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“There is no unauthorised breeding in Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs are all female. We engineered them that way."

Steven Spielberg

Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Jeff Goldblum, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck, Samuel L. Jackson, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Martin Ferrero, B.D. Wong, Gerald R. Molen, Cameron Thor, Miguel Sandoval

Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based upon the novel by Michael Crichton

Synopsis:  On Isla Nublar, one hundred and fifty miles west of Costa Rica, workmen are attempting a transfer from a holding cage into a pen when one of them is killed in a gruesome accident. With a lawsuit threatened as a consequence, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), an attorney, travels to an amber mine in the Dominican Republic seeking millionaire entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). Finding that Hammond isn’t there, Gennaro explains to Juanito Rostagno (Miguel Sandoval), who is in charge of the mining operation, that the underwriters of Hammond’s project want an inspection, with two reputable scientists required to sign off on its safety aspects if the funding is to continue. In the badlands of Montana, the dig headed by Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a palaeontologist, and Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), a palaeobotanist, is interrupted when a helicopter lands nearby. As the other participants in the dig scramble to protect their equipment and a newly uncovered dinosaur skeleton from the clouds of debris flung about by the helicopter’s landing wake, a furious Grant bails up the culprit within the dig team’s trailer, only to learn that it is John Hammond – who just happens to be funding the dig. Hammond explains his need for two experts to approve his island venture, which he describes only as “a biological preserve”, evading Grant’s questions about what exactly his project is. The scientists initially decline Hammond’s invitation to fly down to his island for the weekend, but when Hammond offers them three years of funding for their research in exchange for their assistance, they have no option but to agree. In Costa Rica, Lewis Dodgson (Cameron Thor) meets with Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), who works for Hammond’s company, InGen. Dodgson hands over a partial payment, telling Nedry he will get the rest, $1.5 million in total, if he can deliver viable embryos. Meanwhile, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler are being flown to Isla Nublar in a helicopter, in company with John Hammond, Donald Gennaro and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is an expert in chaos theory. Once landed, the visitors are collected by jeep; they drive past a series of high, electrified fences and through a set of double doors with electronic locks. Gennaro questions Hammond, who confirms that the perimeter fences, the concrete moats and the tracking systems are all in place. Gennaro warns Hammond that if he is not fully convinced of the safety of the island preserve by the end of the weekend, the project will be shut down. The jeeps cross a broad, grassed plain. Abruptly, Hammond orders them stopped. Grant rises slowly to his feet, staring in ecstatic disbelief at a sight astonishing beyond his wildest dreams: Brachiosaurus; a living dinosaur....

Comments:  In the American summer of 1975, a twenty-nine year old Steven Spielberg turned the established tenets of movie-marketing on their head by proving that, given good reason, the public would indeed exchange blue skies and sunshine for the air-conditioned darkness of the cinema. Until that time, it was assumed by the studios that people simply didn’t want to go to the movies during the summer. That period of the year was consequently used as a dumping-ground for films that didn’t really work, or weren’t expected to draw a broad-based audience. Then everything changed. The film that changed it was, of course, Jaws; and given the nature of its subject matter, perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people weren’t all that eager to get back to the beach afterwards, but instead stuck around for a second, or even a third, viewing.

For good or ill – I say ill, but then, I’m a curmudgeon – the lessons of Jaws continue to this day to dictate the way that films are made and marketed. Film-making generally is dominated by the concept of “the summer blockbuster”; sums of money that would have been considered unthinkable, perhaps even unconscionable, in 1975, are routinely thrown into production and marketing in the hope of winning that all-important battle of the opening weekend take; a mark of success that, bizarrely, appears to be more important than the staying-power of the film; while the quality of the product in question often seems no more than an afterthought. The disheartening thing is how little the paying public demands of these mega-budgeted extravaganzas. It is almost taken for granted these days that there will be a yawning gulf between the promises of the marketing and the reality of the finished product; expecting a fair portion of steak along with all the sizzle is considered unrealistic, not to say greedy. The discovery that a particular blockbuster is actually good – or, more commonly, not that bad – is likely to elicit gasps of astonishment.

That said, there is a subset of blockbuster films where the film-makers’ efforts to keep faith with the paying public are hearteningly evident. One of those films is Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton’s novel was still in galley form when Universal Studios won the bidding war and purchased the rights to it on behalf of Steven Spielberg. To their credit, both the film’s producers and Spielberg himself accepted from the beginning that this was one case where near enough would be not nearly good enough. The promise made was one of realistic dinosaurs....and it was a promise that had to be kept, regardless of difficulty, regardless of cost – unless, that is, they were prepared subsequently to be rounded up and beaten to death by the paying public’s outraged inner eight-year-old. The producers started out by consulting with palaeontologists Jack Horner and Robert Bakker (both of whom get name-checked in the novel), and then assembled a design and effects team of staggering collective talent: Rick Carter, Stan Winston, Phil Tippet and Michael Lantieri. The collective challenge was to create dinosaurs that were not monsters, but simply animals; animals that moved and breathed and interacted with each other and their environment.

In the first instance, while Winston and his people were assigned the task of creating the “live” dinosaurs – models, puppets and animatronics, which would be used for the close-up and partial shots, and some of the cast interactions – it was the intention to employ Tippet’s “Go-Motion” process, a refined version of stop-motion that incorporates motion blur, for all of the remaining dinosaur scenes with the exception of the stampede of the herd of Gallimimus. This key sequence was assigned to Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, to be realised via the still-developing technique of computer-generated imagery.

The first fully CGI-created film character had appeared in 1985, in Young Sherlock Holmes; by the time of Jurassic Park’s pre-production, the technology had taken great strides, making unforgettable contributions to such films as The Abyss and Terminator 2. However, while it was conceded that CGI could work wonders for realising imaginary life-forms and entities, there was profound doubt about the technique’s ability to do the same for real ones. The team at ILM was convinced that the technology was up to the challenge, and that the work on Jurassic Park was their chance to prove it. After experimenting with various shots constructed around skeletal models of the dinosaurs, Dennis Muran and his main collaborators, animators Mark Dippe and Steve Williams, took their quantum leap and produced a short sequence in which a complete Tyrannosaurus, fully integrated into its environment, walked toward and past the camera. When Muren showed this footage to the Jurassic Park team, the response was a stunned silence, and then an agonised groan from Phil Tippet. “I think I’m out of a job,” he commented morosely. “Don’t you mean extinct?” replied Steven Spielberg – an exchange that was later incorporated into the film’s script, and put into the mouths of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm, respectively.

It is impossible to watch Jurassic Park today without a gloomy recognition of how exponentially worse CGI effects seem to have gotten over the intervening years; bad enough, indeed, for snobs like me to turn up their noses with a sniff, and start making wistful remarks about the good old days of stop-motion and guys in rubber suits. Although this argument is one often couched in emotional terms – traditional effects have “heart”, CGI is “soulless” – the underlying criticism is not invalid. Too many productions now employ CGI as a matter of course, while lacking either the means or, perhaps more importantly, the inclination to take that final step and give their creations real substance, instead exhibiting precisely the near enough is good enough attitude that Jurassic Park so scrupulously avoids. The result is flat, ill-integrated constructs that fail either to convince the eye or capture the imagination. In that respect, at least, traditional effects are frequently superior, not only because there is, in fact, a solid object before the camera, but because they so often bring with them a sense of their designer’s personality and enthusiasm for his work. This is where Jurassic Park separates itself from so many of its descendants. The effects in the film aren’t perfect – some of the compositing is obvious, particularly in the opening dinosaur sequence – but they are heartfelt. Like many earlier, practical effect-based films, and unlike so many subsequent CGI-heavy ones, here you can feel in every frame the excitement and the dedication of all of those involved in its creation.

