Jurassic Park Is Frightening in the Dark

Remembering the days when Michael Crichton novels roamed the earth.

Do you want to read a sentence? Here’s a sentence:

The sign said ELECTRIFIED FENCE 10,000 VOLTS DO NOT TOUCH, but Nedry opened it with his bare hand, and unlocked the gate, swinging it wide.

Does this sentence scan? Does it … make sense? Not exactly: The “it” should refer to the sign, but Nedry isn’t opening a sign, so he must be opening the electrified fence, but do you normally open a fence? No, you open a gate, but it appears that Nedry is somehow opening the gate first and only then unlocking it, a sequence that suggests a scene out of the mindbending movie Tenet, which this sentence is definitely not describing.

So surely this is a bad sentence, objectively terrible. And yet when I came to it, re-reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park for the first time in decades, I remembered it vividly from past readings, and not for its grammatical clumsiness or apparent incoherence. Rather, I remembered the feeling of terrible momentum at that part of the book’s narrative, with the fences turned off and the T-Rex already loose, and dear God if that idiot Nedry was only just now headed into the park, only just now pushing through the fence, the gate, whatever, then nobody in the control room was going to get anything up and running in time to help the kids in the jeep being kicked around by the tyrannosaur, or to keep lots and lots of people from being well and truly eaten.

Honestly I even think I had edited the sentence in my memory to something slightly more successful, doing the author’s work for him as a thank-you for the grim momentum of his tale: The sign said ELECTRIFIED FENCE 10,000 VOLTS DO NOT TOUCH, but Nedry pushed the gate open with his bare hand …

The point being: The sentence is a failure standing there alone, but on the page, in the story, it doesn’t matter. You roll with it, like Nedry rolling through the jungle to his fate.

It’s really hard to understate how large Michael Crichton loomed in American pop culture in the years after Jurassic Park came out. (The declining cultural salience of the famous, Philip Roth-level novelist is matched, perhaps, by the declining salience of the famous paperback artist.) First the book sold a zillion copies. Then Steven Spielberg adapted it, with famous results. Then Crichton’s next book, Rising Sun, defined and amped up the brief Japan-will-bury-us panic of the early 1990s. Then he helped create ER, the most successful dramatic TV show of the decade. Then he published Disclosure, a what-if-the-woman-was-the-sexual-harrasser novel that created a miniature culture war around itself. Then he co-wrote Twister, one of the biggest movies of 1995. Meanwhile Hollywood was busy turning all of his books, new ones and old ones, into movies — so Sphere and Congo, his 1980s thrillers, got the big-screen treatment along with Rising Sun and Disclosure, and Spielberg did a (substantially-different) version of Crichton’s Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, and even Eaters of the Dead, his Viking potboiler from way back in 1976, was turned into The 13th Warrior (a huge bomb) in 1999.

Larry McMurtry, who passed away last week, was notable for ranging between Hollywood and Texas, the literary and cinematic worlds: To merely write Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment would be impressive enough, but to adapt your own work into successful film and TV-miniseries form and do the same for Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” — well, that’s a great American creative resume. But Crichton, working at a much lower level as a literary stylist, left a similarly remarkable screen-and-page legacy behind. Long before he reached his T-Rex-enabled peak, he had given the world The Andromeda Strain and the original Westworld, the latter one of five movies he directed in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

One might extend the parallel by saying that McMurtry was a left-leaning writer whose great attempt to demythologize the American West ended up being re-absorbed into the cowboy mythos. (The immense and specifically masculine appeal of Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae is shot through with the kind of nostalgia that their unromantic story was supposed to bury.) Meanwhile Crichton was a right-leaning writer — more overtly in later books like State of Fear, with its eco-terrorist villains —whose parables of techno-hubris run amok were embraced and appropriated by skeptics of capitalism and corporate science.

