Jurassic Park (1993) is a special movie to me. I was a kid when I first saw it, convinced I was grown enough, and, in much the same way that Dr. Alan Grant horrifies an arrogant child by describing the true ferocity of velociraptors, so too was my childhood hubris and fascination with dinosaurs transformed into an irrational fear.

(Jurassic Park 1993; Universal Pictures)

Of course, Jurassic Park scared me. People were getting eaten after all. It used to take days for me to stop jumping whenever something moved in the bushes. Back then, I thought the lesson of Jurassic Park was to always be very afraid of dinosaurs and be even happier to live in a time so far removed from them.

But now that I’m older, seeing the film again for the first time in who knows how long, I realize that fear was never the point. It was always a warning against arrogance. Dr. Ian Malcolm says as much with the line, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop think if they should.” (36:08). (I was certain I could watch Jurassic Park as a kid, only to realize I probably shouldn’t have at that time.)

Repeatedly throughout Jurassic Park we see characters come face to face with their own personal arrogance. Oftentimes there is an irony to the demises the characters face. This is made all the more entertaining because the film’s mastery of setup and payoff.

Back to Dr. Grant. In his introduction we learn a lot about his disdain for children and failings with technology, but we also learn a very important tidbit about how velociraptors hunt. Later, when the velociraptors run loose, we see this in action and we know that when the game warden approaches a lone raptor he’s certain he can kill, that all he’s done in reality is walk into a trap.

Dennis Nedry, one of the main antagonists of the film, early on boasts of his intelligence and programming prowess. He declares himself a genius member of Hammond’s staff who is all but irreplaceable as no one else in the world could ever hope to navigate the systems he has created. But for all Nedry’s intelligence, his demise is brought on by the ignorance he holds towards the Dilophosaurus. Pretty ironic given his place of employment.

(Jurassic Park 1993; Universal Pictures)

Continuing with Nedry, for a while his boasting seems warranted as even his coworkers are incapable of deciphering his system. Except Hammond’s fourteen year old granddaughter manages to do it in a couple of minutes (if that), with the added pressure of a velociraptor literally knocking at the door.

There are many more instances of setup and payoff peppered throughout the film. (Dr. Sattler’s quip about women inheriting the Earth is paid off by the fact that the women in the story are essentially the reason the main cast make it out alive.)

Stories that employ such masterful setup and payoff make subsequent viewings particularly engaging because the audience is now clued in to the fact that when characters speak or when something seemingly “random” happens on screen, chances are it isn’t just some throwaway event. It has purpose. Viewers want to find every breadcrumb that’s laid out for them and when those breadcrumbs finally start forming connections, they are always rewarding.

1 thought on “Now Watch This: Jurassic Park (1993) – Setup and Payoff

  1. Hi there,
    Thank you for putting out how much irony had a role in the film’s plot line – you make a great point with how many characters’ lives were lost due to their own arrogance. There really is a lot of commentary in the film about “playing god” and how assuming we know better than nature can really turn out for the worse. These definitely contribute to how strong the payoffs in the movie are, and in those there’s a little something for everyone; a bit of humor, satisfaction of seeing said arrogant characters getting their comeuppance, the scientific discoveries even if they aren’t incredible accurate; there’s a lot to be liked.

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