Jurassic Park as Metaphor for Family Trauma

The element that takes the Jurassic Park formula beyond simple action-adventure fun is the emphasis on human characters with flaws and clear arcs. That human emphasis has, whether intentionally or inadvertently, often resulted in movies with a subtext about family trauma. This is a topic I’ve thought and talked about intermittently on other platforms, but I want to try to develop it a little more here.

Most of the Park and World films are guided by a loss of family unity and a gradual rebuilding of family around kids. The pattern starts with Jurassic Park: Tim and Lex come to the island to get them away from their parents’ divorce. Through the events of the film, they bond with Grant, who starts out as someone who is very child-averse. As he guides them through the park safely and comes to care deeply about them, he’s addressing the issue in his own otherwise solid relationship with Sattler: she wants kids, but he couldn’t stand them. In the final helicopter flight out, Alan and Ellie share looks that express a great number of things: relief, gratitude, affection…but also there seems to be a shared recognition of how things have changed, as the kids rest against the man who starts out the movie terrifying a child merely out of slight annoyance over an offhanded remark. At least within the scope of the movie, the kids have found a new family, somewhat ironically formed around a man who never wanted one.

The Lost World continues the pattern. This time, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly finds herself torn between separated parents. Her mother’s off on a trip with a new love interest. Her father, a habitual divorcé who’s never made time to nurture relationships with his (ex-)wives or kid(s), acts similarly disinterested in her and inconvenienced by her presence. Rather than be pawned off on one of her dad’s acquaintances, Kelly stows away to come along on his next expedition. The horrors of the island bring her to bond closely with Ian’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Ian finds renewed focus on the safety of both Sarah and Kelly. Ian repeatedly risks his life for both of them. This focus on protecting family ties in rather nicely with the threat from the Tyrannosaurus family that occupies the second and third acts of the film. Once more, the movie ends with a moment of peace for the reformed family, with Kelly, Sarah, and Ian all on the couch; in a reverse on the original, the child stays awake and watches over the sleeping adults.

Jurassic Park III once more finds much of the character motivations in a divorce. The Kirbys have divorced, Paul hasn’t really moved on while Amanda has, and their son Eric is caught in the middle. Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna because of Amanda’s reckless “fun” boyfriend. The trauma of the island pushes Paul and Amanda back together, and the little nuclear family appears restored by the end of the film. In a separate arc, Grant and Sattler have remained friends but split up; Grant seems to slowly be reintroducing himself to Sattler’s new life of husband and child, but he feels out of place. Ellie insists that Alan can ask for help if he needs it. And by the end of the film, he’s able to do so in a moment of crisis, and she’s there for them. The dinosaurs get their family arc, too, as the Velociraptor pack is desperately pursuing their stolen eggs, and the Pteranodon flock attack to feed their offspring.

By this point, the recurrence of divorce and separation begins to feel somewhere between a fundamental franchise building block and a tired trope trotted out simply because it worked before. Either way, it’s back again in Jurassic World. Brothers Zach and Gray get sent to the titular theme park to visit their aunt Claire while their parents finalize a divorce back home. (Side note: I recall people complaining that the divorce reveal came from nowhere, but this is hinted at from as early as the airport departure scene, and the scene where Karen and Claire talk made that pretty clear to me even though it’s not explicitly stated until a little later on.) Even as their family falls apart, the brothers recommit to each other, and Zach changes his attitude from an aloof bully to a caring and supportive older brother. Claire’s arc echoes both John Hammond (as the most visible face of the park administration’s hubris and a more prominent figure than Masrani) and Alan Grant. From Grant, she gets the same apparent disinterest in kids or parenting, and her commitment to saving her nephews provides a somewhat similar arc, though bogged down in sexism: Grant undergoes an attitude change that is not required by society but simply a natural progression that resolves a tension in his romantic relationship, while Claire is nagged by her sister about how she’ll one day want to have children, stares longingly at a child reunited with their parent, is called out or treated differently because of her awkwardness with kids, and is operating within a larger societal notion that women should be guided by a desire to nurture and raise children. Regardless, while the arc had its missteps, I do believe the intent was to provide an arc that echoed Grant’s. Her relationship with the rugged Owen, from exes to romantic partners, suggests something of a collision of the Sarah/Ian and Amanda/Paul relationships from the other films, as well. Then, of course, as I recently wrote about at length, Owen’s relationship with Blue and the raptor pack provides the dinosaur family narrative for this entry in the series.

Finally, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is partially about people looking for connection and purpose after losing everything. Owen and Claire have split up and slowly reconnect, Owen is motivated to save his abandoned baby Blue, and Claire is guided by a desire to make right her failings at the park and feels deeply obligated to the dinosaurs she once saw as only “assets.” Lockwood fell out with business partner Hammond after using cloning technology to duplicate his deceased daughter. Over the course of the movie, that cloned girl, Maisie, learns the truth about her identity only after she discovers that her “grandfather” was killed by his not-so-loyal assistant. Once more, a family is formed by film’s end, this time between Owen, Claire, and Maisie. As all three characters are returning in Dominion, perhaps this new found family will be a little more permanent. And for the dinosaur family, Owen reunites with Blue, only to part ways once more by the end of the film.

Not only is this deconstruction and reformation of family structures so central to the movies’ narratives, but the movies themselves work as a metaphor for that family turmoil–as I suggested way back at the top. The dinosaurs are a vehicle for children’s wonder, amazement, and curiosity. Family and children were clearly on the mind of Michael Crichton when he wrote the original novel. As he’s quoted as saying in The Making of Jurassic Park:

My wife was pregnant with my first child, and I found that I couldn’t walk past a toy store without buying a stuffed toy. And what I was buying, more often than not, were stuffed dinosaurs. My wife couldn’t understand it. We knew we were having a girl. Why was I buying all these dinosaurs? And I would say, “Well, girls like dinosaurs, too.” But it was clear that I was sort of obsessed with dinosaurs; and the whole idea of children and dinosaurs, and the meaning of what that was, was just on my mind a lot during that period.

(Don Shay & Jody Duncan, p. 3)

Dr. Will Tattersdill, an academic researching the “social history of dinosaurs” in popular culture over the decades, has discussed how dinosaurs “mean a yearning for the past” and allow the observer to experience both human culture and natural history simultaneously. It’s interesting to consider that framework in recognizing that these movies start with characters, especially kids, yearning to connect with the dinosaurs, being awed by the dinosaurs, before the dinosaurs turn against them. The past isn’t enough to shield them from the crisis of the present, and in fact leads to that very crisis, the dissolution of the preexisting family.

It pains me to say that I can’t recall who said this or where it was printed, but I vaguely recall a comparison made between dinosaurs and children’s parents. Dinosaurs are big, objects of affection, at times terrifying, representative of a past before you existed, just as parents are to kids. A divorce or separation causes a considerable amount of chaos and confusion, if not outright trauma, for a young child, and these devoted caretakers also may inadvertently harm the child in the process of an especially bitter divorce. I think there’s something there in the Jurassic Park franchise, in that these kids admire the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs cause them harm, and they ultimately learn to coexist with the dinosaurs and survive. That evolution typically overlaps with the reformation of the family or the creation of a new found family.

At least to my eye, then, the experiences of the characters make literal the emotional harm and healing associated with the largely background family dynamics that inform the motivations and relationships central to every Jurassic Park movie.

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