With Jurassic Park now on Netflix and playing at drive-in theaters across America, there was no better time to look back at Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic, which has become unexpectedly timely.
“i owe the Jurassic Park franchise an apology,” Twitter user @Relentlessbored wrote in a viral tweet in April, “it is in fact very realistic the rich would reopen a park in spite of it consistently resulting in mass death.”
The tweet struck a nerve with the collective trapped on COVID-19 Island. What kind of people would continuously send out others to risk, and often lose, their lives to a ravening horde of killer organisms? The kind of people who run our workplaces, own our apartment buildings, and operate our government; the kind of people who want us to rush back to work and school, despite the risks, in hopes of kickstarting a broken economy even as they fail to pony up the cash we could use to stay at home, stay solvent, and stay alive. Suddenly, the forces animating the four (and counting) sequels to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece of suspense Jurassic Park feel more familiar than ever.
Before spawning a monster trilogy, then spinoff franchise in the Jurassic World films, the original Jurassic Park broadcast its “greed isn’t good” message in ways both large and small. In this it had its obvious antecedents in the creature-feature genre, from the callous Company and its operatives in the Alien series to the beach-opening mayor in Spielberg’s own Jaws. This was a note the director was primed to play.
Even the crudest big-picture, broad-strokes take on Jurassic Park reveals its overt message: science run amok; hunger for profits above concerns for safety; ambition leading a genteel but headstrong multimillionaire, John Hammond, into the creation of a slowly unfolding human/dinosaur disaster. But in the era of the pandemic, it’s clearer than ever how deeply capitalist rapaciousness is embedded in Jurassic Park’s DNA.
Money moves the plot of Spielberg’s Michael Crichton adaptation at an almost molecular level. Both the arrival of outsiders to Isla Nublar and the escape of the dinosaurs are motivated by cold, hard cash. After a velociraptor kills a worker in the opening scene of the film, his family launches a $20 million lawsuit against parent company InGen. We later learn from the park’s mousy lawyer, Donald Gennaro, that the incident gave the park’s insurance company and its investors second thoughts about backing the project, prompting the hiring of outside experts Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm to inspect the park. Without the concerns about continued cash flow, our favorite paleontologist, paleobotanist, and mathematician would never have felt a single tyrannosaurus-foot impact.
The shutdown of park security systems that leads to the escape of the dinosaurs is even more rooted in filthy lucre. The majority of the animal paddocks are brought down by Dennis Nedry, the overworked and underpaid (according to him, and I for one don’t doubt it) computer programmer responsible for the park’s largely automated systems. Nedry is offered a bribe from a rival company to steal dinosaur embryos and sneak them off the island, a bribe he accepts in large part because the park’s owner, Hammond, has refused his request for a raise.
Hammond rejects Nedry’s entreaties explicitly on the grounds of the moral hazard inherent in paying Nedry more than Hammond feels he deserves. Nedry’s financial problems, Hammond insists, are Nedry’s financial problems. “I don’t blame people for their mistakes,” Hammond says crossly, “but I do ask that they pay for them.” If Hammond had been more concerned with paying people what they’re worth instead of teaching them a lesson about hard work and responsibility, there’d be a few more empty velociraptor stomachs on Isla Nublar. (I can’t be alone in hearing, in Hammond’s stern voice, echoes of the Republicans who are oh-so-concerned with high unemployment benefits encouraging people not to work.)
And for all the talk of how the use of amphibian DNA in the reconstructed dinosaur genome allowed some dinos to change sex in order to reproduce independently of the island’s lab, money itself has a mutagenic capacity. Look no further than Gennaro, the cowardly lawyer: Initially as skittish as the investors he represents, he changes his tune about the island the minute he sees his first dinosaur and says, “We’re gonna make a fortune with this place.” Suddenly, Gennaro conjures visions of “coupon days,” when the hoi polloi are allowed to set foot amid the island’s wonders — as opposed to regular days, when the park will charge the world’s wealthiest people an arm and a leg to enter. (The proverbial arm and leg, in this case; literal arms and legs get pulled off later in the movie.)
The lawyer also turns on Ian Malcolm, despite having recruited him personally, when Malcolm proves to be the most skeptical of the three scientists present. (“The only one I’ve got on my side is the bloodsucking lawyer,” Hammond laments.) Is it any coincidence that when the going gets tough — i.e., when the T. rex attacks — Gennaro is the character who abandons Hammond’s grandchildren to their fate and seeks refuge in a nearby bathroom, while Grant and Malcolm step up to save them at considerable risk to themselves? That’s Jurassic Park’s opinion of bean-counters.
Humanity’s overweening ambition is the source of Jurassic Park’s evils: It’s baked right into the basic concept of a reckless rich man and his coterie of pet scientists hot-shotting a slew of extinct killer species back into the modern world. But the park’s visitors aren’t just being menaced by the Frankensteinian dinosaurs and the cloning procedure that births them — the technology that the park’s human creators use to navigate and contain the natural world poses a threat as well. The whole enterprise is misbegotten, and plagued from stem to stern with menaces to human life. The rex and the raptors are just symptoms of a much more widespread disease that would exist with or without them.
Look at Tim, John Hammond’s young grandson. Along with his sister Lex, Tim is truly menaced (as opposed to merely spooked) by dinosaurs a total of two times: first by the T. rex, and later by the trio of velociraptors unwittingly unleashed by the park staff’s attempt to reboot the computer system.
But Tim has the same number of near-death encounters with technology as he does with dinosaurs, if not more. He is nearly crushed to death by the automated jeep in which he and the other visitors take their abortive tour of the park, first when it’s pressed into the mud by the T. rex, and second when the jeep plunges through the branches of a tree, coming very close to squashing him before it comes to a halt. Later in the film, he is electrocuted by the 10,000-volt fence meant to keep the T. rex from escaping, saved only by Alan Grant’s resuscitative efforts. Granted, dinosaurs got the ball rolling, but humankind’s inventions proved just as dangerous as Mother Nature’s, cloned though they may have been.
Of course, Hammond’s grandchildren are only in danger in the first place because Hammond brought them to the park — the incomplete, untested, under-construction park. There’s no doubt he meant well, as the film makes clear that he was hoping to provide them a good time during their parents’ stressful divorce. This separates him from comparable figures like Jaws’ mayor or Aliens’ company man Burke, who are blithely unconcerned with the lives of others at best and outright murderous at worst. Hammond never wanted this to happen to his grandkids, or to anyone else for that matter, as his increasingly morose demeanor throughout the ordeal communicates.
But this simply demonstrates the way dollar signs have blinded him to virtually every other consideration. What kind of maniac sends two little kids into the middle of a dinosaur hot zone during an information-gathering tour intended to determine whether the park is even operable, all while his most trusted employees are telling him the park isn’t ready for guests? The kind of guy whose successes have convinced him he will face no further failures, or at the very least, that potential failure need not be seriously considered. The rush to send children back to school (a petri dish of germs at the best of times), the headlong race to create and distribute a vaccine, proper testing be damned — it’s like we’re living in John Hammond’s America, riding along in remote-controlled jeeps intended to show us a good time, but in reality rushing us toward disaster.
In 1993, Jurassic Park was a monster movie with a message, and it became a monster hit. I remember watching it and finding the dinosaur stuff thrilling, but Ian Malcolm’s condemnation of Hammond’s team — “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should” — was the real chiller. Now, rewatching Jurassic Park in the summer of COVID, the thing that sticks with me the most is how often Hammond misses the forest for the lethal, man-eating trees, even aside from the ethical question Malcolm raises.
Hammond’s trademark self-praise when referring to the park is “spared no expense”: on the park itself, for which he gives the hard sell to Grant and Sattler when he shows up at their paleontological dig site; on the amusement park-style ride that takes visitors through the park’s science center, complete with a Southern-accented cartoon DNA-strand mascot who refers to the park’s scientists as “hard-working cowpokes” (Hammond knows his audience will comprise the American bourgeoisie); on the electric jeeps that take visitors through the park; on the narrator who tells visitors what they’re seeing; even on the dessert awaiting the visitors upon the completion of their tour.
Yet as both Wayne Knight’s evil programmer Nedry and Samuel L. Jackson’s benevolent technician Arnold tell us, the system governing the park itself is one preventable-but-as-of-yet-unprevented glitch after another. Nothing seems to work right — and yet Hammond plows through. Indeed, the goddamn gift shop, with the plastic lunchboxes derided by Ian Malcolm in a condemnatory tirade, is finished before the security systems that are supposed to keep carnivorous dinosaurs from their prey. The risks go unconsidered or ignored in favor of the rewards. Living in a country that stalled and dithered and refused to take adequate, expensive precautions while a disease took hold until it was too late, I see John Hammonds everywhere.
The real apex predator here isn’t the T. rex. It’s the money, which will continue to create new ways to devour human life until it’s finally put down like the monster it is.