So what was it about this particular production that elicited that response? There was, of course, the fact that Jurassic Park was in so many ways the first; the film was simultaneously a demonstration of the capabilities of the various special effects technologies, a vindication of those who had embraced them, and a glimpse (again, for good or ill) into the future of film-making. But in truth, I think it ultimately comes down to something much more fundamental than that.

It’s the dinosaurs.

The relationship between modern man and these extraordinary, long-extinct creatures is a peculiarly emotional one. There is a strange, deep yearning associated with it, one that compels small children to wrestle with multisyllabic names; that sends adults out into the wilds of our world to sift painstakingly through its dust; that turns theoretical musings into violent blood-feuds; and that, yes, inspires writers and film-makers to create, and makes the general public eager to consume. The remarkable thing about the effects sequences in Jurassic Park is the sense that those responsible for them were acting at once as creator and audience. No more than the public were these technicians prepared to settle for second best here. Their devotion to their cause reveals itself in the constant attention to detail: the dilation of a pupil; the curl of a lip; the rippling of the skin over the musculature beneath; the curve of a neck; and above all, the mass, the substance of the creatures. The seeming reality of the resulting images is one that touches a chord deep within our human natures. That first glimpse of Brachiosaurus is a scene of such visual power that almost on its own it vindicates the existence of the film that contains it; while I’m not sure there’s ever been a better audience-surrogate moment than the scene with Triceratops, when Alan Grant, giddy with rapturous delight, leans against the animal’s flank and presses his body against it, stretching out his arms and laying his hands flat in answer to a deep, instinctive need to feel the creature’s life beneath his touch. I have my problems with Steven Spielberg as a film-maker, and particularly with some of his more manipulative tactics, but I have to confess that when it comes to Jurassic Park, all I can do is bow my head and concede defeat. All the cynicism in my nature – and trust me, there’s plenty there – is insufficient for me to withstand the emotional pull of these scenes.

Well, what can I say? It’s the dinosaurs.

Now....I’ve just spent the first three pages of this review talking about Jurassic Park’s special effects, which ought to be enough to clue my regular readers in on the fact that somewhere around the corner lurks a sizeable caveat. In fact, several sizeable caveats. I’ll get the least important of them out of the way first, before taking on the task of dealing with my more serious reservations about this film.

The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park might be believable, but they are hardly accurate. As a general rule, the less time that any species spends onscreen, the more correctly it is presented; there was no perceived need to spruce up Parasauropholus (seen drinking from the lake during the first dinosaur sequence) or Gallimimus, while poor old Triceratops does no more than lie there looking unhappy. (A more active baby triceratops was built and filmed, but later cut out.) We can give a pass to the incorrect size of Dilophosaurus – a throw-away remark indicates that this specimen is supposed to be immature – but the frill-neck (the film’s idea) and the venom (Michael Crichton’s) are pure invention. There is no fossil evidence to indicate that this species had a frill; and while it could have been venomous in the way that some modern lizards are, there is no reason to believe that it had the ability to shoot what frankly looks like poisonous phlegm. (In the novel, the adults have a range of fifty feet!)

Brachiosaurus has also undergone some renovation. It is highly unlikely that an animal of Brachiosaurus’ weight and build would or could rear up on its hind legs – and why would it here, with plenty of food within its reach? The head of these dinosaurs, seen when Alan and the kids get to pat one, is too large; while the design of their teeth would prohibit them from biting and chewing their food as shown. And--- Do my eyes deceive me, or are those Eucalyptus trees that the brachiosaurs are feeding on!? I don’t think so. Just consider what koalas have to go through to subsist on those things. It is inconceivable that an animal requiring the enormous daily food input of Brachiosaurus would waste its time that way – even assuming that the plants weren’t toxic to it. Dishearteningly – speaking purely from the point of view of the film’s wonderful visuals – recent studies suggest that Brachiosaurus was in all likelihood a grazing animal; and that far from stretching up its neck to munch on the treetops, it probably wasn’t able to lift its head much above the level of its back.

However, Jurassic Park saves its most shameless makeovers for its two star species. Tyrannosaurus is rightly made the focus of the film’s most terrifying sequences, first as it emerges from its pen and attacks the puny, vulnerable humans as they cringe within their automated cars, and later when it pursues some of those humans as they flee in a jeep. However, while we do not for a moment doubt that a T. rex could indeed have inflicted the kind of physical damage that we see here, there is certainly a question over whether it would persist in attacking objects that a single exploratory bite would reveal as inedible. (Of course, what we have here is yet another example of the eternal motion picture assumption that all predators, all over the universe, would rather dine on Homo sapiens than anything else, even if it is not and could not be their natural prey, even if they’ve never so much as seen one before, even if the nutritional reward couldn’t possibly repay the expended energy.) The real problem, however, arises in the jeep-chase sequence. Hammond tells Alan and Ellie that they’ve, “Clocked the T. rex at 32 miles per hour”; it probably tops that while chasing the jeep, and side-swipes the vehicle without breaking stride. This is both physically and, so to speak, philosophically wrong. Firstly, Tyrannosaurus simply could not run that fast; its top speed might have been around 25 miles per hour, probably a lot less, and only in very short bursts. The structure and mass of the creature’s hind legs would not permit a higher speed. Secondly, given the weight and build of T. rex, a fall at pace would in all probability have resulted in a critical injury; its fore-limbs would be quite inadequate for cushioning the impact. It’s a case of wouldn’t if you could.

(While I can’t help reacting to this tampering, I do have to admit that the film’s best joke – Objects in mirror are closer than they appear – goes a long, long way towards excusing it.)

The other issue with Tyrannosaurus is the question of its vision. One problem I have generally with Jurassic Park is Alan's habit of making pronouncements about dinosaurs, often about things he couldn’t possibly know, while later being proved right; whereas he should be learning from the various encounters, and thus taking something positive out of the whole experience. As soon as he sees the T. rex, Alan says to Ian, “Keep absolutely still. Its vision is based on movement.” This seems a particularly strange assertion to find in a film that otherwise devotes a lot of time to promoting the theory that dinosaurs are most closely related to modern-day birds; and while it is possible that the animal’s movement-based vision is a legacy of its frog DNA, as it is in the novel, there is nothing in the film to support this theory – and nor in that case could Alan know a priori that it would have this characteristic. Of course, the real reason that Tyrannosaurus has movement-based vision is that otherwise, two-thirds of the cast would be dead. (Neither the novel nor the film really deals with the point that even if Tyrannosaurus can’t see its potential victims, it ought to be able to smell them.)

Which brings us to Velociraptor. Oh, boy. Here we have not just a makeover, but a thoroughly Bionic Man-esque rebuilding. First and most obviously, actual velociraptors were nowhere near as big as they are here; they averaged about a metre tall and two metres long. The animals in the film are actually based upon Deinonychus antirrhopus, which at the time that Michael Crichton was writing were thought to be velociraptors (and were called V. antirrhopus, prior to being reclassified). Similarly, that could not be Velociraptor that Alan and his team are excavating. Two species of Velociraptor have been identified, both in Mongolia. However, Deinonychus has been found in a number of American states, and was first discovered in Montana. (The discovery of Utahraptor, coincidentally enough while Jurassic Park was in production, has led to some frantic retconning, but that species has the opposite problem of being far too big.) While both species had the famous sickle-claw, it is questionable whether it was in fact used for slashing open the abdomen of the prey; it is considered more likely, based upon the calculated attack force, that it was used to strike at vulnerable points like the jugular vein or the trachea; or even just to dig in and hold. While there is some evidence that Deinonychus may have travelled, and possibly hunted, in groups, there is none that Velociraptor did so – still less of any pack-hunting strategy – although they may have been pack feeders. (In any event, the team-tactic to which Muldoon loses his life is yet another thing that Alan couldn’t possibly have known about in advance.) The fore-limbs of the film’s velociraptors are mis-designed, being able to rotate when they should instead be rigid with the hands turned inwards; while the animals’ tails are both too short and too whip-like. However, the biggest design issue – and certainly the most excusable, a classic example of Science Marches On – is that, regardless of whether we are dealing with Deinonychus or with Velociraptor, these creatures really ought to have feathers....

