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Jurassic Park

1993. Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on a book by Michael Crichton. With Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough.

Did you notice that the Jurassic Park nick-nacks for sale in the ill-fated park's gift shop are exactly the same as the Jurassic Park nick-nacks being sold out here in the real world? Same lunch boxes and t-shirts, same logo, same lettering. Since the name of the park and the name of the movie are identical, when the Jurassic Park maestro played by Richard Attenborough looks right at us and beams "Welcome to Jurassic Park!," there's some confusion about which show we're about to see. In a sense, Jurassic Park illustrates the way that movies and theme parks are turning into each other, or turning together into some new entertainment phenomenon based on bombarding immobilized spectators with special effects and then selling them stuff. MCA-Universal, the corporation behind this movie, should know all about it.

When a movie begins with curious progatonists arriving somewhere to witness something spectacular, the boundaries between those on-screen spectators and ourselves is already blurred. For a while, their experience mirrors our own. Like the visitors to Jurassic Park, we in the movie audience see something we never expected to see—"live" dinosaurs, moving around and making noise, as close to an experience of prehistoric earth as we'll ever get. Like Drs. Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant, we want to ask the man behind the spectacle, "How did you do it?" Our Ph.D.s later have reservations about the wisdom of John Hammond's misconceived and poorly-executed undertaking, and a movie-goer sure doesn't need a Ph.D. to feel the same about Speilberg-Crichton's, but those first few minutes of astonishment are exhilirating for all concerned.

Jurassic Park portrays theme-park culture with such deadly accuracy that I was sure it was intended satirically. There's the mock-Inca look of the place, the ubiquitous dinosaur logo, the Visitor's Center, the slick mixture of entertainment and "science," the way visitors get buckled into driverless cars and whisked around by computer. The orientation movie, "Mr. DNA," is a high point, far wittier than the rest of the film, a sort of combination of Our Mr. Sun and Gertie the Dinosaur. "Mr. DNA" also slips in a little commentary on its parent movie. As part of the presentation, Hammond (Attenborough) interacts with his on-screen self, and then multiple on-screen Hammonds appear (this is supposed to help us visualize "cloning"). A cinematic trick standing in for a genetic trick. Later in this same little film, a dinosaur is drawn and then starts to move--a rudimentary version of how the whole Jurassic Park works. Right out in the open, the movie acknowledges that, call it whatever impressive name you like, surround it with all the pseudo-science you want, it all comes down to cinematic sleight-of-hand, animation and computer graphics. One visitors even asks if those scientists at work behind the glass wall are animatronic (actually he says "auto-erotic," ho-ho). No, Hammond assures him, they're "real people." It's a good self-referential acknowledgement of the fact that in environments like these (Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park), "real" is a problematic concept.

My husband says I should also point out the irony of the refernces to chaos theory. As the "chaotician" character, Ian Malcolm, explains, Jurassic Park is doomed to fail because complex systems are inherently unpredictable. Oh yeah, Ian? What about Jurassic Park?—a complex system in which not a single unpredictable thing ever happens. There is not one spontaneous moment, not one surprising turn of events, no sense of anything occuring that hasn't been thoroughly pre-programmed. "Life will find a way," Malcolm cautions. In Jurassic Park, maybe; in Jurassic Park, naw. (We've had movies before that exemplified their own premise, but this is the first one that sets a counter-example.)

Do I think that Steven Spielberg set out to reflect on his material, his milieu, his bosses, his Hollywood, his business interests, his career? I sure don't. But, as I tell people who ask me about this List (it's surprisingly hard for certain people to get the concept), some of the best self-referential movies are utterly unaware of what they are up to. In the course of just being what they are, they can't help but comment upon themselves.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein