Jurassic Park and to a lesser extent, its sequels, has always been a “problem” film for me, mainly due to wasted potential and bad science. As time has gone on, I appreciate the original film for what it is, but I’m still haunted by what it could have been.
In 1993, I was eighteen years old and just returning from a fishing trip at my Uncle’s place in northern Newfoundland with my father. My Uncle, like pretty much all the men in my father’s family, is a scientist, and a sci-fi fan, and as I was leaving, he leant me this new novel he had just read, Jurassic Park, to keep me entertained on the eight hour sailing back to the mainland. “It’s a bit… fanciful…” he warned, using very diplomatic language, “But interesting.” At the time I was getting ready to start what eventually would lead me almost to a PhD in genetics, so I was understandably interested in anything to do with the field, so I eagerly read the book on the way home.
I could see instantly what my Uncle meant. The “science”, always problematic in Michael Crichton books, pushed the edge of what was even conceivable at the time, as extracting ancient DNA and sequencing it was in its infancy. Even polymerase chain reaction (PCR) the key technique that allowed that science to eventually be realized, was only beginning to become standardized and widely used in 1993. (The technique isn’t mentioned in the book.) Today, it’s possible to extract enough fragments of ancient DNA from fossils and other samples, and, just as importantly, screen out contamination, to get a good genetic picture of ancient organisms. Svante Paabo’s group at the Max Planck Institute is a world leader in this, having sequenced the Neanderthal genome, for example. This has made great contributions to understanding of the ancient past, and it’s justly celebrated today as an important scientific breakthrough. But it’s step one of about half a dozen quasi-possible things in Crichton’s “dinosaur cloning” scheme proposed in 1993.
It’s just as interesting what science Crichton chooses to show, and Spielberg picked up on this for the movie, rather than the essential science he chooses not to show. The 1990s were seemingly obsessed with “virtual reality”, and neither Crichton nor Spielberg could resist putting one of the scientists in a googles and gloves and have them manipulate a DNA strand in three dimensional space. It’s a neat image, but alas it has everything to do with 1990s sci-fi trends and nothing to do with reality. As anyone who’s taken high school biology should remember, the shape of DNA is cool, but ultimately secondary to the sequence of bases. That’s where the information is. Molecular biology is an information science, driven by computers that process enormous amounts of data consisting of strings of letters A, C, T and G. To look at the shape of a DNA molecule tells you very little indeed, because, of course DNA is DNA is DNA. It looks the same, no matter where it comes from. A virus, a bacterium, a fungus, an animal – doesn’t matter. DNA is DNA. But Hollywood is obsessed with the idea that the shape must have meaning. It’s a small point here in Jurassic Park, and only gets a few moments of screen time, and it’s nowhere near as egregious as in Mission to Mars, where the supposed “scientist” looks at about eight base pairs and intones, “that looks like human DNA!”. (Side note: I saw that film on a flight back from a conference with a number of other graduate students in biology. No one else on the plane could figure out why we were laughing out loud at the supposedly serious movie.) But it’s still indicative of Crichton’s rather limited commitment to scientific plausibility.
Another conceit that wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t essential to the plot of the book is that whole nonsense about “frog DNA” being used to fill in the gaps in the sequence fragments in the dinosaur DNA. Let’s leave aside for the moment that dinosaurs would actually be much closer to modern birds than amphibians, you can’t just “fill in” sequence like a colouring book. That requires detailed knowledge of which genes are affected, which control sequences are affected and so on. And most of any animal genome is going to be non-coding DNA anyhow (what used to be called “junk DNA”), and it’s a challenge even today to parse its importance and sequence sensitivity. The way the “frog DNA” is invoked later on, as a plot device that magically gives the dinosaurs the ability to change their sex, suggests that the sequence gaps were probably on control regions of the X chromosome, but it’s best not to dwell on it for too long. It’s a plot device, not science.
And even if we allow the ridiculous genetics, and I did at the time, this brings us to the biggest single problem with Jurassic Park, in any incarnation, literary or cinematic. Here is a fascinating opportunity, to study the unprecedented interaction between dinosaurs and humans, or more importantly, to study the social and biological elements of dinosaurs themselves. The book and the first film do, to their credit, make some attempt to address these sorts of issues, early on in the story, even addressing the notion of ancient flora and fauna. And it even takes time to address the moral issues, with Dr Ian Malcolm (played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum) being the essential critical voice. But Malcolm is, sadly, taken out of the action rather quickly and reduced to sitting and preaching ethics for the rest of the story to whoever will listen. In the film, this is less annoying than in the book, but it’s a waste of a character, and indicative of what the story’s real priorities are.
Because we didn’t get, in Jurassic Park, any sort of serious engagement with dinosaur biology. I’m sure Spielberg and Crichton hoped that children would be inspired by the film to go into the sciences and perhaps some were, probably just as many as were inspired to go into Marine Biology after seeing Jaws. In the end, that’s the kind of film Spielberg was making, and most disappointingly it’s the kind of book Crichton was writing. The last half of either the book or the movie I found, and still find, intermittently entertaining, but frustrating. Where’s the brains of the first half? Where’s the engagement with real issues of scientific responsibility and ecology? Oh, it’s approached, at the level of a ten-year-old perhaps, but it could have been so much more.
Jurassic Park, and this is even more true of its sequels, is a monster movie, dressed up with some science. I was expecting something more than that, but now I accept the film for what it is, and it’s much more effective than the book in achieving those genre imperatives. The movie is genuinely tense and thrilling at times, such as the sequence in which Dr Grant and the kids have to make it over an electrified fence before the power is switched back on. These are great sequences, and we should always give recognition to Spielberg’s talent. It’s not by accident that he’s the most successful filmmaker in the world. And certainly his thematic auteur imperatives (“Save the nuclear family!”) are well represented here.
In terms of science, we eventually did get what we were hoping for in the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels, which used, ironically, the computer graphics technology developed for Jurassic Park. That landmark series had the radical notion of presenting dinosaurs as living beings, in a living ecosystem, using the style of a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. Even though the dinosaurs themselves were CG and puppets, the illusion was wonderful and that series brought the past to life in a way that Biologists adored, for all its flaws. (Someone will always nitpick, as science continues to progress. Making a science-based film or book is kind of like buying a new car: it’s obsolete the moment it drives off the lot.)
People with a science background are generally sensitive to the way science is portrayed in films. This is understandable, because just about every depiction of a scientist from 1895 to 2015 has been negative. Irresponsible. Power-mad. Corrupt. The “mad scientist.” These are stereotypes we could do without, because ultimately it equates scientist with some sort of weird “clergy”, and implies that science and human morality are incompatible. That’s the recipe for an anti-intellectual society based on fear and superstition. With those stakes, it’s important to speak up for a more realistic portrayal of science and scientists. And not just in smaller, more introspective or educational films, but rather especially in big summer movies that millions of pairs of eyes see. Jurassic Park had that opportunity and blew it. From the half-billion dollar opening weekend the latest sequel had, it seems like most people don’t care about scientific robustness or depiction, comfortable having their suppositions about power-mad, cut-off, amoral scientists reinforced. That’s a real shame, even though I’m sure the film has lots to offer in terms of entertainment. In the 21st century, we can do better in depicting the people who are pushing the frontiers of human knowledge.