Of more concern is the exaggeration of the velociraptors’ physical and mental capabilities. Indeed, there were moments when these team-playing, problem-solving, door-opening predators began to give me unpleasant flashbacks to Deep Blue Sea. All of this stems from the novel, where the species is described as, “At least as intelligent as chimpanzees. And, like chimpanzees, they had agile hands that enabled them to open doors and manipulate objects.” While it is accepted that Velociraptor was one of the more intelligent dinosaurs, “intelligent” is a very relative term; studies of fossil skulls indicate that while the species’ senses were well-developed, its cognitive functions were not. In fact, despite all the suggestions of problem-solving and ambush-laying, Jurassic Park is probably most accurate in its depiction of Velociraptor during the kitchen showdown: as terrifying and dangerous as the creatures are, they are out of their element in the man-made environment – and amongst the reflective surfaces – and more than once are believably out-manoeuvred. This lengthy sequence is a brilliantly staged and executed set-piece that, along with the two Tyrannosaurus sequences, is Jurassic Park’s most celebrated scene – and rightly so.

My ultimate reaction to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park is a right-brain/left-brain sort of thing: although I register the artistic license taken, for the most part while I’m watching I’m quite content just to play along. As is the case with the dinosaurs themselves, the sequences involving them are so indicative of the thought and effort and care that went into their creation that focusing upon the possible criticisms would be an act of churlishness of which not even I am capable.

Amusingly, creating dinosaurs seems to have had the same sort of effect upon David Koepp, who treats them with a great deal more thought and care than he shows for any of his human characters. The screenplay is scrupulous in its refusal to demonise the dinosaurs; even after the raw terror of the attack by T. rex, when Lex announces that she, “Hates those other ones – meaning the carnivores – Alan reminds her quietly that they were, “Just doing what they do.” It is a thoughtful touch, too, that at no point does either Alan or Tim lose their sense of awe in the presence of these overwhelming creatures. No matter what the circumstances, there is always a moment when they stop and simply....gaze.

No, it isn’t the dinosaurs, however tarted up for the cameras they might be, that are the problem here; it’s everything else. If the rest of Jurassic Park matched the quality of its special effects, it would be amongst the greatest films ever made; but that is far from being the case. Rather, this production is indicative of a disturbing trend in big-budget film-making, one that has only become more evident since 1993: the suggestion that, as long as you get the special effects right (or even if you don’t), then “plot” and “character” are really very minor considerations. Certainly they get short shrift here. I had a disconcerting moment while watching this, when it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what kind of film Jaws might have been if Bruce The Mechanical Shark had actually worked: would the wonderful central triangle on which that film’s success rests be as it now is? I’m sure, however, that in wondering that, I’m being unjust to the earlier Steven Spielberg, who at the time of Jaws was young enough, and naive enough, to think that “plot” and “character” were both essential elements of any hugely successful film. Numerous summer blockbusters and broken box-office records later, he, and we, know better. The difference between Jaws and Jurassic Park, separated by eighteen years and a revolution in the way that big-budgeted productions are conceived, made and marketed, is simply this: in Jaws, the film sells the shark; in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs sell the film.

As for that film-making revolution, its basis is the fact that the bigger a film’s budget, the less you can afford to exclude any paying customers. The absolute need to secure a PG-13 rating at worst dictates the content of any such film. This is most clearly illustrated in Jurassic Park in the way that the scenes of violence are staged and executed. The most frightening scenes here are those in which the characters are only threatened; the violence never eventuates. In contrast, the scenes of actual violence are, if not precisely played for laughs, at least staged so as to minimise its impact. Consequently, there is nothing here to match the visceral horror of the attack upon Chrissie Watkins, or the emotional wrench of Alex Kintner’s death. Jurassic Park is, in this respect, a deliberately compromised work.

In the novel, Michael Crichton was much more generous with his supply of dino-fodder, and far more ruthless about doling out bloody fates. Jurassic Park, on the other hand, both prunes the cast – even shipping some book fatalities safely off the island – and then dispenses death with a frugal hand and in a regrettably predictable manner. Thus, built into each of the film’s main “fright” sequences is an escape clause: since the kids and those protecting them are the main targets, we know that nothing bad is really going to happen. The electrified fence scene, from which Tim emerges with only an unsteady gait, a dazed expression and an Eraserhead do (all temporary) to show for his experience, is eyebrow-raising in itself; but by the time a third heavy object has conspicuously failed to crush him, well.... A couple of minor characters get quick, relatively dignified deaths – Ray Arnold (a pre-coolest person in the world Samuel L. Jackson) provides the film’s random-body-part shock – while the only two explicit deaths are dished out to....

The Lawyer and The Fat Guy. Or maybe The Lawyer and The Computer Geek. Take your pick.

You know, I have a serious problem with this, both with the oh, but it’s okay to kill THESE guys attitude, and the prefatory humiliation of their death scenes. The treatment dished out to Donald Gennaro is particularly disturbing. If Jurassic Park is a compromised work in terms of its violence, it is even more so thematically. From a certain perspective, Steven Spielberg was an odd choice to adapt a Michael Crichton novel. At any rate, there was precious little chance of much of Crichton’s own cynicism, still less his misanthropic and frequently contemptuous view of his own characters, surviving the translation into one of the director’s summer blockbusters. Moreover, the thrust of Crichton’s novel was jettisoned from its film adaptation from the moment that Steven Spielberg looked at John Hammond and decided that he was in sympathy with the entrepreneur and his “showmanship”. (At one point in the novel, Hammond is described as “about as sinister as Walt Disney”, which, wonderfully enough, appears to have been intended unironically.) Subtle characterisation was never Crichton’s forte, and Hammond is almost a caricature of an eee-vil capitalist. He is a performer, a charlatan; a man who raises money for his projects by diverting and misleading investors – or by lying to them outright, if that’s what it takes. Over the course of the story, Hammond becomes so obsessed with the thought of the billions that his dinosaurs will rake in for him that everything else – including the lives of those around him, including his own grandchildren – becomes an irrelevance. By the time that John Hammond hit movie-screens, however, he had morphed into everyone’s favourite uncle, a lovable and loving old teddy bear who just wanted to make the children of the world happy, and never mind the money. This transformation not only completely undermines Crichton’s story, but it introduces a myriad of contradictions into the story that the screenplay never manages to resolve.

Justifying himself after disaster has struck, Spielberg’s Hammond tells Ellie Sattler that he just wanted, “To show them something that wasn’t an illusion; something that was real; something they could see, and touch.” Earlier, Hammond tries to insist that his park won’t just be for the wealthy. “Everyone in the world has the right to enjoy these animals,” he comments. Maybe – but how? You’re on an island 150 miles off the coast of Costa Rica; how do you imagine “everyone in the world” is going to get there? “We’ll have coupon days, or something,” says Donald Gennaro; a ludicrous suggestion that highlights the utter disingenuousness of this entire piece of re-writing. The fact that this place has cost untold millions; the fact that it has financial backers who certainly did not invest in it purely out of the goodness of their hearts; the fact that, yes, absolutely it is beyond the reach of all but the wealthy--- Jurassic Park would have us believe that none of this ever crossed John Hammond’s philanthropical mind. It is left to Gennaro to state the obvious – and be brutally punished for doing so: characterised at the outset as “a blood-sucker”, the lawyer is a dead man from the moment he gazes at the brachiosaurs and murmurs, “We’re going to make a fortune out of this place.” It hardly needed his subsequent speculation about how much per day they could get away with charging for a visit to the park, or how much they could make from the merchandising....although it was probably those words that saw his character transformed into a coward capable of abandoning the children to their fate (it’s not Gennaro who does that in the book), and certainly what landed him on the toilet.

