Jurassic Park: How Scientists and Dinosaurs Played God


This month the overall Story Focus will be on the life-and-death nature of story stakes—an appropriate topic given the life-and-death stakes that we celebrate during the Easter season.

This Sunday’s theme movie is Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton best-seller. Love it or hate it, the film is a cinematic milestone (which Spielberg then topped with his follow-up, Schindler’s List) and has a great premise full of life-and-death thrills. And before you say that it was easy for Spielberg because he had great production resources and a multi-million-dollar budget, make sure to give the film its due in that it had some solid storytelling structure holding it up.

In fact, a deeper look at the structure also gives a defense to the film’s bad rap in story structure circles for having a classic “deus-ex-machina” ending.  If you’re not familiar with “deus-ex-machina”—literally “god-from-the-machine”—it is a narrative device in which a seemingly unsolvable plot situation is resolved with the sudden appearance of a fortunatedivine intervention.  The name comes from classic Greek theater where a crane was used to lower a “god” character into the midst of the stage to settle everything with a snap of the fingers.  Apparently it worked with ancient Greek audiences, but modern sophisticated audiences tend to feel cheated and modern writers tend to see it as lazy writing.

Which is why many serious story artists roll their eyes at the “deus-ex-machina” ending in which a Tyrannasaurus Rex jumps out from nowhere to stop the unstoppable velociraptors (or as one critic put it Was T-Rex just waiting in the wings for his cue?”).Of course, a climactic moment of that pays off nothing to the audience because life does not operate like it. Life has struggles. Life has limits. Life has costs.

And according to Jurassic Park, life also needs something surprising to grow and thrive—chaos.

And that’s where Spielberg got lucky himself in using the technique—because the “deus-ex-machina” in this case is not just the result of a writer throwing up his hands after the chaos of the story set-up has exceeded his ability to pay it off.  The chaotic element of the T-Rex showing up to show grace was actually a pretty strong thematic statement about the delicate balance of order and chaos that life must tread in order to spring forth.

And that leads us to a powerful takeway that we can apply to our craft:

Stories usually have an element of give-and-take in their life-and-death stakes.

That is, in order for there to be wins and successes, there has to be a counter-balance of loss and failure. In order to gain something, our main character usually has to give something up – or make a sacrifice, if you will.  This is apparent in the end of Jurassic Park (spoiler alert!) when the characters have to abandon the dinosaur theme park idea in order to escape with their lives.

Let’s take a quick overview of Jurassic Park to see how this dynamic plays out. But first a quick beat synopsis of the story:

  • Entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attengborough): “Let’s play God with science! We’ll make dinosaurs from DNA and make an island amusement park!!”
  • Paleontologist Dr. Grant (Sam Neill): “Sounds interesting. I hate kids by the way!”
  • Chaos Theorist Dr. Malcom (Jeff Goldblum): “No so much! Chaos, bla, bla, bla.  Life finds a way!” 
  • Cut to: Storm’s coming!
  • Cut to: Nedry (Wayne Knight) steals the DNA.
  • And then there’s lots of running away from dinosaurs until…
  • Dr. Grant saves the kids (Arian Richards and Joseph Mazzello)
  • The survivors—including John Hammond—gladly pile onto a helicopter and fly to safety.

Next, let’s take a look at a couple of key turnings that show that dynamic of give and take:

John Hammond has to let go of his dream of Jurassic Park in order to save the lives of himself and his grandkids.

Nedry refuses to let go of his scheme to steal the dino DNA despite a tropical storm and a venomous dinosaur. He dies.

Dr. Grant has to let go of his disdain for children—they are rather chaotic in contrast to his desire for his order—in order to save them. He lets go of his awe of the dinosaurs and grows a heart for the kids. As a result, Life, and love, find a way.

So in the end, Dr. Malcolm was right—life not only overcomes chaos, it needs chaos in order to have order.

And the deus-ex-machina worked right and overcame the critic—because the chaos of T-Rex gave life a chance to be pulled from the jaws of death.

And the story was right—because in the end, this story demonstrated that there is a cosmic order to give and take when it comes to life and death.

Of course, this concept in storytelling shouldn’t be foreign to Christians, as the whole plan of salvation hinged on a sacrifice that God was willing to make on the cross.  And that sacrifice was no simple “deus-ex-machina” magic trick. It was a passioned ordeal that God-in-human-flesh underwent in order to manifest the full nature of the good-vs-evil stakes of the fight.

It was a struggle that was present in every blood that Jesus sweat in the Garden before he was betrayed.  It was the struggle that was present in the lies of his accusers.  Or calling out to his Father with his last breaths.It was a letting go of justice that God underwent in order to give life to a people who had chosen death in the Garden many years before.

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