Does Jurassic Park reveal a guilty confession from Steven Spielberg?

In the midst of the 30-year-old box-office sensation, “Jurassic Park,” Steven Spielberg finds a moment of respite from the chaos and high-tech spectacle to present a poignant scene. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the billionaire behind the resurrected prehistoric attractions, reflects on his intentions while sharing a story about a flea circus. As the dinosaurs wreak havoc, Hammond, who had hoped to entertain people with his creation, feels remorseful for the unintended consequences. His desire to provide amusement dates back long before he had the means to build Jurassic Park.

Though not everyone’s favorite scene, it carries significant meaning. What stands out is Spielberg’s introduction of Hammond. The scene opens with a wall of merchandise, featuring T-shirts, lunch boxes, and toys, all adorned with the Jurassic Park logo, identical to the real-life merchandise Universal would sell. The camera finally settles on Hammond, seemingly insignificant in the vastness of the gift shop, humbled by the overwhelming commercialization of his once-grand achievement.

Jurassic Park has undeniably earned its status as an eternal crowd-pleaser and stands as one of Spielberg’s most cherished works, no small feat considering his impressive filmography. However, it’s not typically regarded as a deeply personal movie, unlike the enduringly discussed E.T. Yet, beneath the thrilling and frightening facade of Jurassic Park lies a subtle hint of confession. As we witness John Hammond rationalizing his errors within the immense shadow of his own creation, it prompts us to ponder: Could Spielberg have been exorcising his own sense of guilt over the transformative impact his past blockbuster hits had on the world of cinema?

When the director embarked on the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s upcoming bestseller in the early ’90s, he must have been keenly aware of his seismic impact on the industry. By that time, it had become common knowledge that he bore a significant responsibility for the simplification and infantilization of Hollywood cinema. The studios had wholeheartedly embraced the success of his own “Jaws” and the blockbuster hits of his friend George Lucas, particularly the “Star Wars” franchise. As a consequence, they shifted their focus entirely towards churning out the next big blockbuster sensation.

One could argue that “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a collaborative effort between Spielberg and Lucas, played an even more pivotal role in shaping the state of American multiplexes indefinitely. Following the wake of “Raiders,” movies transformed into thrilling rollercoaster experiences, determined to rush audiences from one exhilarating moment to the next, relentlessly aiming to “entertain” us to the very brink of our lives.

Certainly, if every filmmaker possessed Spielberg’s exceptional talent behind the camera, the pursuit of replicating his early career’s zeitgeist success wouldn’t be as tiresome. Movies like “Jaws” and “Raiders” are the epitome of superb summer blockbusters. However, it’s undeniable that Spielberg and Lucas played a significant role in reshaping Hollywood, partly by tapping into the vast potential of licensing opportunities. “E.T.” and “Star Wars” were massive commercial successes, flooding the market with official merchandise that could fill warehouses across the country. This marked a new and irreversible phase of extreme vertical integration in the commercialization of movies.

From this perspective, “Jurassic Park” takes on a self-reflective glimmer. Its title destination, a tourist trap promising endless wonders at a price, becomes a metaphor for the theme-parking of movies. The film itself becomes a Pandora’s Box in various ways. Crichton’s cautionary tale about playing God can easily be interpreted as a warning about transforming movies into pre-licensed rides. Ian Malcolm’s lecture about distinguishing between what can be done and what should be done carries plenty of implied industry wisdom. The film’s abundance of product placements for itself may seem hypocritical, but it also fortifies its satirical commentary on the state of the industry.

Hammond, representing the film’s guilty conscience, serves as a proxy for Spielberg himself. While screenwriter David Koepp may have drawn inspiration from Walt Disney in creating Hammond, the portrayal bears traces of a directorial self-portrait. Like Spielberg, the elderly man is a natural entertainer who has transformed his dreams into profitable ventures. Initially, all he desired was to bring magic to the world, but unwittingly, he has given rise to uncontrollable monsters that now run amok within his dream factory. Beyond the awe-inspiring set-pieces, Jurassic Park emerges as a self-indicting event movie, where the filmmaker grapples with his own creative culpability.

This explains why the founder of Jurassic Park comes across as a more sympathetic character in the film compared to the novel. In Crichton’s written version, Hammond is as much a villain as the carnivorous dinosaurs he unleashes – a ruthless, uncaring mogul whose cost-cutting measures lead to the escape of the beasts and the death of his guests. In the book, Hammond lacks remorse, shifting blame onto his mostly devoured staff, and pledging to rebuild the park without change. Ultimately, Crichton takes him out, punishing him for his capitalist sins as he becomes prey to a hungry, chirping flock of miniature man-eaters.

In Spielberg’s rendition, Hammond takes on a more innocent persona – a child at heart who simply longs to reintroduce dinosaurs to the world. His eyes sparkle with wonder rather than being driven by monetary gains. The film cleverly shifts the character’s greed and vulnerability as potential prey onto the company lawyer. By casting Richard Attenborough, who brilliantly emanates grandfatherly warmth, the movie’s intentions become clear. Hammond’s change of heart in the sequel, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” where he transforms into a conservationist, further emphasizes his genuine nature. “Jurassic Park” portrays a man whose ambitious vision leads to grave consequences, yet it cannot help but feel empathy for him, finding beauty in his folly – a strikingly personal touch to the film.

Ironically, “Jurassic Park” proved to be as influential as Spielberg’s previous blockbuster successes. It reshaped the industry by introducing the most astonishing computer-generated imagery the audience had ever seen, ushering in the era of CGI spectacle that persists today. Remarkably, the film’s warnings about the perils of technological advancement without caution can be applied to the very revolution it accelerated and solidified. In essence, if Spielberg were to consider another Jurassic Park movie, he would once again have to grapple with its far-reaching consequences, though he would have to do so without the radiant presence of Richard Attenborough.

Currently available for streaming on Peacock and Tubi, and digitally for rent or purchase, “Jurassic Park” remains an enduring testament to Spielberg’s remarkable storytelling. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writings, please visit his Authory page.

 

Leave a Reply