You know--- Philosophically speaking, there are few things I enjoy more than finding a lecture on the evils of capitalism buried within one of the top twenty highest grossing films of all time; a film whose studio spent even more on marketing it than they did to make it; a film that set a new record for its number of tie-ins – over one thousand individual deals that generated over $1 billion in revenue. The effrontery of it is just....awe-inspiring.

While John Hammond and Donald Gennaro are the characters most altered in their translation to the screen, almost everyone is re-shaped to a certain degree. Actually, pretty much the same rule applies here as did to the dinosaurs: more screentime = more changes. Truthfully, neither version of this story is notable for the shading or complexity of its characters. Dennis Nedry is an embarrassing cliché in the book, and even worse in the film. (Spielberg’s fault rather than Wayne Knight’s, evidently.) As Muldoon, Bob Peck tries to flesh out his vaguely-sketched character, but he’s obviously just marking time until he becomes raptor-chow; although I do like his ambiguous little smile at the end of the jeep pursuit: is that, “Yes, we got away!” or “Damn, that is one magnificent animal!? (In view of, “Clever girl!”, I’m betting the latter.) Ian Malcolm, our rock star mathematician, is pretty much the same here, only – more so. When I recently reviewed No Highway In The Sky, I commented that it featured “Jimmy Stewart at his absolute Jimmy Stewart-est”. I’m afraid that I really can’t do better here: Ian Malcolm is played by Jeff Goldblum at his absolute Jeff Goldblum-est....and with all the horror that entails. Now, given that one of his main tasks in the story is to tell me that, as a scientist, I am Worse Than Hitler, it’s likely I would have had certain issues with Ian Malcolm no matter who was playing him; but as it is--- Oh, the pain, the pain of it all! (In this respect, Spielberg and Koepp are far more merciful than Crichton: after the Tyrannosaurus attack, which happens at about the one hour mark, Ian is kept largely offscreen and/or silent.)

Apart from the cuddlification of John Hammond, the fact that Jurassic Park is “A Film By Steven Spielberg” shows itself most blatantly in the added plot-thread that sees Alan Grant almost as notable for his dislike of children as he is for his palaeontological qualifications. Naturally, he then has the Hammond grandchildren, Lex and Tim, thrust upon him; spends most of the film rescuing or defending them; and in the last scene is shown with his arms comfortably about them, while wearing the same goofy grin that he did earlier when embracing Triceratops.


Tell me--- Has there ever been a film where a character was expressed a reluctance to have children, or didn't particularly care for them, and then was permitted simply to hold to their opinion? At any rate, I’m pretty certain that no character in a PG-13 summer blockbuster ever was. So if you are such a character, and you do express such a reluctance, rest assured that by the end of the film, you will have been taught the error of your ways. With extreme prejudice.

(By the way, note to screenwriters: disliking children and not wanting children are not the same thing; and one does not necessarily arise from the other.)

Mind you, the one place above all else where we have to thank Steven Spielberg and David Koepp is in their complete re-writing of Lex, who in the novel is an obnoxious, whiny, nerve-scraping brat. (If movie-Alan had ever met novel-Lex, he’d’ve booked a vasectomy on the spot.) The film adds a few years to Lex’s age, making her the older sibling, and more capable of helping herself in a crisis, although by no means independent. She is still terrified of the dinosaurs, even the herbivores, but this is not anything to do with her sex, merely a reflection of the fact that she is simply not the dino-freak her brother is. (Although you’d think that someone who declares herself a vegetarian would know the word “carnivore”.) To balance this, the screenplay re-tools a plot-point and makes Lex the computer expert, who towards the climax of the film has to figure out and operate the program that controls the security aspects of the park. In the novel, this expertise is given to Tim (there’s very little point to novel-Lex at all), in addition to making him just the kind of dinosaur expert that we all were at the age of ten – right? The bonding of Tim and Alan over their mutual love of dinosaurs, which is a carryover from the novel, is certainly the most credible aspect of Alan’s emotional transformation. Much of Jurassic Park focuses upon the two kids and, I have to admit, as far as children in a Spielberg film go, we could have done (and have done) a lot worse.

Unfortunately, a similar kind of renovation was not performed for the character of Ellie Sattler: she is about as much of a nonentity in the film as she is in the novel, for all that Laura Dern is second-billed. Upon reflection, I can’t help thinking that the problem here is that this film gives so much of the traditional female role to Alan: he is frequently overcome with emotion; most of his behaviour is reactive rather than proactive; and he is given the task of defending the children. With such an emotional hero on our hands, you might think that the screenplay would see its way clear to making Ellie a stronger or more intellectual heroine – but no such luck. There are a couple of feints towards it – Ellie’s “And woman inherits the earth” crack, and her dash to the power station – but if anything, overall she becomes even more traditionally female. Despite the dinosaurs, the first thing on her mind at any given moment is Alan’s bonding with the children; her response to Ian Malcolm zig-zags between fluttery confessions of ignorance about chaos theory, and embarrassing simpering when he tries to flirt; and most of what little action she does take involves tending the sick or wounded, whether it be saurian or human. (Someone may have thought that getting up to your elbows in dinosaur dung was “woman’s work”, too.) And then of course, there’s Ellie’s Big Moment, where, with Alan and the kids unaccounted for, and in response to John Hammond’s rambling, half-guilty, half-exculpatory account of his motivations, she gets to say solemnly, “But you can’t think your way through this one, John. You have to feel it.”

Hmm. Was that the sound of one anvil dropping, or two?

The perversely beautiful thing about that line is that I really have no idea what it means. What is it exactly that he’s supposed to be feeling rather than thinking? John Hammond is here reflecting upon his motives in resurrecting the dinosaurs and building his park, and upon what went wrong, what were his mistakes. That seems a valid behaviour to me; what should he be doing, having hysterics? Ah, but then he commits the fatal transgression of considering how he might correct his mistakes next time....

If science fiction films have taught us anything, it is that you must never, never, never under any circumstances try to learn from your mistakes – chiefly because any mistake, committed for any reason, is evidence of a process’s fundamental unsoundness, not to say immorality. Instead, you must dismantle, destroy and deny. I think my favourite example of this trope comes in the original version of The Fly, where Andre Delambre responds to his teleportation accident by burning his papers, trashing his lab, and having his head squashed in an industrial press; rather than by, you know, installing flyscreens. While in the real world the expression “throwing the baby out with the bath water” might come to mind, in the world of science fiction obliterating all evidence of a failed experiment and never trying again – or allowing anyone else to do so – is the only acceptable response. Just think of all those Frankenstein movies where someone stumbles over imperfectly destroyed lab notes; invariably, history repeats.

All of which, very belatedly, and by long and winding roads, brings us to what is really the subject of this review: the science of Jurassic Park.

Although Michael Crichton is co-credited with the screenplay of Jurassic Park, he wrote only a first draft, which was later discarded in its entirety. Malia Scotch Marmo wrote another draft (although without subsequent credit), while David Koepp shaped the final script. I have some difficulty in deciding how to react to this film as an adaptation of the novel. On one hand, there is no denying that it is a sweeping simplification of Crichton’s thesis, one that does the author little justice. And yet.... In its very effort to streamline the novel’s premise in terms of both length and content, there are moments in this film when David Koepp’s screenplay functions like Toto in The Wizard Of Oz, pulling aside Michael Crichton’s curtain and allowing us to see the contrivances, and the liberties taken with the facts, that shape too much of the plot.

In fact....the more I sat and thought about the science of this story, and the way that it is used, the more I felt an ominous warmth creeping up the back of my neck. That’s not good news for any of us. The last time I felt that burn, the film in question was Embryo; I reacted by losing both my temper and my sense of humour; the result was a Dull Thudding Rant. I’ll try to do a little better this time.

