Wineskins Archive

January 15, 2014

A Review of Jurassic Park (Mar – Jun 1994)

Filed under: — @ 4:14 pm and

by Dale Pauls
March – August, 1994

21At first you hear only a snorting sound, but you see nothing. You sense you’re being stalked, but still you see nothing. Then you look again, and there—between the ferns—the creature is: large dark eyes watching you coldly, never blinking, a crocodile head, jaws open with rows of razor-sharp teeth. It is the beast’s eerie unearthly stillness, the coldness of it all, that strikes terror into your soul. Welcome to Jurassic Park.

By now it seems the whole world has been to see Jurassic Park, the blockbuster movie directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the novel by Michael Crichton,. In the movie Jurassic Park is the name of an amusement park, but not just any amusement park. Jurassic refers to the geological age when dinosaurs reigned on earth. And on a secluded island, one hundred miles or so off the west coast of Costa Rica, an eccentric multi-millionaire deranged by the glories of science has created an amusement park stocked with live dinosaurs. His scientists have mastered the arts of genetic engineering and computerized gene sequencing and have recreated dinosaurs from DNA fragments trapped in amber almost 200 million years old, so the story goes.

They’re all there on this island: tyrannosaurs, brontosaurs, pterodactyls, velociraptors, and a whole mega-menagerie of a long lost past. One of the most terrifying is the dilophosaur, standing 10 feet tall, with black spots on a yellow body, and a V-shaped black-and-red crest on its head. It (I cannot bring myself to say he or she) gives a soft hooting cry like an owl, but it secretes a toxin from glands in its mouth that it can spit at you with deadly accuracy at a range of 50 feet or more. Your skin immediately begins to tingle and burn. Then you feel sudden excruciating pain in your eyes. The pain stabs into the back of your skull. You begin to wheeze; your breath comes in thin whistles. Waves of nausea and dizziness sweep over you. And the dinosaur saunters over to finish you off at its leisure.

All this the movie vividly portrays, and most viewers will concede that they have never quite seen anything like it before. Yet readers of Michael Crichton’s book may feel somehow disappointed by the movie. Steven Spielberg took a great book and from it crafted a good movie. He skirts the whole matter of chaos theory which is so central to the book. Evidently Spielberg felt that chaos theory defies comprehension by the average moviegoer, but by making this decision and others like it he missed an opportunity to have created really great cinema.

I say this as a Spielberg fan who knows that he’s capable of extraordinary work. His direction of The Color Purple and the enormously underrated Empire of the Sun is close to transcendent, and his Academy-Award-winning Schindler’s List sets new standards for cinematic excellence. With Jurassic Park, however, Spielberg devoted so much of his $65 million budget to technological wizardry that he apparently cut corners elsewhere. For instance he tried to shoot every dialogue scene in no more than five takes. It’s not surprising that there are scenes where the dialogue is not clear. Likewise, the casting was fine but uninspired. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum perform their roles adequately but do not have the acting presence it would have taken to counterbalance the dinosaurs and remind the audience that the really significant story is, as always, the human story. Spielberg seems himself so mesmerized by the dinosaurs that he misses the more important human drama: the dynamic struggle going on in the pages of Crichton’s Jurassic Park for the soul of Western society.

The problem becomes most evident in Spielberg’s portrayal of John Hammond, the deranged multi-millionaire whose feverish imagination gave birth to this nightmare island. In the book Hammond, with his limitless faith in science and capitalism, represents what is most crass and immoral about society. He irresponsibly twists genetic engineering to make a buck—millions in fact. He subscribes to the thoroughly modern credo that if it can be done it should be done, and all the more so if enormous money can be made. And he comes to an appropriate end. In the movie version, as played by Richard Attenborough, Hammond is just a magnificent showman, a Walt Disney nineties-style, everyone’s favorite uncle, an irrepressible timeless kid with the newest and best toys on the block. And he escapes unscathed by his monumental folly.

