Jurassic Park

By Uhlir, Paul F. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Jurassic Park


Uhlir, Paul F., Issues in Science and Technology


Our most popular entertainment media--motion pictures, television, and videos--all owe their existence to scientific and technological advances. Yet the entertainment industry has not been kind in return. More often than not, scientists and engineers are depicted as deranged villains or the willing tools of evil forces. Even when the caricatures are more benign, they are shown as absentminded or socially inept individuals. A laboratory is viewed as a place for fear or mockery. And children generally are portrayed as nerds if they have any scientific or technical skills.

It is, therefore, worthwhile to take note when a major film abandons these stereotypes and presents a thoughtful parable on science and technology. It is especially noteworthy when the mass media and even some observers in the scientific community subsequently mischaracterize it as "anti-science." That film is the immensely successful and popular Jurassic Park, which should be viewed as a provocative allegory on some of the major ethical issues confronting science and technology today.

For those few who have not seen this new Steven Spielberg thriller or read Michael Crichton's novel on which it is based, the plot may be briefly summarized as follows. A wealthy businessman, John Hammond, leases an island off the coast of Costa Rica, where he breeds dinosaurs cloned from original DNA that has been preserved in fossilized amber. His dream is to create something extraordinary, a theme park that will "capture the imagination of the whole planet."

Before he can open it up to the public, however, his financial backers insist that he must solicit the expert opinion of leading scientists to get their endorsement of the park's safety. For this task he invites two famous paleontologists, Drs. Grant and Sadler, and a mathematician, Dr. Malcolm, who is an expert in chaos theory and nonlinear equations. Sounds dull already, doesn't it?

At his high-tech headquarters on the island, Hammond demonstrates how his geneticists re-created the dinosaurs, shows them the park's elaborate security precautions, and sends his visitors on a fully automated trial run through all the exhibits. The three scientists are joined for the ride by Hammond's two grandchildren and the lawyer for the investors.

Technical glitches begin as soon as they depart on their ill-fated ride. As a tropical storm suddenly approaches, a treacherous computer programmer steals some dinosaur embryos and sabotages the security and communication systems to assist his escape. As all the systems malfunction and the power goes out, the dinosaurs are set free while the humans are trapped. The rest of the movie is Jurassic mayhem as the people on the island struggle to survive and restore their security.

The film succeeds on several levels: as an engrossing thriller, as a tour de force of special effects, and as a morality play on the relationship of the human race to science, technology, and nature. It is the latter aspects that merit some reflection in light of the movie's mass appeal.

Of particular interest is the characterized of the good guys and the bad. The unequivoca heroes are the three scientists invited by Hammond to Jurassic Park and Hammond's two grandchildren. When we first meet the two paleontologists, they are unearthing dinosaur bones at a dusty dig in the Badlands of South Dakota. They are clearly dedicated to their work, engrossed in basic scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge. They are elated when Hammond offers to fund another three years of their dig in exchange for reviewing his plans for the park.

Upon arriving on the island, they are both thrilled by the live dinosaurs, not for their financial or entertainment value, but because they can now study them in the flesh. On their automated tour of the exhibits, they get out of their vehicle to sastisfy their scientific curiosity and end up helping a poisoned triceratops. …

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