To the question, “Can the dinosaurs be brought back using the methods described in this story?”, the answer – and believe me, this hurts me more than it hurts you – is, simply, no. There are reasons big and small why this is so. To deal with the big ones first: animals brought back over a period of 100 million years (give or take) would have no immunity to our world; it would be deadly to them. In addition, except for a plot-point no sooner raised than dropped, no attempt is made also to recreate a suitable diet for these creatures. And who knows what effect changes in climate and atmosphere would have on them? So – no.

(One of the strangest points in both book and film is the idea of containing the dinosaurs by making them lysine-dependent: they are “engineered” to be that way. Now, while the island might not supply sufficient lysine, so that the dinosaurs’ diets would need to be supplemented, it would hardly be necessary to “engineer” this trait. Lysine is an essential amino acid, which means it cannot be manufactured in the vertebrate body, and must be obtained in food. Furthermore, lysine is the limiting amino acid, meaning that there is less of it found naturally than any other amino acid. As a containment device, it might hold the herbivores, given their massive requirements – adult humans require around 30 mg/kg/day of lysine, so you can judge how much a brachiosaurus might need – but as for the carnivores--- Red meat is a particularly rich source of lysine....)

But neither the book nor the film is very interested in the big reasons; they ignore these basic practicalities in favour of the minutiae of scientific technique. The premise of Jurassic Park, as most of the world knows by now, is the recreation of the dinosaurs via the cloning and genetic manipulation of their DNA, extracted from blood preserved within mosquitoes, which themselves were preserved in amber.

There is a major blunder here that is entirely an invention of the movie, so I’ll get that out of the way first. Jurassic Park shows Hammond’s people mining amber in the Dominican Republic. Dominican amber is celebrated for its quality, which is probably what brought it to mind; but it was formed only 20 million years ago; you’re not going to find dinosaur blood in it.

But supposing you had a sample of the right age, what you would need would be a piece of amber that contained a pregnant female mosquito, trapped after feeding, but before she had begun to digest her meal. Dinosaurs almost certainly had nucleated red blood cells (as do amphibians, reptiles and birds), so in theory their blood would be a reasonable target for sequencing.

There were attempts made to extract DNA from preserved samples before Jurassic Park, and there have (not surprisingly) been many more since; not just usable DNA, but any DNA, was recovered less than 10% of the time. Even then, the yield was at best fragments of only a few hundred base pairs in length; a complete genome contains billions of base pairs. To use the recovered DNA as is proposed here, you would also need an uncontaminated sample, one free of particulate matter and critically of insect DNA, which otherwise would be amplified along with the dinosaur DNA.

But the issue is finally one of time. DNA degrades over time, and it is an ongoing process; the end product of 100 million years of amber preservation – give or take – would be DNA that was both fragmented and grossly incomplete. There’s no way of retrieving that missing information, and no way to determine how those gaps should be filled in order to produce a functional genome. There nothing to compare it to; nothing you could use as a template. Sadly, upon examination, it is only too clear how the impossibilities of this scenario multiple upon themselves.

I appreciate Michael Crichton’s attempt to tell his story with “real science”, but in this instance he should have bitten the bullet and invented something to carry his story over this barrier – possibly a different DNA storage system; or perhaps a series of super-duper enzymes with predictive functions, capable of interpreting and recreating the fragmented DNA sequences. (They could be bioengineered, and therefore eee-vil.)

The other problem with using “real science” is that when something is simply wrong, or even just fudged, it really draws attention to itself. We hit this point in Jurassic Park when the animated Mr DNA – by the way, am I the only one put in mind of Destination Moon and Woody Woodpecker here? – announces casually, “We use the complete DNA of a frog to fill in the holes and complete the code. And now we can make a baby dinosaur!”

Just like that, hey? There are several issues here – like the fact that if you did use frog DNA, you’d need to use frog eggs to develop your babies, not ostrich eggs – but the overriding one is, why frog DNA? The movie makes no comment; the book has Dr Henry Wu, a typically unthinking Crichton scientist, shrug that he had some to hand, and DNA is DNA, right? The choice is counterintuitive, and the lack of justification, telling.

Henry Wu is another character somewhat rehabilitated by the screenplay. In the novel he is – being a scientist – the target of a great deal of Michael Crichton’s venom. He is drawn as being completely professionally myopic. He spends all his time tinkering with DNA, unable to see outside the tiniest of boxes. He is very little interested in the ultimate outcome of his work, to the extent that not only can he not be bothered to learn the correct names of the various dinosaurs – this is reflected in the film in the misspellings in the storage facility – but he doesn’t even know how many species of dinosaur he has helped to recreate: he “stopped counting” after the first dozen. Ian Malcolm, his author’s mouthpiece, excoriates Wu and Ray Arnold as, “Technicians. They don’t have intelligence. They see the immediate situation. They think narrowly and they call it ‘being focused’. They don't see the surround. They don't see the consequences....”

They don’t separate paper and plastic, either.

I might be biased myself, of course, but I find Jurassic Park’s Henry Wu a more credible proposition. There is still plenty of dangerous smugness in his attitude, and he is still given to speaking in the kind of absolutes that invite disaster; but significantly, this Henry Wu is first encountered in the hatchery, not in the sequencing lab. Whisked along too quickly to suit them, Alan, Ellie and Ian break from their designated automated journey and find their way to the simulated “nest”, where a robotic arm carefully turns the developing eggs. When a baby velociraptor starts struggling free of its egg, Wu exclaims in relief at being present for the birth and then, like all the others, draws near to watch the hatching, beaming with excitement and delight – and, yes, pride. Clearly, the wonder of the process has no more worn off for him that it has for John Hammond.

This scene also introduces the theme of the park’s population control....or lack thereof. “There is no unauthorised breeding in Jurassic Park,” insists Wu. “The dinosaurs are all female. We engineered them that way.”

Even the novice science fiction watcher will have no trouble spotting the red flags in that dialogue: words like “unauthorised” and “engineered” exist in science fiction only to be defied and disproved. Wu then compounds his cosmic error by adding, “We control their chromosomes. It’s really not that difficult.”

Okay – we’ve reached the point we’re there’s just so much to argue over, it’s a little difficult to know where to start. Bear with me.

The first thing that comes to mind here is that, amusingly, Jurassic Park sits comfortably within that subset of science fiction films where an experimental subject is made female specifically so that it can be controlled. In this we can think back to, say, Frankenstein’s Daughter, wherein one “Dr Frank” goes against the dogma of his grandfather and father, and uses a female brain in his experiments because, “Now we’re aware that the female brain is conditioned to a man’s world. Therefore it takes orders....” Or we can look past Jurassic Park to Species, where we learn of the hybrid alien that, “We decided to make it female so it would be more docile and controllable.” I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how those two plans work out. While Henry Wu’s motives are more pragmatically biological, his actions are no less doomed to failure. However, while the female in me punches the air in spirit when the dinosaurs thumb their noses at their “controllers” and start breeding anyway, the scientist recognises a little too clearly the various questionable manoeuvres to which Michael Crichton resorts, in order to bring about his desired outcomes.

“All vertebrate embryos are inherently female,” states Henry Wu, explaining that they use this phenomenon to maintain an all-female population, by denying the hormones during development that would make a proportion of the dinosaurs male. This is where the frog DNA enters the picture. When it is determined to everyone’s shock and horror that the dinosaurs are breeding, it is blamed upon their hybrid DNA: “Some West African frogs have been known to change sex from male to female in a single-sex environment,” mutters Alan, examining a post-hatching nest.

