What do you get when you take the dinosaurs out of Jurassic Park?



From Krzysztof Zanussis The Structure of Crystals (1969)
  • From Krzysztof Zanussi's The Structure of Crystals (1969)
At the heart of Jurassic Park, currently playing in Chicago in a new 3-D version, is a modest Chekhovian comedy about a longtime bachelor learning to accept the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. The bachelor, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), is a paleontologist who thinks he has it all: a dream job, a beautiful young girlfriend (Laura Dern), and, most importantly, his liberty. He travels extensively for his work, and since he's often at the mercy of his grants, he can be pulled away to a new place at any time. He believes, like so many of us, that behaving a certain way will keep him young. Consider how he engages a preteen boy in his first scene, knowing how to appeal to his imagination and how to scare him. In a sense, being a paleontologist has made him the cool big brother every kid wants to have.

He has no plan to marry his girlfriend; on some level he associates stability with boredom, the loss of his swagger. He must know this is foolish: she tells him so with every knowing sideways glance she gives him. But Ellie Sattler's a patient type—also maternal, earthy, brilliant, and calm—the sort of ideal woman who turns up in Philip Roth novels (e.g., The Counterlife and My Life as a Man) to nurture the protagonist while reminding him how immature he is. What would make him think that marrying her would tie him down? She works in his field too! Maybe years of working on remote digs have accustomed him to isolation, and like Chekhov's doctor in Uncle Vanya, he's learned to channel his deepest feelings into his work.

Viewers tend to forget the leisurely scene introducing Alan and Ellie. (I certainly had before I went to see Jurassic Park last week, though it must have been about 15 years since my previous viewing.) Yet it establishes a remarkably plausible adult relationship in the midst of the high-tech sci-fi fantasy, and it increases one's sympathy for the characters when they're in peril. You're primed to worry about their future together well before they're chased by dinosaurs—it's quite a clever trick. Granted, this is a familiar ploy in Steven Spielberg's films, but it would be shortsighted to give him full credit for it here. Presumably Michael Crichton, with his firsthand knowledge of the hard sciences, had much to do with the plausible depiction of life in the field, and Dern and Neill fill out the characterizations with more real-world weight than one usually sees in effects-driven blockbusters. And special mention should be made of Jackie Carr's set decoration—Alan and Ellie's trailer at the dig site is believably cluttered, suggesting not only that they live in thrall to their work, but in a state of blissful, perpetual adolescence.

In any case, Alan begins to reconsider his position on domesticity when he meets his double, a cocky mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum (in a variation on the socially maladroit scientist he played in David Cronenberg's The Fly). Accustomed to a steady supply of high-paying teaching positions and consulting jobs, Ian Malcolm behaves, ludicrously, like a rock star. He dresses like Lou Reed, treats most people as intellectual inferiors, and hits on every woman he meets—including Ellie, whom Alan is too bashful to introduce as his significant other. In many ways, he represents the man Alan wants to be. No longer in doubt about where his money will come from, he isn't beholden to anyone. He's a free man. But how obnoxious he is, how callous, how unprincipled! (In a nice ironic touch, Malcolm specializes in chaos theory.) Even if Alan weren't thrown into all those life-threatening encounters with dinosaurs, he'd probably want to turn his life around after spending a weekend in the company of this dickhead.

The Structure of Crystals
  • The Structure of Crystals
The oppositional relationship between these two scientists reminded me of The Structure of Crystals (1969), the first feature by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi. A former scientist himself, Zanussi has made some great films about rational individuals grappling with irrational feelings. In Crystals, he tells the story of two old friends, both scientists, who reunite after several years apart. One has remained a bachelor—he works on exciting new projects at a major university and gets to travel frequently to the West. The other has settled down at a remote meteorological station with his wife and children—his work is uninteresting and his life predictable, yet he seems more content than his friend. (For a more thorough summary and analysis, I recommend this essay that Pedro Blas Gonzalez wrote for Senses of Cinema a few years back.) It's a subtle, leisurely film about two people embarrassed to admit to their own desires—a bit like that great early scene of Jurassic Park stretched out to feature length.

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