'Jurassic Park' at 25: How Steven Spielberg hid a secret warning to Hollywood in his dino hit

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jurassic Park. (Photo: Universal Pictures/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Steven Spielberg first set Hollywood on a course for blockbusterdom with 1975’s Jaws, which established the modern template for how to manufacture and market tentpole movies to the masses. Nearly two decades later, on June 11, 1993, he once again changed the cinematic landscape with Jurassic Park, a monster-mash companion piece to his prior triumph that straddled eras while casting a jaded eye toward the future it was creating. Twenty-five years after its debut shook the foundations of filmmaking (and conquered the domestic box office to the tune of a then-record $357 million), Jurassic Park remains a triumph of popcorn entertainment, as well as a commentary on its own pioneering place in the medium’s history — complete with a character at its center who functions as a proxy for Spielberg himself.

I’m speaking about John Hammond, the kindly old mastermind of Jurassic Park, he with the white beard and matching suit, played by Richard Attenborough. In Jurassic Park, Hammond employs bleeding-edge means to bring the dino dead back to life and, in doing so, pushes technology into a new frontier. It’s a method mirrored, of course, by the film itself, which broke ground in the field of computer-generated imagery, conjuring up unbelievable cine-sights that moviegoers had never seen before. To adapt Michael Crichton’s bestseller, Spielberg married such digital wizardry to a host of superb practical effects, thereby marking it as a trailblazer equally indebted to tradition and progress. That too has echoes in the story, given that Hammond uses an ancient mosquito (trapped in amber) to extract the genetic code necessary to clone the long-extinct beasts. A saga about pushing boundaries with help from what has come before it is, in a certain sense, the very thing the film is about.

Considering that situation, one would expect Jurassic Park to be a tribute to the limitless thrills afforded by mankind’s latest and greatest machines. And yet it’s the opposite — a cautionary tale about wielding godlike power to beget anything the mind can envision. It’s there, in that contradiction between celebration and condemnation, that Spielberg slyly operates, with Hammond functioning as a stand-in for his own attitude toward the very project he has undertaken. Because at heart, the director — through his film — illustrates both his sincere belief in CGI as the next step in cinema’s evolution and his knowledge that he has opened a Pandora’s box that can never again be closed.

In Crichton’s book, John Hammond is an outright villain who spawns monsters in order to attain immense wealth. Spielberg, however, views the character with a far more sympathetic eye. Now dressed in white, and as distrustful of lawyers as Spielberg himself reportedly is, he has positioned as a loving patriarch (note the above scene in which he coaxes the baby velociraptor out of the egg with “push, c’mon then”) who — though certainly concerned with merchandising profits — is driven by noble ends. “This place — I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion. Something that was real. Something they could see and touch,” he says to Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler near film’s end, and it’s one of many moments in which he comes across as a virtual mouthpiece for the director. It’s no coincidence that, for the role of a groundbreaking visionary who brings heretofore-unseen wonders to life, Spielberg cast fellow legendary filmmaker Richard Attenborough, he of A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi fame.

Spielberg softens his characterization of Hammond because he sees himself in him. They’re kindred spirits who’ve made the impossible possible, and Spielberg’s treatment of Hammond thus remains compassionate even once the park has fallen into bloody chaos. There’s a sense throughout that the director wants to absolve Hammond for what he has done because, well, what he has done is just so amazing that it’s difficult to imagine not wanting to see, say, a Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh. We feel that too, of course, watching Jurassic Park — no matter how much the film ultimately shows Hammond’s work to be foolhardy, it’s difficult to feel outright disdain for him, because he has provided us (via this story) with the vicarious opportunity to gawk at Brachiosaurs, to run alongside Gallimimus, and to hide from deadly Velociraptors.

Nonetheless, Jurassic Park is a film of two minds when it comes to techno-progress. Regardless of Hammond’s soft-and-cuddly portrayal, Spielberg recognizes him as apocalyptically reckless, a man who — per Jeff Goldblum’s black-clad voice of reason, Dr. Ian Malcolm — was so busy thinking about what he could do that he never stopped to think about what he should do. Along with Sam Neill’s paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (whose introductory line is “I hate computers”), Goldblum’s Malcolm functions as Spielberg’s self-critical conscience. When he adminishes Hammond by telling him that “nature finds a way,” it’s Spielberg owning up to the fact that, no matter how noble its intentions or initial applications, technology can’t be controlled — once out in the world, it inevitably spreads and mutates in unintended and unmanageable ways. And, per Jurassic Park’s narrative, it often ends in mayhem and death.

The last quarter-century of American studio cinema has borne this fact out. Multiplexes have now been wholly conquered by increasingly similar-looking CGI spectaculars, with little room (outside of awards season) for adult dramas, documentaries, or indies, all of which have to fight tooth and nail for the box-office scraps left behind by each successive 4,000-plus-screen franchise release. Jurassic Park established this paradigm by proving the unparalleled profitability of such computerized behemoths. At the same time, though, it foresaw the damage that would invariably follow — to movie diversity at large, and to our own sense of awe, which is now far harder to stoke in an age in which everything is so easily conjured with the press of a keyboard button. When viewed from that perspective, the film is a morosely self-aware fulfillment of what Jaws (and 1977’s Star Wars) began: the establishment of special-effects extravaganzas (replete with fast-food and toy tie-ins) as the artistic form’s dominant force.

Though Hammond eventually tries to stop what he has started, Spielberg — holding tight to Hammond’s hope that “next time it’ll be flawless” — has repeatedly returned to the CGI terrain he first traversed with Jurassic Park, most overtly with the motion-captured The Adventures of Tintin and Ready Player One. And in his continuation of this franchise with 2015’s Jurassic World and this month’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (both of which he executive-produced), he has gone even further, positing the lethal, terrifying Velociraptor as mankind’s adorable and heroic best friend — a radical reconfiguration of the original’s idea that such (digital) creations were fundamentally malevolent.

Such an embrace-the darkness tack may be the only available means of confronting a movie landscape now wholly ruled by computer code. And to be sure, Hollywood has churned out its fair share of special-effects-laden marvels over the past two and a half decades. Yet to watch Spielberg’s 1993 hit now is to witness an auteur fashioning a fantastical future he knows will decimate the past (“We’re out of a job,” says old-school scientist Grant; “Don’t you mean extinct?” replies Malcolm), and which — more crucially still, in this age of diminished CGI-ified returns — he fears will lead to ruin. It’s simultaneously an end and a beginning, for better and worse.

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