I hardly know where to start with this. How about by asking what male-to-female sexual transformation has to do with anything!? Well, that has to be a flub in the screenplay: the assertion in the novel is that, as a result of their frog DNA, the dinosaurs acquire a capacity for female-to-male sequential hermaphroditism; and I imagine that’s what was intended in the film, too. So we’ll let that pass, and deal instead with the fact that all vertebrate embryos are NOT inherently female at all. Many vertebrates do indeed have an XY sex determination system – H. sapiens among them – wherein the female is the homogamete (XX) and the male the heterogamete (XY). Briefly, “maleness” is conferred by the Y-chromosome (in therian mammals, there is a specific sex-determining region), and its absence results in female offspring; as embryos, they are “inherently female”, if you like. However, there are also vertebrates that have a ZW sex determination system, wherein the male is homogametic (ZZ), and the female heterogametic (ZW). This arrangement is found in a variety of vertebrates: some insects, amphibians and reptiles – and in all birds.

Yes, birds. Those modern-day animals that Jurassic Park spends so much time telling us the dinosaurs are most closely related to, whose features they so frequently share. If you were to follow that argument to its conclusion, it would be far more logical to assume that the dinosaurs, too, had a ZW sex determination system. It is therefore more likely that the experimental population would turn out all male, than all female. And of course, if you’re really trying to prevent breeding, an all-male population is preferable; there are far, far fewer mechanisms whereby male animals can break free of these kinds of restrictions; even the one by which they might, protandry, that is, male-to-female transformation, is much rarer in the natural world than is protogyny. By starting with an all-male population, the risk of “unauthorised breeding” would be truly minimised, possibly even eliminated altogether.

But then, what’d be the fun in that, right? So let’s ignore logic and probability, and start out in a world where our dinosaurs are all female, and go from there. First we need to address the mechanism by which (it is proposed) they manage to begin reproducing, namely, sexual reproduction following the spontaneous female-to-male sexual transformation of certain individuals; an ability conferred by the use of frog DNA during the dinosaurs’ regeneration.

While it is claimed here that “some species” of frog are protogynous, this phenomenon has been observed in only a single subspecies: Hyperolius viridiflavus ommatostictus, the common reed frog, which is found across sub-Saharan Africa. The transformation was observed under laboratory conditions: within a predominantly female population, some of the females began exhibiting aggressive behaviour. Upon examination, it was determined that they had developed testicular nodules; later, some of the former females mated and produced offspring. Although this phenomenon has not been observed in the wild, obviously, the capacity for sex change exists. However, since there may be only one subspecies of frog able to undergo this transformation spontaneously, in order for the dinosaurs to get the “right” genes, it is necessary not only that Henry Wu use frog DNA to fill in the gaps of the dinosaur genome (and really, why would he?), but that he just happens to end up using the DNA of that one particular subspecies. We also have to accept – even though sequential hermaphroditism does not occur in either birds or reptiles – that those particular genes would function in the dinosaurs as they do in the parent frog; and that while altering the dinosaurs to the extent that they could and would undergo gonadal transformation, their influence would stop short of in any way altering the dinosaurs’ reproductive processes.

So – no.

Oh, I know, I know: I’m a killjoy, right? Well, I’ll tell you what: just to prove that I’m not such a party-pooper after all, I’ll give you an alternative reproductive strategy; one that seems to me to be so much more likely and workable, I have to wonder why it didn’t occur to Michael Crichton; or, if it did, why he went ahead with that convoluted frog DNA scenario instead.

(Actually, there’s probably a simple answer to that: protogyny in Hyperolius viridiflavus ommatostictus was first reported in 1989 – while Jurassic Park was being written. Sometimes a cutting-edge cuts the wrong way.)

So, what’s my solution to the problem? Simple: parthenogenesis. Surely, if you need an all-female population to reproduce, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, rather than sexual transformation? Parthenogenesis not only occurs in more species than does sequential hermaphroditism, it occurs in more relevant species: while it is most common amongst the insects, the phenomenon has also been recorded in molluscs, crustaceans, sharks, snakes, lizards and (rarely) birds. In vertebrates, parthenogenesis may take one of two forms, and occur either constitutively, or only under certain conditions. There are various species of whiptail lizard that exist as entirely female populations; their offspring are clonal reproductions of their mothers. Different species of shark, too, can produce female offspring when kept in captivity separated from any males; it is not known whether this occurs in the wild as well. (Conversely, there has never been an instance of male animals in similar circumstances managing to breed.) However, there are certain animals that normally reproduce sexually, but which are able if necessary to resort to facultative parthenogenesis. This form of reproduction is not only a response to the absence of males in the environment, but is intended specifically to reintroduce them; the all-male offspring then back-breed with their mothers. The species that are able to use this tactic are those with a ZW sex determination system; that is, some snakes, and lizards, and birds, and....dinosaurs?

See? It’s so neat, and beautiful. And, if you like, you can facilitate the process with your choice of fill-in DNA; turkey or chicken would be good; or – oh, how about this? – if you use DNA from the right species of lizard, you even get to keep your venomous dinosaur! – and without it being quite so obvious that someone just pulled that plot-point out of their backside.


Well, it’s been fun and all (at least, it has been for me; my apologies to the rest of you!), but reproduction is only one way that John Hammond’s dinosaurs escape from their controllers; they also take the far more straightforward route of just busting out. And unfortunately (or perhaps I should look upon this as a fitting punishment for all my self-indulgence here), this means it’s time for me to deal with Ian Malcolm, his version of chaos theory, and his opinion of Jurassic Park, and of scientists generally.

It is the death of a worker on Isla Nublar (killed by a velociraptor while it is being transferred between a cage and its pen, although this is not explicitly revealed at the time) that initiates Jurassic Park’s chain of events. Under threat of a lawsuit, and a potential pull-out by the project’s investors, a decision is made to invite experts in to make an inspection. If they declare the park to be safe, the project will go ahead; if not....

The novel’s Hammond cares nothing for dead workers, of course; the film’s should, but we get no hint that he does as he grumbles (albeit cheerfully) about what a nuisance lawyers are. Hammond rounds up Alan and Ellie as his experts; while Gennaro, representing the investors, brings in Ian Malcolm. It is indicated that Ian was consulted during the planning stages of Jurassic Park, whereupon he gave his opinion – that it would be a disaster, naturally – but never believed that Hammond would succeed in doing as he planned. So, at least, we gather from his reaction to that first glimpse of the dinosaurs: “You crazy son of a bitch, you did it.”

(Actually, this is a detail that has always puzzled me. The immediate issue is one of safety and logistics. So where are the engineers? – the security guys? – the computer experts? – even the zoo-keepers? I don’t understand what two palaeontologists and a mathematician are supposed to contribute. I always had it in my head that John Hammond – at least, eee-vil John Hammond – invited Alan and Ellie because he expected them to be so blown away by the dinosaurs that they wouldn’t criticise; but if so, it is not made explicit even in the novel.)

As Hammond reveals the processes behind the resurrection of the dinosaurs, it is Ian who asks the pointed questions, particularly when confronted by Henry Wu’s calm assumption of “control”: how do you know they’re not breeding, how do you know they’re all female? He dismisses the answers given, insisting in turn that “life will find a way”....

But although Ian, as his author’s mouthpiece, gets to deliver all of the story’s anti-science, and anti-scientist, lectures, it is as an adherent of chaos theory that he objects to the idea of even the possibility of control within Jurassic Park. Like much of Michael Crichton’s writing, Jurassic Park is “fact-tionalised” as much as possible. It opens with an excerpt from an official report on “the InGen Incident”, and goes on to include quotations, graphs and fractals, in order to give his story a sense of verisimilitude. When the visitors to Jurassic Park are gathered in Hammond’s private jet, Crichton has Ian Malcolm explain chaos theory to his companions, with Donald Gennaro acting as the stand-in for the presumably mystified reader. (This is a less insulting scenario than occurs in the film, where Ellie hasn’t even heard of chaos theory.)

