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A film franchise 28 years in the making; Jurassic Park has reigned success again-and-again with each sequel it makes. With the third instalment of Jurassic World coming this year, we reflect on how the original film captured the public’s attention and became the 5th most popular VHS tape of all time.
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) is a culturally significant film in Hollywood for pioneering new visual effects and reflecting the changing political climate in America. In the opening weekend, Jurassic Park achieved a record-breaking $50 million box office sale. After a year of being played in the cinema, the film had obtained $916 million before being released on VHS. To know that their budget was only £96 million, you get an idea of the magnitude of this film’s achievement.
The success of its box office and VHS sales were driven by the film’s production, marketing, and commodification. Combine this with a family orientated storyline of a group working together to escape the monstrous danger surrounding them – and you’ve got yourself a Spielberg blockbuster.
However, before we can understand Jurassic Park’s success, we first need to delve into America’s politics during the cinematic release.
6 months before Jurassic Park’s release, Bill Clinton was welcomed in as the United States’ new President. Within the first month of his presidency, he had reversed the family planning restrictions prohibiting women from getting an abortion.
6 months after Jurassic Park’s release, the Republicans won most of the seats in Office. There became a focus in American politics to maintain traditional American ideals.
Since the Republicans had won most seats, Clinton signed a bill called the “Defence of Marriage Act”. This act was designed to “protect” the institution of marriage as a union of one man to one woman – the conservative, nuclear ideal—an ideal which was heavily focused on Jurassic Park’s storyline.
“…those stories that become consumable by a large popular audience provide a good guide to the more conservative cultural narratives of the present.” – Laura Briggs and Jodi I. Kelber-Kaye, “There Is No Unauthorized Breeding in Jurassic Park”: Gender and the Uses of Genetics.”
Science fiction films tend to show us a narrative different from the Western cultural norm. Moreover, they highlight the dangers of living in a world different from the political situation that we live in. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs represent the dangers and uncontrollable nature of experimenting with genetics.
The dinosaurs represent the anxiety around the science of controlled breeding. Through being created in the lab, they represent the mix of being technological and organic. In the film, the dinosaurs were designed by extracting the DNA from a mosquito’s blood found inside an amber stone. The visiting characters learn that they created all the dinosaurs as females to prevent the dinosaurs from breeding and control their test environment.
However, the scientists used frog DNA to fill the genetic make-up needed to clone the animals. Little did they know that the frog’s DNA they had chosen to use was of an ambisexual breed – meaning that they had the capability of changing gender to procreate. The famous words of Ian Malcolm ring true as the female dinosaurs find a way to evolve and represent the uncontrollable danger of meddling with genetics and controlling breeding.
Since Spielberg directed Jurassic Park, there had to be a family-friendly spin on an army of monstrous dinosaurs rampaging around an island. At the beginning of the film, the audience is introduced to Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler: a couple struggling with their differences over having children. Ellie being all for beginning a family, and Alan thoroughly against it. The couple’s arrival to the theme park brought new responsibilities as they (well, Alan) were landed with protecting the owner’s grandchildren from the danger of the dinosaurs.
“It’s like a treehouse. Your dad ever built you one?” – Alan Grant rescuing Tim after their jeep falls over a cliff edge and lands in a tree.
By the end of the film, Ellie and Alan are surrogate parents holding and leading the children to the helicopter to escape the island. The message is clear that their survival is based on the group of characters working together as a nuclear family; with Alan showing his paternal leadership, he puts his arm around the now elderly-appearing Hammond and guides him to safety.
Scientific progression with cloning and manipulating genetics is shown as threatening the natural and traditional family. Like the Republican anxiety about marriage and abortion, Jurassic Park tells us there is safety in tradition.
Without the political agenda, it is hard to deny that Jurassic Park’s attraction was the visual effects. The CGI was an iconic development in Hollywood’s film production. Hence, the original film trailer avoided displaying the CGI dinosaurs to lure film lovers into seeing the cinema’s pioneering technology.
The fascination, adoration, and apprehension created in Jurassic Park are a homage to the monster film. By limiting big spectacular displays of the monster, the audience’s imagination is left to fill in the gaps. The dark setting and stormy weather in the film plays into this as Spielberg purposefully uses partial, close-up shots or shadows of the dinosaurs to build suspense. In fact, by using clever camera angles and lighting, the film only had 14 minutes of visual effects – only four of those minutes were the iconic CGI we remember Jurassic Park for today.
Spielberg captured the public’s attention and left them hungry for more by withholding the spectacular visual display of the dinosaurs.
If there is one thing Jurassic Park satirises, it is our capitalist desire to commodify anything new and exciting. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it is at the expense of the consumer. Ian Malcolm outlines this problem after Hammond explains his idea to make a dinosaur-themed park:
“Yeah, but John, if Pirates of the breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” – Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
The irony being Universal Studios building a water ride simulating the fear and adrenaline rush of being attacked by dinosaurs. This year also welcomes a new Velociraptor rollercoaster ride paying homage to the success of ‘Jurassic World’. It is an inescapable thought that experiencing a dinosaur-filled theme park is (and dare I say it?) sexy.
The commodification of Jurassic Park is the final reason why the film has captured so many people’s hearts. The initial VHS release came with a special edition gift set of a DNA carry case, an educational book on dinosaurs, an InGen security pass, 3D hologram watch and map of Isla Nublar. The gift set toys with the theory of dinosaur cloning being plausible as it mixes the factual with fiction.
“…before you even know what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a lunch box” – Ian Malcolm speaking about the dangers on capitalising on dinosaurs.
The risk, wonder, and adventure: Spielberg’s film captivates us by showing a world we could never live in. The VHS to DVD releases combined with playful commodities has placed Jurassic Park into a staple part of Western film culture. Furthermore, its innovative visual effects and theorisation around the dangers of creating dinosaurs with a capitalist agenda cultivate a world in which Jurassic Park could exist.
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