By Valerie Kalfrin
Bright Wall Dark Room, Issue 37, July 2016
The first female character in Jurassic Park arrives onscreen in a metal box atop a forklift that smashes through the jungle. She bides her time, silent. We’re with her as she glimpses through the slats at a swarm of armed men. They’re wearing hardhats. She snorts.
The men push the box against a larger cage, but she’s stronger than expected. “Don’t let her get out!” one shouts as she drags one worker by the legs, hoists him high. Dozens jab stun guns through the bars. Electricity crackles, and a reptilian eye cuts to that of the game warden. He yells, “Shoot her! Shoot her!”
Director and producer Steven Spielberg has long had a gift: a flair for suspense entwined with a knack for hitting emotional triggers, particularly awe and wonder. But whether he’s helming an adventure like Raiders of the Lost Ark or a dramatic masterpiece like Saving Private Ryan, he plays largely in a sandbox where boys rule. His 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park—an Oscar-winner for sound and visual effects—began as a novel, a cautionary tale about genetic engineering. On screen, it becomes a metaphor of reproductive fears and patriarchal control.
Author Michael Crichton adapted his best-seller into a screenplay with the help of David Koepp (who would later adapt 2002’s Spider-Man and 2005’s War of the Worlds), and the two deserve credit for turning paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who barely existed in the book, into a well-rounded character. Even elbow-deep in triceratops poop—Spielberg has an impish gross-out streak, having characters endure a meal of insects and brains (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) or carry eyeballs (Minority Report)—Sattler is one of the few intelligent women in the filmmaker’s landscape. Spielberg directed female leads in 1974’s The Sugarland Express and 1985’s The Color Purple, but a majority of women in his films are supportive wives or moms (Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
E.T., A.I.) or shrieking sidekicks (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
Sattler is the strongest female character in the Jurassic series, besides the dinosaurs. She scolds park owner John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) for his “sexism in survival situations” once the test weekend he organizes goes south, but the park is built on a sexist note. All the dinosaurs are created female, even the T. Rex that archeologist Alan Grant, Sattler’s boyfriend, reflexively refers to as “he.”
“We’ve engineered them that way,” explains geneticist Henry Wu (B.D. Wong). “There’s no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”
Facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from the maimed worker’s family, Hammond invites Grant, Sattler, and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to evaluate and sign off on the “attractions” on his island off the coast of Costa Rica and pronounce the place safe. He also transports his grandchildren there, noting they’re his target audience. (His daughter, dialogue tells us, is getting a divorce; perhaps he offered her the pretext of quiet time.)
As a helicopter carries Hammond and the guests over lush, fertile valleys, Malcolm hits on Sattler: “I refuse to believe that you aren’t familiar with the concept of attraction.” There’s tension in her relationship with Grant—she wants children; he does not—albeit played for laughs.
“They’re noisy, they’re messy, they’re expensive. They smell,” he says as Sattler scoffs. “Some of them smell. Babies smell.”
A sick young triceratops likely does when Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm find her on their tour, but Sattler doesn’t seem to notice. “Hey, baby girl,” she says, compassionate tears in her eyes. “It’s OK.” She touches the creature’s stubby horn before checking its tongue and eyes, talking with a veterinarian about her symptoms, then asks to see the dinosaur’s droppings
Meanwhile, Grant says this species was his favorite as a kid, “and now that I see her, she’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” He can’t help but marvel at her, hugging her side to feel her breathe, a dream made real, as his girlfriend puts on gloves and gets down to the messy business of digging through—as Malcolm puts it—one big pile of shit, to find the cause of her distress.
To create dinosaurs, the park’s geneticists mixed amphibian DNA with dinosaur DNA extracted from blood in mosquitoes preserved in amber. (Only female mosquitoes bite because they need the proteins in blood to lay eggs, so even though few women are in the lab, they actually have a hand in the park’s creation.)
Hammond insists on being present at birth. “They imprint on the first creature they come into contact with. Helps them to trust me.”
Population control is a security precaution, Wu notes. They make the dinosaurs female by circumventing an extra hormone needed to become male. “We simply deny them that.”
“Deny them that?” Sattler echoes, a mix of consternation and biting her tongue.
Malcolm, spouting chaos theory—or Murphy’s Law—says this type of control is not possible. “Life finds a way.”
Chaos finds a catalyst in a slovenly park worker (Wayne Knight), who shuts down security so he can abscond with $1.5 million worth of viable dinosaur embryos for a rival company. But this saboteur can’t control those embryos any more than Wu can. He loses them in the mud after an attack from a dilophosaurus, a creature he instinctively calls a “nice boy.”
“I thought you were one of your brothers. You’re not so bad,” he says among his last words.
Once all hell breaks loose, Sattler volunteers both to search for the adults and children stuck in the wild as well as trek with the game warden to a maintenance shed to restore power. In between, Hammond muses how he once had a flea circus—no fleas, just animatronics that ran a trapeze and carousel, but children imagined they could see the fleas all the same. With this park, he tells Sattler, he wanted to show people something real. “Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time, it’ll be flawless.”
“You never had control,” she replies. “That’s the illusion.”
None of us do. Nature cannot be contained in this world, especially female nature—and that’s either a triumph or a nightmare, depending on which side of the electric fence you’re standing.
Not that people haven’t tried. From curfews and debates about birth control, fights for voting rights and education, slut shaming and genital mutilation, people across various cultures and decades have struggled with women’s sexuality and power.
Did they think female dinosaurs would be docile? The park doesn’t spay or neuter like an animal shelter, opting instead for this all-girl environment. No clash among alpha males, no threat to the keepers’ control—or so they thought. Mama bears, lionesses, and humans aren’t meek, no matter how much we try to make them so. Even among insects, females can be deadly. Black widow spiders and praying mantises devour their mates.
The female velociraptor alone makes the game warden cautious. She’s smart as well as ferocious. “When she looks at you,” he notes, “you can see she’s working things out.”
He respects her, perhaps one reason he never confuses his pronouns. Other characters do, only labeling female the ones that are cute and non-threatening. “Come here, girl,” Grant and the children coax to a brachiosaurus in a treetop. “Come here, baby.”
Yet by creating a world with only female creatures, Jurassic Park’s experiment devolves into Sattler’s wry twist on chaos theory: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth.”
The characters’ fleeing the park implicates that they’re not quite ready for that, although as Grant notes at one point, “Guess we’ll have to evolve, too.”
Spielberg’s current foray as a director, The BFG, features an evolution: a young girl as a protagonist. But the Jurassic series still splices sexism into its plots. Spielberg directed The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), which sends Malcolm racing to a second dinosaur island to insist his scientist girlfriend come home. (He’s handily around once the creatures again run wild, including a mama T-Rex that wants its child back.) Even the two sequels Spielberg produced hit similar notes. Jurassic Park III (2001) has a divorced mom foolishly searching for her son on the dinosaurs’ turf by shrilly yelling through a megaphone. By 2015’s Jurassic World, the audience had evolved, with some reviewers noticing the attitude against Bryce Dallas Howard’s career woman: her boss telling her to loosen up; her sister dumping her nephews on her during a divorce proceeding, saying she’ll understand once she has kids; and Chris Pratt’s dino wrangler and love interest making hand gestures for getting it on.
“It’s all about control with you,” he gripes.
This series always was, just not about controlling dinosaurs. They, at least, eventually roam free.