Although extensive commentary upon chaos theory and its applicability to the situation recurs throughout Jurassic Park, upon close reading there is the suggestion of some deliberate misrepresentation of the theory. Crichton gestures towards acknowledging this at the outset, by having Alan reflect of Malcolm that, “Some found....his applications of chaos theory too glib”, but then goes ahead and applies the theory to his story exactly as it suits him anyway, seizing upon the dynamism of complex systems and the idea of small incidents with great and unpredictable outcomes – the “Butterfly Effect”, in other words – and largely ignoring the fact that chaos theory is about the overall behaviour of a system, with the emphasis placed not upon its disorder, but upon its underlying order. This particular misapprehension, indeed,  is a very widespread one (probably because a lot of people get their ideas about chaos theory from Jurassic Park); and it is the reason that many who actually work in this field prefer to avoid the word “chaos”, with its connotations of negativity and destruction, altogether.

A careful reading of the relevant inserts in Jurassic Park (of which there are many: even towards the end, dying and doped up on morphine, Ian Malcolm will not shut up) makes it evident that Crichton himself was no true adherent of chaos theory. More likely, as with the sex-change frog, but far more spectacularly, he was simply incorporating something new and trendy into his work; the book that brought chaos theory to a wider public consciousness, James Gleick’s Chaos: Making A New Science, was published in 1987. By making “chaos theory” the basis of his novel’s plot, Crichton hit upon a clever and effective way of separating his story from the pack. Otherwise, Jurassic Park is simply the latest in a long, long line of stories about Meddling In Things That Man Must Leave Alone, with lots of dubious science and people being chased by big, scary animals.

Which, of course, when it came to the film version, was exactly what most people wanted. Nevertheless, chaos theory was such a substantial component of the novel that Steven Spielberg and David Koepp must have felt they had to keep it. The problem, then, was how to translate it so that it was present in their film, but neither overwhelmed nor bogged down the story. Not surprisingly, the version of chaos theory that finds its way into Jurassic Park is a very slimline one indeed; and if Michael Crichton’s presentation of the workings of this discipline was somewhat simplified, by the time it hit our screens chaos theory was nothing more than a fancy way of saying “Murphy’s Law”. Now, I commented earlier (somewhere back there in the mists of time and type), that there were moments in Jurassic Park when David Koepp’s screenplay exposed the deck-stacking of Michael Crichton’s story; and the presentation of John Hammond’s Jurassic Park, and its subsequent breakdown, is the most significant of them.

That chaos theory was simply a useful narrative tool to Michael Crichton is most evident in the fact that Jurassic Park hardly needs “the inherent unpredictability of a complex system” for all hell to break loose: the place is a disaster from start to finish. The extent of the problem is somewhat disguised by the loose structure of the novel, with its various interpolations and digressions; but the film is merciless in its exposure of its contrivances.

Oh, where to start, where to start? How about with the fact that tropical storms apparently have a serious impact of the safe functioning of this park? – which sits on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Or that in this park, everything is automated except the uncaging of velociraptors, which is still done by hand? (Never mind automation: ever heard of a rope and pulley?) Or that the automated touring cars can’t be locked? (Even Gennaro sees the issue with that.) And how about those concrete moats? We hear about them, all right, but where are they? Not where they should be, namely, between Tyrannosaurus and the public. (At least, not when it’s time for T. rex to get out; only when she is out.) An unobstructed view is nice, but on the whole I think I’d prefer to have it from elevated walkways, with the dinosaurs behind high walls – higher than Velociraptor could jump – with an electrical barrier on the top of them as an extra precaution. Oh, yeah – and how about putting your circuit-breakers somewhere nearby, rather than in “a maintenance shed at the other end of the compound”?

Where is the security, human and otherwise? Where are the 24-7 patrols, the helicopter surveillance, the back-up systems, the redundancy, the sharing of information? Not at Jurassic Park. Instead, what we have here is a fully automated set-up that – even aside from incorporating no way to stop visitors from wandering off wherever they like – is under the control of a completely inadequate computer system; one that doesn’t even have enough memory to run the park and fix a bug at the same time. And finally, all of the park’s operations and safety systems – phones, barriers, people-movers, general power, everything – are bundled together and put into the hands of a single individual; and not just any individual, but the one who might as well be sitting under a gigantic flashing neon sign reading WORLD’S MOST DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEE.

I mean, please.... This isn’t chaos theory in action; it isn’t the unpredictability of a dynamic system; it isn’t “nature breaking through barriers”, or “life finding a way”; it’s just old-fashioned human stupidity....which, as we all know, is one of the two most common elements in the universe.

And really, nothing sums up the farcical nature of this aspect of the plot than the treatment of Dennis Nedry by John Hammond – and that holds whether you’re talking about the book or the film. In the former, Hammond is repeatedly depicted as a penny-pincher, a corner-cutter; even though he expects to make billions from Jurassic Park, he still short-changes every aspect of its design and creation. One of those aspects is the hiring of Nedry, who is misled and misinformed, kept in the dark at all turns, and finally tricked into a contract wherein he earns a salary far below what his value to the project would demand. This is one of those points where the re-writing of John Hammond for the film leaves a dangling plot-thread. This nice, friendly old man, who starts out announcing cheerfully, “I can tell instantly about people – it’s a gift!”, is not only coldly dismissive of Nedry’s complaints about his finances (which here, it is implied, are Nedry’s own fault), but apparently quite unable to see that his head programmer is a catastrophe waiting to happen. But really, whichever Hammond we’re talking about, and however culpable Nedry might actually be, if this is the one person who determines whether your dream project succeeds or fails, wouldn’t you do your best to placate him, even if his demands do amount to blackmail, rather than going out of your way to piss him off?

Ultimately, Jurassic Park – and Jurassic Park – undermines itself with its own manoeuvrings. The question of whether we can “control” the dinosaurs, or whether their escape represents the essential power of nature to “break free”, is never answered, because it is never really addressed. The result of this is that viewers (and readers; but particularly viewers) are likely to come away thinking that resurrecting the dinosaurs is still a good idea. We just won’t put this bunch of idiots in charge of it, that’s all. Besides, Michael Crichton may have been sincere in his condemnation of John Hammond and his plans, but you certainly don't get the feeling that Steven Spielberg was. Those last sad shots of Hammond, as he looks back at the ruins of his dream, and Alan puts a consoling arm about his shoulders, convey anything but condemnation. And of course, just at that time Spielberg may have known exactly how John Hammond felt: he'd just finished making Hook.

(And I can’t let my practical objections to Jurassic Park go without pointing out one last detail: the absence of a manual lock on the door of the control room. Do you get the feeling that someone prepared for their involvement in Jurassic Park by watching Westworld?)

You know, whenever I post one of these dissectory reviews, the first consequence is always, always, that someone will send me an e-mail demanding, “Why do you have to think so much about the films you watch? Why can’t you just enjoy them? Why do you get so upset?” Given the implication that “thinking” and “enjoying yourself” are necessarily mutually exclusive, it is perhaps not surprising that they rarely believe me when I say that such an exercise gives me a great deal of pleasure; that the process of putting a film under the microscope (ha, ha) adds considerably to my whole experience of it – and that’s true whether I ultimately endorse or criticise its science. And I hope that this time at least, I didn’t get upset.

While all professions are misrepresented on film in film to a certain degree, in the interests of plot and drama, poor old science really takes one for the team; I couldn’t begin to count the number of films that turn on science, and scientists, behaving in ways they never would or could. And while occasionally such a film will irritate me into taking it more seriously than it deserves (the aforementioned Embryo, for instance), I think on the whole I do keep a sense of proportion. I’m not going to sit here, for instance, and explain to you what’s wrong about the science of Bela Lugosi injecting himself with cerebrospinal fluid and turning Amish; for one thing, I hope I wouldn’t have to. And I’m not going to get into a debate about the ethics of keeping your girlfriend’s severed head alive in a pan of neck-juice, either (although I might be tempted to argue that the real transgression in that film isn’t Jan In The Pan, it’s the search for a replacement body). Science fiction films are full of monologues about science; and while most of them are condemnatory, I accept that very few of them were ever intended seriously; but rather, simply that the screenwriter saw an opportunity for penning a fulsome curtain speech and closing his script with a flourish.