Having said all this, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park still treats its audience to a rollicking good time at the movies. The special effects are spectacular, and the dinosaurs are convincing. They have personality and steal the show from their human colleagues. In one scene, these magnificent creatures emerge out of the mists of dawn in a transcendent moment of ethereal beauty, and you feel that you have been transported in time back to the age when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

As a Christian observer, I was immediately struck by the parallels between Jurassic Park (in particular the Crichton version) and John’s Apocalypse. In both, evil turns bestial.

When John describes evil on earth, he thinks of monsters—huge, hideous, multi-headed beasts. Coming out of the sea. Coming out of the earth. Forcing worship of Imperial Rome on small household gatherings of beleaguered Christians. Coming at them from every direction. And it all seemed so civilized. Rome was legendary for good government and high civilization. All that was Roman was so disciplined, so skillfully administered, so successful. All one had to do was look at its aqueducts, its amphitheaters, its arches, its well-drilled armies, its marvelous system of law. Everywhere there were signatures of the glory of Rome. Rome was synonymous with culture. It was the cultural paradigm of its day. It explained everything, validated everything, and controlled everything. And all it asked you to do was offer a pinch of incense to the emperor. But John is saying that if you could see it as it really is, it is monstrous.

Today it’s not the glory of Rome that is worshipped. The cultural paradigm in our age is science. It explains everything, validates everything, and controls everything. To contemporize the scene, label the first beast of Revelation 13 Science and the second beast Quantification. We believe in what can be counted, listed, and sharply delineated. The second beast makes us worship the first. We trust only what can be verified and replicated in a lab. We understand Scripture, people, faith, and God only as science dictates. We reduce Scripture to a few formulas. We evaluate people by how much they are worth. We understand faith primarily as a set of facts; it is so much harder to quantify trust. And we limit God to what we can understand. We turn his revelation of himself through narrative story, letters and apocalyptic visions into rules and regulations. We want precise laws for everything, and to get them, we will dare to transform God’s Scripture into something he did not intend it to be.

As a result, we are good at mastering the immediate situation and dreadful at anticipating consequences. As abstractions, the facts seem so clear; in real life, they can be hideous and deforming. We thrill to our accomplishment; hardly anyone stoops to ask whether something should be accomplished or not. If it can be done, it naturally follows that it should be done. But the dinosaurs may not stay inside the electrified fences—truth may escape our man-made categories—and then what?

The real lessons of Crichton’s Jurassic Park come from its resident conscience, chaos theoretician Ian Malcolm. Nature is much more complex than many scientists are willing to accept. Formulas break down. Events are unpredictable; in fact, there are vast categories of phenomena that are inherently unpredictable. There are always flaws in the system. Sudden changes occur — and without warning—and are built into the very fabric of existence. There is no way to account for all the variables. Inevitably instabilities emerge in all structures. Life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life always expands to new territories. The monsters will escape, and if everything else could be controlled, there is no way to factor in human duplicity. The challenge to humans that is both realistic and appropriate is to acquire a mature spirituality — level of trust in God — that makes reasonable life possible in a world of constant change.

All these issues the film version skirts, and so a great book becomes a good movie. Perhaps its viewers will become readers, and a satisfactory feast for the eyes may become a satisfying feast for the soul. Crichton’s Jurassic Park is, in many ways, an Apocalypse for our time. It reminds us that only God can explain, validate, and control. When we turn such power over to anything else, beasts come out of the earth. Whenever anything other than God becomes the ultimate paradigm through which we view reality evil turns bestial. Whenever anything other than God becomes our primary source of identity, security, and satisfaction, it becomes monstrous.

It may seem colorful and interesting, but if you could really see it, it is ugly and hideous. It may give a soft hooting cry like an owl, but listen again, and you will hear a low reptilian hiss. And it will spit poison in your eye.Wineskins Magazine

Dale Pauls

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