Jurassic Park is a perfect book of its kind, though, because it hits the sweet spot not just for reactionary/left-wing synchronicity, but for awe and terror conjoined. John Hammond’s park is basically the American biotechnological sublime before it’s a terrifying death trap, and though the novel is full of characters lecturing Hammond on all the reasons he shouldn’t have done this, all the profound problems inherent in bringing the dinos back to life, even as things fall apart the reader still feels a strong sympathy for the Promethean impulse that rekindled the Jurassic (or maybe technically the Cretaceous). Some stories about scientific hubris run amok leave the reader shaking his head over why, exactly, the hubristic scientists made the choices that they made. The reader of The Stand, for instance, may reasonably wonder who exactly thought it was such a great idea to create an airborne virus that was 99.7 percent lethal? But the reader in Jurassic Park doesn’t need to rely on a grim theory of bureaucratic incentives in the military-industrial complex to explain why scientists decide to recreate a bunch of apex predators: They did because it’s totally legendary and awesome, and you’d probably do it too.

Though maybe that feeling is sharper upon re-reading for reasons related to (yes, inevitably) decadence. The appeal of Crichton’s oeuvre, but Jurassic Park especially, rests on an assumption of rapid, hurtling progress, with transformation happening at such a speed that you, the ordinary reader, are perhaps unaware that already scientists have become as reckless gods, and the author is here to pull back the curtain on just how far, and with what incaution, their labors have advanced. The Crichton equivalent of the crawl at the start of a Star Wars movie is a prefatory warning that you won’t believe just how far things have gone already: “… the headlong and furious haste to commercialize genetic engineering,” the introduction to Jurassic Park informs the reader, “has proceeded so rapidly — with so little outside commentary — that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all … by the end of this decade, it will have outdistanced atomic power and computers in its effect on our everyday lives.”

Those confident words were published in 1990; re-read in 2021 they feel a little … over-optimistic? (The same goes for Crichton’s prophecies about nanotech and the Japanese economic model; our society does however, excel at creating computer-generated dinosaurs for the proliferating Jurassic Park movie sequels.)

Well, or over-pessimistic I should say, since the key theme of the Great Dinosaur Novel is that modern science has reached a point where it can only advance recklessly, with the strong possibility that human civilization itself will be a casualty soon enough. But optimism and pessimism can switch places depending on your vantage point: In a world where scientific progress has slowed or stalled relative to expectations, the power of the cautionary-tale side of Crichton’s story wanes a bit, while the “gee whiz, dinosaurs!” side waxes. Re-reading the book didn’t make me root for Hammond, exactly — the park’s founder is obviously a narcissistic maniac — but I did get a little annoyed with the prophetic Ian Malcolm, whose mathematically-savvy anti-modernism was once catnip to my reactionary side. This time around, after the tenth or twentieth speech about what Man Was Not Meant to Do, after chaos theory’s “iteration number seven” or whatever, I increasingly found myself sympathizing, not with Hammond, but with the ordinary technicians — the engineer, Arnold, above all — who were just trying to get the park working again, get the dinos back behind their fences, find the missing kids, while in the background Malcolm kept droning doom, doom, doom …

But this, too, is part of what makes the book so effective: What those ordinary technicians do almost works, or at least seems to work, before something they missed vindicates Malcolm’s doomsaying and delivers everybody to the mercies of the raptors.

That plot turn, it’s worth noting, is mostly missing from the movie. When I saw Spielberg’s adaptation, my first real blockbuster at age thirteen, six months after reading (and then obsessively re-reading) Crichton’s book, I remember being generally let down. Sure, the dinosaurs looked cool (the movie is really good at the awe/terror dialectic), but it wasn’t exactly what I had imagined on the screen — too many characters were rewritten, there was tons of cutesy stuff and pointless gags, the wrong people survived or died, and for God’s sake they made the girl instead of the boy the computer-hacking hero!

Re-watching the movie now I can see that a few of my pre-teen gripes were, well, just that. Lex, the girl, was a cardboard ninny in the book; giving her some computer skills was a big improvement on Crichton’s caricature. Some of the streamlining and cutesy stuff was a necessary way to deal with the book’s extremely un-cinematic information dumps. The cast was actually great — Sam Neill at his peak! Newman as Nedry! — and as an inexperienced filmgoer I didn’t have any idea how lucky I was to have the dino attack scenes filmed with Spielberg’s Jaws-trained hand.

But some of my other objections hold up pretty well. The wrong characters do die, thematically, in the movie. Crichton kills off his prophet, Malcolm, and the people who don’t take the dinosaurs seriously; the people who do take them seriously, though — the gamekeeper, Muldoon, especially — are permitted to escape, and one initially-dislikable character, the lawyer Gennaro, is even permitted a little bit of growth along the way. In the Spielberg adaptation the survivors are the big-name stars and everyone else is just dino-feed: Gennaro gets famously gobbled on the toilet, Muldoon dies at the hands of a clever raptor, while Malcolm survives and Richard Attenborough’s Hammond lives to float away on his helicopter, staring regretfully at his mosquito-in-amber walking stick but hardly punished sufficiently for his hubris and his sins.

The more important thing missing from the movie, though, is that false-but-beguiling sense of order gradually being restored. In Spielberg’s adaptation, the people running the park seem like total idiots: Presumably in an effort to avoid wasting screentime on redshirt deaths, the script dispatches most of the island’s staff to the mainland, even though the combination of a make-or-break inspection by outsiders and a killer storm seems like a time when you might want to increase the number of personnel on your island, not rely on a security team that appears to consist of exactly one guy. And while Samuel L. Jackson’s on-screen version of Arnold does pull off a very meme-able computer reboot, the movie skips over the phase of the story where after the computer system successfully restarts the characters think the fences are all working again (not realizing that they’re only running on auxiliary power, and so the raptors are loose), and begin to put the park’s pieces back together. Muldoon even takes down the T-Rex with a tranquilizer, and Arnold feels good enough about the situation to take a victory lap:

“I’d point out to you,” he said, “that the park is now completely back to normal. Whatever Malcolm’s mathematical model said was going to happen. We are completely under control again.”

And then — well, then things fall apart again, more completely than the first time, in a way that makes Malcolm’s foresight seem spookier, and gives you an extra narrative beat to let the insufficiency of human reason sink in. With, of course, some of those missing-from-the-movie redshirts helpfully around for the sake of verisimilitude, and to get eaten first:

“Jesus Christ,” Muldoon said. “Five hours. Those animals could be out.”

And then, from somewhere in the distance, they heard a scream.

There are no doubt budgetary reasons why the movie doesn’t have this extra beat: the book matches the order-restoring action in the control room with more episodes out in the park — a pterodactyl attack, in particular — that probably would have stretched Spielberg’s FX budget further, in addition to tacking an extra fifteen minutes onto the movie’s running time. And of course those were the days before the Snyder Cut expanded our horizons of the possible …

But the false restoration of order, and the way it makes you temporarily root for a human victory over nature while extending and deepening the ultimate defeat — well, that’s one reason among many why, for all of Crichton’s sins against the English language, if you’ve only seen the movie you haven’t really experienced Jurassic Park.

And I actually feel like having started this post with a memorably disastrous sentence is itself a bit unfair to Crichton-the-writer, so let’s end with a passage that I think captures his style a bit better: Workmanlike, unfussy, with a touch of psychological insight about the strange feeling of unreality that people might experience when they find themselves being chased by prehistoric predators:

The raptors came slowly toward her, stalking her, slipping silently among the glass pyramids. She looked down. The edge of the pool was ten feet away.

Too far.

The raptors were closer, starting to move apart, and illogically she thought: Isn’t this always the way? Some little mistake screws it all up. She still felt giddy, still felt exhilarated, and she somehow couldn’t believe these animals were going to get her, she couldn’t believe that now her life was going to end like this. It didn’t seem possible. She was enveloped in a kind of protective cheerfulness. She just didn’t believe it would happen.

The raptors snarled. Ellie backed away, moving to the far end of the roof. She took a breath, and then began to run toward the edge. As she raced toward the edge, she saw the swimming pool, and she knew it was too far away but she thought, What the hell, and leapt into space.

Then I’ll just leave you with this classic: