Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Big Problem With “Jurassic Park”

This past weekend, my daughter and I saw Jurassic World, and we both really enjoyed it. I wish I felt the same way about the original Jurassic Park when I saw it in 1993, but I didn’t. I had a big problem with that film. Here’s why.

I had no beef with Jurassic World - it's a very fun film!
I recognize that Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is a beloved movie that won a lot of awards, and many people have fond memories of seeing it. For those much younger than I, it was a life-changing event, sort of like Star Wars was to me as a kid. But I saw the film as an adult fan of Michael Crichton, having read everything he had written up to that point. Decades later, Crichton’s Jurassic Park remains one of my all-time favorite novels. With the story Crichton wrote, Spielberg had the opportunity to create a truly great film. But instead, for reasons I will never understand, he chose to eliminate one of the single most important elements of any story – the antagonist. 

Perhaps my expectations were too high?
Every great story needs one, and it’s been that way for thousands of years. Star Wars needed Darth Vader, just like Harry Potter needed Lord Voldemort and Gladiator needed Emperor Commodus. But who plays the antagonist in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? 

It’s certainly not InGen’s archrival, Biosyn, who hired Newman from Seinfeld to steal some embryos. Newman gets eaten halfway through the story, and the Biosyn folks aren’t even on the island. Also, the dinosaurs were going to eventually get loose, despite whatever Biosyn did. Just ask Dr. Ian Malcolm about chaos theory.

These guys aren't the antagonists of Jurassic Park (or in the new film either).
It’s not the T-Rex either, as awesome as she was in the film. Or the velociraptors who don’t appear until the third act. Technically, they were all forms of “antagonists” since they stood in the way of the protagonists. But animals rarely make great antagonists. Their motives are never nefarious enough or human enough. Because, after all, they’re animals. 

Of course, there are exceptions like in Jaws and Alien. But in those films, the monster is always present, almost from the beginning to the end. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, however, were just minding their own business until the power went out. And once they get free, who can blame them for what they did?  

So if the dinosaurs aren’t the true antagonist, which “main” character was to blame for the story’s big problem? (Again, Newman from Seinfeld isn’t it.) Who was standing in the heroes’ way to resolution? In the movie, NO ONE. But that wasn’t the case in the book.

One of my favorite books of all time!
Crichton’s novel had a very well-crafted and despicable antagonist who was to blame for the story’s problem. His name was John Hammond. Yes, the man Spielberg portrayed as a Santa Clause-like grandpa. He was never a threat to anyone, just a dotting, old, rich man who regretted putting his grandchildren in harm’s way. 

The real John Hammond – the one Crichton created as an essential piece of his story – is a cold and ruthless businessman tinkering with nature like Dr. Frankenstein. When he thinks about his grandchildren, it’s always “those damned kids!” The book’s Hammond is so blinded by greed he can’t see that it’s dangerous to play God, which is exactly what he does by bringing dinosaurs back after so many millions of years. In fact, that’s the entire point of the story. 

Here’s a snippet of dialogue from the book’s Hammond that sums up his motives:
“This is our triumph, this park. We have done what we set out to do. And, you remember, our original intent was to use the newly emerging technology of genetic engineering to make money. A lot of money. … If you were going to start a bioengineering company, Henry, what would you do? Would you make products to help mankind, to fight illness and disease? Dear me, no. That’s a terrible idea. A very poor use of new technology.”
In the end, Hammond comes face to face with his own creation: a pack of chicken-sized dinosaurs called compys who promptly devour their creator. Hammond’s demise is symbolic and drives home the book’s theme. If Spielberg’s Hammond had played this same role, the film would have been so much richer and better than what ultimately made it onto the screen.

Indominus Rex is a true antagonist!
All this said, I loved seeing the dinosaurs brought to life in Jurassic Park, and it’s clear that the strides Spielberg made in terms of special effects paved the way for more than twenty years of cinema. But when I compare it to the book, the movie falls short.

Fortunately, Jurassic World does not make this same mistake. There is both a human antagonist and a monster antagonist done right. At times, some of the scenes with the monster (a genetically engineered killing machine called Indominus Rex) even reminded me of Alien. They were that well done. It may have taken twenty-two years, but in Jurassic World we finally get a real antagonist. And we come close to getting the story Jurassic Park could have been.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes


Bill said...

Many, if not most, movies made from books fall short as far as I'm concerned, Joe. The reasons are well known, including the difficulty a movie has revealing a character's thoughts - so simple in a book.

Your case lacks that excuse. Do you have a theory of why Jurassic Park left out the antagonist?

Crichton was a true original thinker who died far too young.

Joseph Finley said...

I honestly have no idea why Spielberg decided to make Hammond a kindly old man. Maybe once he cast Richard Attenborough, he decided that was the way to go. A year after Jurassic Park he did play Kris Kringle on the remake of "Miracle on 34th Street." So maybe he cast off a Santa Clause-like vibe and Spielberg went with it. But then, again, Attenborough did play a serial killer earlier in his career, so I'm sure he could have pulled off a ruthless Hammond.

Bill said...

Crichton wrote a completely non-PC book late in his life named "State of Fear" wherein eco-terrorists create disasters designed to advance a sense of hysteria about global warming caused by humans.

There is zero chance anyone will make a movie based on it.

Joseph Finley said...

Yes, I don't see "State of Fear" being made anytime soon. But I just saw that Disney picked up the rights to "Micro," which is the only Crichton novel I haven't read (largely because the others published after his death were clearly not finished; even "Pirate Latitudes" shows signs of being a draft by the end).

The question is whether it will be any good? Hollywood tends to botch most movies based on Crichton's books. "The Thirteenth Warrior" (which was actually published by Crichton as "Eaters of the Dead," may have been the best adaptation in my view.

Bill said...

I haven't heard of that book or movie.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, I just re-watched "the 13th Warrior" tonight. It's a great film! (I reviewed the book, "Eaters of the Dead," in November of 2011; you can find it on the side bar on the blog.) The story is a re-imagining of the Beowulf tale, told from the viewpoint of Ibn Fadlan, a real-life Muslim who was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad in 922 A.D. as an ambassador to the Turks. On the way, he encounters a ship full of Swedish Vikings and ends up joining them on an adventure to the North. (Think Hrothgar's mead hall and Grendel, along with his demonic mother and even a dragon or "glow wyrm"; it makes for a wonderful tale!) Since you like Viking stories, I think you'd enjoy this one. And I'll stand by my opinion that it is the single best adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel to the silver screen. ("The Great Train Robbery" comes in second.)

Bill said...

Thanks for directing me to that review, Joe. I need to read "The 13th Warrior."

Joseph Finley said...

You're welcome. Remember, the book is called "Eaters of the Dead." They changed the name for the film, probably because "Eaters of the Dead" sounds like a horror flick instead of a Viking adventure.

Bill said...

I found it. Thanks.