behold,” or the fearsome leviathan God describes to him in chapter 41, but we do know that following God’s response and all his display of what he had made—and what he controls in the natural world that Job did not—Job replied, “But now my eye sees you.” Through the wonders of the natural world, he had seen God. And his fear and his awe at God’s miraculous works led Job to repentance (Job 42:5-6), and repentance leads to reconciliation with God.
The fear of God can be renewed when we quaver in fear of that which he’s created, and when filmmakers such as Spielberg make the unseen seen—especially that which has long been extinct, and that which unarguably fascinates people (such as the existence of the closest thing we have in our history to actual monsters!)—then the fear of God can be renewed also in us. And this is where the real success of these films lies: not in a desire to see dinosaurs run amuck again and again, but in our desire to be shaken out of our lethargy and see something indescribably greater than ourselves. To grasp after that feeling the brachiosaurus gave us in the first movie and the horror we felt running from the T-rex (because we were all in that Jeep with Ian Malcolm saying “Must go faster!”). We want to see, to look, to touch, and believe there is more.
Watch any of the Jurassic Park movies, and you’ll notice a directorial trend of focusing on character reactions before the creatures themselves are revealed. In particular—characters’ eyes. The eyes are where emotions are captured, and watching someone’s eyes tells us a lot about what’s going on inside their heads and their hearts. Spielberg is, of course, known for using this technique, and in the Jurassic films it’s done best in the original, but seeing dinosaurs with their own eyes is a trend that is carried straight through to the most recent film, where Claire remembers her first time as a “miracle.” Zia also cries when she sees her first brachiosaurus, and several characters stare in awe, and in sadness for the creatures they are seeing.
Do you remember the first time you saw Jurassic Park? Was it the first time you saw a “dinosaur”? Perhaps seeing the brachiosaurus in the field in the first movie wasn’t exactly “miraculous” because of course you knew it wasn’t actually real, but it probably inspired awe and at least a little fear in you, as it did in me—the awe and fear of seeing something with our own eyes that used to walk the earth and doesn’t any longer. Maybe there’s more to what drives our love of seeing the unseen because seeing the unseen with our own eyes can remind us of the greatness and the majesty of God, and to know God and be reconciled to him is the greatest desire that hides within us all.