Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park reveals a guilty confession about modern movies

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Sam Neill stares down the mighty T.Rex.
Jurassic Park Murray Close/Sygma/Getty

Somewhere in the middle of Jurassic Park, the towering box-office sensation that turned 30 last month, Steven Spielberg takes a break from the running, screaming, and state-of-the-art spectacle to let John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) tell a little story about a flea circus. By this point, the dinosaurs have broken loose and run amok, and Hammond, the billionaire industrialist who brought these prehistoric attractions back to life through the wonders of science, is feeling sorry for himself. He never meant to get anyone eaten by a T.Rex! He just wanted to entertain people — a goal he’s nursed since long before he had the resources to build a place like Jurassic Park.

This is no one’s favorite scene in the movie. But in its quiet, maudlin way, it just might be the most revealing. More so even than the monologue, what stands out here is the way Hammond is introduced. Spielberg opens the scene with a wall of merchandise, moving his camera past T-shirts, lunch boxes, and toys — all branded with the Jurassic Park logo, all essentially identical to the Jurassic Park junk Universal would sell in real life. Finally, Spielberg lands on Hammond, eating ice cream in the distance. The man looks tiny in the shot, humbled by a gift shop’s worth of stuff advertising his grand achievement.

By now, Jurassic Park‘s reputation as an all-time crowdpleaser is firmly established: It’s arguably the most widely beloved of Spielberg’s movies, which is really saying something. Jurassic Park is not, however, often discussed as a particularly personal movie, in the way E.T. always has been. Yet behind the breezy-scary fun of the film, there’s a hint of confession. Watching John Hammond rationalize his mistakes in the shadow of his own empire, you have to wonder: Was Spielberg exorcizing his guilt about what he did to movies, about how his past hits changed everything?

The director had to have been aware of his own seismic impact on the industry when he set out to adapt Michael Crichton’s bestseller-to-be in the early ’90s. At that point, it was already conventional wisdom that he was largely to blame for the dumbing down and infantilizing of Hollywood cinema — the way the studios latched onto the popularity of his Jaws and the Star Wars movies of his buddy, George Lucas, and redirected all their resources towards the endless pursuit of the next blockbuster phenomenon. Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Spielberg and Lucas joined forces to make, is arguably even more responsible for the indefinite state of the American multiplex. In the wake of Raiders, movies truly became rollercoasters, determined to race audiences from one thrill to the next, to “entertain” us within an inch of our lives.

Richard Attenborough pops some champagne.
Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park Murray Close/Sygma/Getty

Of course, if everyone was as gifted behind the camera as Spielberg, it wouldn’t be quite such a drag to see them chase the zeitgeist success he achieved early in his career. Jaws and Raiders, after all, are about as good as summer movies get. But there’s little denying that he and Lucas reshaped Hollywood … in part, additionally, by tapping into a gold mine of licensing possibilities. E.T., like Star Wars before it, sold enough official merchandise to stock every warehouse in the country. It was the commercialization of movies taken to a new, irreversible extreme of vertical integration.

In that light, Jurassic Park gains a new self-reflexive glimmer. It doesn’t seem like a stretch at all to see a metaphor for the theme parking of movies in its title destination, a tourist trap promising endless wonders for the right price. In multiple respects, Jurassic Park itself is a Pandora’s Box. Crichton’s cautionary tale about playing God can easily double as a warning about turning movies into pre-licensed rides; there’s plenty of implied industry wisdom in Ian Malcolm’s lecture about confusing something you can do for something you should. Is it hypocritical that Jurassic Park is filthy with product placement for itself, or does that just fortify its satire?

Hammond, the film’s guilty conscience, is naturally a proxy for Spielberg. Screenwriter David Koepp may have modeled him on Walt Disney, but the ambivalence of the depiction betrays hints of directorial self-portrait. The old man, like Spielberg, is a born entertainer who has monetized his dreams. All he wanted was to bring magic to the world, but he’s created monsters, and he can now do nothing but watch from the sidelines as they rampage across his dream factory. Past the power of its set-pieces, Jurassic Park looks like an event movie that indicts itself, made by a filmmaker grappling with his creative culpability.

All of this explains, of course, why the founder of Jurassic Park is a much more sympathetic character in the movie than he is in the novel. As Crichton wrote him, Hammond was as much a villain as the carnivorous dinosaurs he unleashed: a ruthless, uncaring mogul whose cost-cutting measures are what ultimately lead to the escape of the beasts and the death of his guests. He’s not even remorseful in the book, shifting the blame on his (largely devoured) staff and vowing to do things no differently when he rebuilds the park and tries again. Crichton ultimately kills him for his capitalistic sins, feeding the old man to a chirping, ravenous flock of miniature man-eaters.

Richard Attenborough looks concerned.
Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park Murray Close/Sygma/Getty

In Spielberg’s version, Hammond is more guileless — a big kid who just wants to give dinosaurs back to the world. His eyes twinkle with wonder, not dollar signs. The movie, in fact, hands the character’s greed, and his place on the menu, to the company lawyer. Casting Attenborough, who summons the full power of his grandfatherly warmth, gives the game away. So does the decision to grant Hammond a change of heart in the sequel, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, where he reinvents himself as a conservationist. If Jurassic Park is the portrait of a man whose ambitious vision has dire consequences, it clearly can’t help but feel for that man, to see something beautiful in his folly. That might be the most tellingly personal thing about the movie.

The ultimate irony is that Jurassic Park would prove every bit as influential as the smashes Spielberg made before it. It, too, reshaped the industry: By offering the most astonishing computer-generated imagery audiences had ever seen, it effectively — and permanently — put wonderment duties into the hands of digital technicians, ushering in the era of CGI spectacle we’re still very much living through. The film’s warnings about the dangers of technological advances without caution could be applied to the very revolution it accelerated and clinched. In other words, if Spielberg ever decides to make another Jurassic Park movie, he’ll have plenty of consequences to bashfully account for again… albeit without Richard Attenborough to put a smiling face on his handwringing.

Jurassic Park is currently streaming on Peacock and Tubi, and is available to rent or purchase digitally. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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