But sometimes, a films attitude to science will succeed in flushing me out of the undergrowth. Jurassic Park is one such film. Although much of it is drowned out by Steven Spielberg and David Koepp’s competing (and far more attractive) philosophy of “DINOSAURS ARE COOL!”, enough of Michael Crichton’s own viewpoint remains in the film for it to demand a more serious response.

After the visitors to Jurassic Park have been shown the feeding of the velociraptors, their doubts about the project begin to crystallise. Seated at a table with Hammond and Gennaro, they listen to the latter’s financial projections, and Hammond’s expressions of pride in his creation. It is then that Ian Malcolm speaks, expressing his horror and disgust at their attitudes. In the film, this speech is shortened; here it is from the novel, unexpurgated:

Scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline. You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast. There is no discipline lasting many decades. There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy. Cheat, lie, falsify – it doesn't matter. Not to you, or to your colleagues. No one will criticise you. No one has any standards.”

I sincerely hope that Michael Crichton personally knew, or knew of, some scientists who actually behaved like that; because otherwise that is an incredible piece of arrogance. No doubt he viewed the emergence of biotechnology and the commercialisation of science as a dangerous development; and no doubt he had a right to be concerned about the adequacy of the regulations governing the new industry; but to so sweepingly condemn the ethics and intentions of all concerned is outrageous.

Now, I don’t doubt Michael Crichton’s sincerity, but I do question his methods. Scrutiny, and challenge, and criticism are all perfectly valid approaches to a subject; but misrepresentation is something else; and so, for that matter, is name-calling. Increasingly over the course of Crichton’s career, he evinced a tendency to fight his battles via abusive attack, rather than by measured debate. Instead of offering a thoughtful argument, he would spray accusation around like machine-gun fire. It is a tactic that sometimes makes it hard to follow his reasoning – and harder still to formulate an appropriate response. It’s difficult to think clearly when you’re busy ducking for cover.

As for the rest, I can only do what Michael Crichton, I suspect, was not doing, and speak from my personal experience. I can say without hesitation that I never knew anyone to go into science for the money – although I’ve known plenty of people who got out of it for financial reasons. Even those who actively pursue employment with biotechnology companies rarely do so for reasons of money, or fame. For opportunity, yes; but that’s a different thing. In most cases, the main motivations are better working conditions, and that most elusive of all scientific outcomes, job security.

For those who do choose science, it’s usually for no more complicated a reason than having an interest. And while I don’t for a second buy into Hollywood’s cherished cliché of the scientist motivated by personal tragedy, I will say that for a lot of scientists, the attraction of science as a career lies in the possibility of making a positive contribution to the world. Sorry if that sounds corny. As for discipline, they spend between four and ten years getting their qualifications; I’d call that a reasonable apprenticeship, myself. They build in their work upon that of those who came before them, certainly, but isn’t that true of all areas of human endeavour? And yes, mistakes do happen; and yes, misjudgements are made; and yes, sometimes they are the result of financial or commercial pressures; but these events are still the extreme exception, and not the rule. Sometimes science does outpace its own regulations; but invariably, the regulations catch up; often rather punitively. As for the question of professional ethics, I find that the most hurtful of Michael Crichton’s accusations. In fact, the vast majority of scientists take their ethical responsibilities very seriously indeed. They do have “standards”; they would never “lie, cheat, falsify”; and if they did, you bet they’d be criticised. I may say that in a quarter of a century as student and practitioner, only one instance of scientific malfeasance ever occurred even remotely within my purview, and in that case the guilty party wasn’t a scientist at all, but a Michael Crichton. It was a scientist who saw the problem and blew the whistle, though – and suffered the professional consequences.

And to drag this rambling response somewhat back to the point, there’s an aspect of Jurassic Park that doesn’t seem to me to get sufficient attention. I mentioned that I always thought that John Hammond recruited Alan and Ellie to be his puppets. I still get a whiff of that even with the new, improved John Hammond; while there is a definite criticism of the scientists intended in the way that he buys their immediate cooperation with a promise of future funding. Yet even as Hammond’s financial hostages, even with three years’ research at risk, neither Alan nor Ellie hesitates to speak their mind in opposition to Hammond’s obvious expectation and wish. Put on the spot, they each do the honest and ethical thing.

While I always read Michael Crichton’s novels, it was a major downer to me that a science fiction writer who shaped his stories around “real science” would so often be so very negative about it. What bothered me particularly was the obvious shift in his attitude over time; the move from writing cautionary tales to writing alarmist ones. I find it a disheartening journey, from The Andromeda Strain, with its realistic scientists doing realistic science; through the “scientists are evil, but DINOSAURS ARE COOL!” of Jurassic Park; to State Of Fear, where--- No, we’re not going to talk about that. Somewhere along the line, we lost the Michael Crichton who has happy enough to admit in interview that he learned only enough about a subject, “To be able to make it sound like I know a great deal more”; or who, when asked why a novel called Jurassic Park had a Cretaceous dinosaur on the cover, laughed that he hadn’t even thought of that: “That was just the best-looking design.” Pity. However--- Perhaps we should just focus on the positive here, particularly the better film adaptations of Crichton’s stories which, whatever their dramatic and narrative flaws, are often hugely enjoyable. This is certainly true of Jurassic Park – which of course has a distinctly unfair advantage over all of its competition, something that makes us (well, most of us) wave away the dubious science, and forgive the too-frequent intrusion of the PG-13 rating.

It’s the dinosaurs, man. From the opening velociraptor lunch, to the Tyrannosaurus ex machina climax – it’s the dinosaurs....

Footnote: What, another killer animal movie that ends with a helicopter flying safely off into the sunset!? I am OUTRAGED! Dammit, Spielberg – !

Now, that's more like it!

More informative footnote:  Correspondent 'MegaLemur writes:  Regarding Brachiosaurus neck posture, there is a series of papers by Kent Stevens and collaborators arguing for strong horizontality in the sauropod neck. This is most extreme in the diplodocoids (Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and their close relatives) which have been reconstructed with their heads nearly touching the ground. However, more recent research suggests that the osteological neutral pose utilized in those papers is not consistent with what is observed in living organisms. The authors of this more recent work, which suggests that the Brachiosaurus neck posture in Jurassic Park is entirely accurate, have blogged about this research extensively at:

The rearing up on the hind legs bit is still ridiculous, though. The sauropod research community still strenuously debates whether diplodocoid dinosaurs, with their small forelimbs and massive, tripod-suggestive tail, were able to rear up (as has been depicted in the spectacular mounted Barosaurus skeleton in New York), but this has never been suggested for brachiosaurids (wherein, as their name indicates, the arms are longer than the legs).

About the “raptors”, it was never widely-accepted in the theropod community that Deinonychus and Velociraptor were synonymous. Crichton took this assertion from Greg Paul's semi-popular 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. Interestingly, though, Paul depicted all of his dromaeosaurids completely feathered (a position he was excoriated for at the time, but of course has been subsequently vindicated)--so you have the unfortunate situation where all the wrong science from Crichton's sources made it into the final work, but he left out the right! I do give them credit for pushing the dinosaur-bird connection so hard at a time when it was still the subject of serious, volcanic debate among dinosaurologists, though (as opposed to the increasingly aged, sad set of professional cranks that the birds aren't dinosaurs! set compose today). Lame as another helicopter escape may be, I always thought the sight of the pelicans flying off in formation and realizing that dinosaurs were with us all along was a beautiful coda.


----posted 17/08/2009