The Dark Allegory Hiding Inside Of 'Jurassic Park'?
We've obviously shared our fair share of wild Jurassic Park interpretations over the years ranging from the park being a genetic scam to the Biblical denim and leather theory. And even now, almost thirty years after the release of Steven Spielberg's dino-sized blockbuster, we're still unearthing new ways of reading the film -- beyond simply scouring Jeff Goldblum's chest hairs for secret codes, that is.
First, we have to go way back to a time when cocaine, hair metal, and popped collars were plentiful: the early 1980s. Hot off the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Warner Bros. tasked Spielberg with producing an anthology film based on TV's iconic The Twilight Zone -- potentially the first in a continuing series of movies that never came to fruition. Famously tragedy struck the production in 1982 during the filming of the segment helmed by Blues Brothers director John Landis. Three performers, Vic Morrow and two young children, Renee Chen (six) and Myca Dihn (seven), were killed in an on-set accident involving a helicopter and explosives, all while the cameras rolled.
Landis and four associates were charged and tried with involuntary manslaughter. Spielberg, who wasn't on set the night of the accident, never faced any charges or was even called to testify. While the two children were hired illegally and paid under the table to circumvent California's child labor laws, the D.A. controversially declined to charge the defendants with violating said laws. Landis and company were eventually acquitted.
While Spielberg was never found guilty of any wrongdoing, he didn't escape the incident totally unscathed in the public eye, either. The accident happened just six weeks after the release of E.T., and early news reports simply made reference to The Twilight Zone as a "Spielberg movie." One Teamster working the night of the accident told the National Transportation Safety Board that Spielberg was present, which Spielberg vehemently denied in a sworn statement. The Teamster later conceded that he may have confused Spielberg with Frank Marshall, Spielberg's long-time producing partner/Amblin Entertainment co-founder.
Marshall, according to Landis' testimony, was not only aware of the plan to illegally hire child actors for the shoot, he actually "offered to help recruit youngsters for the scene" and "signed the check for petty cash that was used to pay the parents of the two children." Defense attorney Harland Braun repeatedly alleged that not only Frank Marshall, but also associate producer/Amblin co-founder Kathleen Kennedy was involved in the plan to illegally hire the children, and speculated that if "Those two people knew, the question would arise, did Spielberg know?" The authors of the book Outrageous Conduct, which examined the case in detail, had a similar thought, questioning: "shouldn't Spielberg have known that his associates were planning to violate the child labor laws? Whether Spielberg intentionally turned a blind eye to the illegal hiring of children or was too busy to keep himself informed, his behavior did not reflect well on him."
Spielberg seemingly dissolved his friendship with Landis in the ensuing years and hasn't talked about the case much, beyond an early statement underscoring that the accident made everyone involved with the production "sick to the center of our souls" and that it "made me grow up a little more."
Again, we have to re-state that no investigation found that Spielberg did anything wrong here, but it's hard to imagine that such an event wouldn't be traumatic for the filmmaker. The accident seemingly had an immediate effect on Spielberg's artistic output, too, beginning with his contribution to The Twilight Zone movie. Originally, Spielberg was going to remake the episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," a cynical, McCarthy-era story about suburban paranoia that would have required working with child actors at night. Instead, he adapted the episode "Kick the Can," a cloyingly saccharine tale with a cast of senior citizens -- in other words, a complete 180.
It's been argued, too, that the tragedy influenced Spielberg's next project, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which, unlike its predecessor, is a grim trip full of "gruesome and disturbing imagery" -- not to mention a story in which Indy and his new Asian kid sidekick literally free a bunch of South Asian children who are being forced to work in dangerous conditions against their will.
Which brings us to … Jurassic Park.
Less than 10 years after a man and two children died while technically working on a Spielberg production, Spielberg made a movie that focuses in large part on a man repeatedly saving two children.
Obviously, Michael Crichton's novel existed already, but his story of hubris and insufficient safety measures costing human life may have resonated with Spielberg precisely because it conjures so many emotional elements of his recent ordeal. In short: could Jurassic Park have been a therapeutic attempt to exorcise his psychic Twilight Zone demons?
The key to unlocking this interpretation is in the character of John Hammond. In the book, he's a cold-hearted businessman who, in the end, stumbles down a hill and gets eaten alive by tiny dinosaurs to the disappointment of absolutely no one. In the movie, he's an idealistic dreamer. A genius. An artist.
Overhauling the character in this way was specifically done at the behest of Spielberg, who "could not help identifying with Hammond's blinkered obsession with showmanship." Spielberg saw himself in Hammond, even his "dark side." Hammond is such a blatant Spielberg surrogate that he even cast another filmmaker in the role; Richard Attenborough, to whom Spielberg had, incidentally, lost the Best Director Oscar to in 1983.
So one could argue Hammond is Spielberg and Jurassic Park is the Twilight Zone movie -- which would kind of make sense. The movie opens with one of Hammond's employees dying in a terrible accident at night in the jungle. It's the story's inciting incident because Hammond ends up being sued for $20 million by the victim's family, which spooks the park's investors.
While Spielberg was never criminally prosecuted for the Twilight Zone accident (and in The Lost World, we see that Hammond faced no criminal penalties for the park), he was, not unlike Hammond, named in civil suits filed by the families of the victims, which were eventually settled out-of-court with "no admission of liability or wrongdoing by the defendants."
Like The Temple of Doom before it, Jurassic Park plays like a fantasy retelling of one of the darkest chapters in Spielberg's past. Hammond just wanted to bring magic to the masses, but he didn't have full "control" of his project, and people got hurt as a result. In the end, he is humbled, learns a lesson, and, like Spielberg, has grown a little by the end. It's as if Spielberg is projecting a past trauma through the lens of a sci-fi adventure, even giving the story a somewhat happy ending in which the male lead and the two kids who were put in harm's way rest comfortably aboard a fully-functional helicopter.
Incidentally, Frank Marshall later produced a Jurassic Park movie: 2015's Jurassic World, which features a scene in which a helicopter pilot randomly loses control and fatally crashes --
Yeah … We don't even know where to begin with that.
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Top Image: Universal Pictures