30 Years Later, ’Jurassic Park’ Still Inspires
On June 11th, 1993, what would become one of the biggest movies of all time was released in theaters: Jurassic Park.
Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, the film is about people’s belief that they can control nature. Wealthy businessman John Hammond creates a dinosaur nature park. Things go awry quickly. Electric fences break down, dinosaurs get loose, and people are eaten. At the time of its release, the film became the highest-grossing movie of all time.
In the decades since it came out, the film has spawned a multi-movie franchise, amusement park rides, video games, and every type of merchandise imaginable. The movie also had a tremendous impact on visual effects, both computer animated and practical, which are still seen today in the media.
When the first Jurassic Park movie came out, many of the paleontologists of today were children—or not even born yet. Ira speaks with a trio of paleontologists about the film’s impact on them as kids, and its continuous use as an educational tool to inspire young dino enthusiasts: Riley Black, Steve Brusatte and Yara Haridy.
Riley Black is a science writer and the author of several books, including The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Skeleton Keys and My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs.
Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist and author of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. He’s based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Yara Haridy is a vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Rarely does a film become so part of our culture that it changes our language, it evokes instant emotions, creates generations of followers. One such film, released on June 11, 1993, Jurassic Park.
– Dr. Grant, my dear Dr. Sattler, welcome to Jurassic Park.
IRA FLATOW: Based on a novel by Michael Crichton, the film is about people’s belief that they can control nature. But oh, the unintended consequences. Here’s what happens. A rich guy creates a dinosaur theme park, man creates dinosaur, dinosaur eats man. You know how it goes.
In the 30 years since it came out, the film spawned a multi-movie franchise, amusement park rides, video games, merch. You name it, it’s there. The movie also had a huge impact on visual effects we still see today in the media.
When the first Jurassic Park film came out, many of the paleontologists of today were kids or not even born. So for the rest of the hour, we’re going to talk about this movie’s impact on today’s scientists.
My guests are a trio of paleontologists, Riley Black, self-proclaimed fossil fanatic, author of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, based in Salt Lake City; Steve Brusatte, vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, based in Edinburgh, Scotland; and Yara Haridy, vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago– and you know where that is– in Illinois.
Welcome, you all, to Science Friday.
YARA HARIDY: Thank you so much for having us. I’m so excited to talk about this movie.
STEVE BRUSATTE: Yep, really wonderful to be back on Science Friday, talking to you, Ira, and joined by two of my friends in the field, Riley and Yara.
RILEY BLACK: I know, right. It’s like 30 years, and this movie is the dinosaur movie to talk about. It’s great to be on here to discuss it.
IRA FLATOW: Let me start with you, Riley. I want to start by asking all of you if you remember your introduction to this movie. Riley, what was your first experience like watching the movie as a kid?
RILEY BLACK: OK. I could not have been more excited for Jurassic Park to come out. Because part of this was I was 10 years old when Jurassic Park was hitting theaters. So this was right at the crest of this wave of dinomania. The same year National Geographic came out with a cover story about dinosaurs, Time Magazine did the same. I was finally allowed to read Jurassic Park, the novel, as like my first grown-up, quote, unquote, book, which I read like in a day. I was so excited about this.
And I remember I was on vacation in Florida with my family. And it was phenomenal. It’s like all these things I had been learning about through all these news stories and books and museum exhibits. It was like seeing dinosaurs alive. And I was just absolutely thrilled.
IRA FLATOW: What about you, Steve? Did Jurassic Park help launch you into an interest or a career in dinosaurs?
STEVE BRUSATTE: I remember it so well. I’m about the same age as Riley. I was 9 when the film came out. And I remember going to the cinema and seeing it with my dad and with my brothers back in the summer of ’93, back home in Illinois, where I grew up. And I was not particularly into dinosaurs at the time. I really didn’t like science much at all. It was my least favorite class in school. And I could have never envisioned I would become a scientist.
But my youngest brother at that time was obsessed with dinosaurs. That movie fed the obsession. Through his obsession, I became obsessed with dinosaurs. So really, Jurassic Park led to me becoming a paleontologist in an indirect way. But more than anything, I remember the film because the special effects were so lifelike. Those dinosaurs were so different than the dinosaurs in the books that we had at school and in the library. And these dinosaurs, they were movie monsters, but they were real animals, too. And that stuck with me.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Now, Yara, I know you had a bit of a different experience, in that you didn’t grow up in the US. Was Jurassic Park on your radar as a kid interested in dinosaurs?
YARA HARIDY: Yeah. So this is I guess where I differ from a lot of my colleagues in this case, where I only got introduced to Jurassic Park probably like 10 years after it came out. So a little bit of a late bloomer there.
But I have an uncle who is absolutely obsessed with American movies, and what’s the newest and the things that you have to see to be a true movie aficionado. So this was just one of many movies that he showed me that he said I should study.
Little did he know where I would actually end up– in a career in actually paleontology. So yeah, I only got introduced to it super late.
IRA FLATOW: But you still love it.
YARA HARIDY: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: It doesn’t really matter when you got introduced to it. Speaking of being introduced to it and speaking that it’s 30 years ago, Riley, has the science, the dino science, in that first movie aged well?
RILEY BLACK: Well, this is an interesting question to take while the science advisor for the most recent film is on the call with me.
STEVE BRUSATTE: Be careful, Riley. Be careful.
RILEY BLACK: I mean, I think the dinosaurs for their time, for 1993, still look amazing, especially the puppets Stan Winston Studio made. They are still the closest I think cinema has ever gotten to trying to recreate a living dinosaur.
A lot has changed since the days of the original Jurassic Park in terms of whether we want to put feathers on some of these animals, all of the basic anatomy, the behaviors that we think they might do. The film, in general, it makes computer scientists and mathematicians mad, as well as paleontologists. So it’s not just us who have a few quibbles about this film.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
RILEY BLACK: So they still look great. But really, it’s this time capsule of what we call the dinosaur renaissance, this time period when we’re starting to think about them as more active and dynamic and interesting animals than they were before. It really captures that moment. So even though things have changed quite a bit, many of our favorite dinosaurs are still very much recognizable in this film. And you can see how it was really bringing this image to the public that didn’t exist before.
If you wanted to see a dinosaur movie before this, you were looking at a stop motion movie, with big lizards dragging their tails or rubber appliances glued on to them or things like that. This really was our introduction to the modern dinosaur.
IRA FLATOW: Steve, I have to ask you– what is it like to be the science advisor on a dinosaur movie?
STEVE BRUSATTE: It was surreal. It was surreal. It was one of those I think once in a lifetime things. And I feel just very privileged as a scientist that I had that opportunity and that platform to communicate science to such a big audience through such a unusual but powerful medium like an international blockbuster film.
And I’ll say it was pretty cool meeting Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern and Bryce Howard and the others. So I really enjoyed it. But I knew that my mission was to just represent the science, make sure that the real science, a real knowledge of fossils, was always in the ears of the director, the writers, and the artists.
And I know these dinosaurs, they’re not perfectly accurate representations. They are movie monsters. They are characters. But I do agree that, by and large, the image you see on the screen, those are pretty realistic dinosaurs. And I am very happy– incredibly happy. One of the honors of my career so far is playing a small role in getting feathers onto these dinosaurs finally in Jurassic World Dominion.
And some of these dinosaurs in the film– the sixth film that came out last summer– they’re even more realistic. They’re more in line with what we know a lot of dinosaurs looked like. And I’m very happy that millions of people around the world were able to see feathered dinosaurs in their full glory on the big screen.
IRA FLATOW: Riley, was there any damage that movie did for paleontology in the look of the dinosaurs? I feel like that look has stuck with us since that first movie.
RILEY BLACK: I think this is what happens with the cultural osmosis that comes when something is that much of a blockbuster– how many not even official Jurassic Park things, in terms of their merch or the films themselves or the games, but all the ripoffs that we see pretty consistently– even some museums sometimes.
I don’t know if I’d call it damage– because we talk about this a lot, right– we talk about the primacy of accuracy in science. And the thing with dinosaurs is dinosaurs live where science and imagination meet each other. So we’re always using a little bit of guesswork, using a little bit of inference, trying to give our best ideas to see what these animals look like. And two teams of scientists can come up with different interpretations.
So I think a lot of people understand that. I think sometimes you don’t give the public enough credit– and we think, oh, they’re going to be stuck with this outdated image– when really, like, especially kids, they know that the dinosaurs were different. They’re drawing them. They’re seeing the museums and books and everything else.
So I think this dovetails with what Steve said. They’re playing these dual roles as real animals, but also the movie monsters. And I think we need to respect the public enough that they know the difference between the two. And at the very least, it’s always a good springboard to talk about what we really know about these animals.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. How much does the story mean to getting the science right? I mean, do you think you really need a very nice story like that for people to remember the science in there, Steve?
STEVE BRUSATTE: The storytelling aspect is what makes it memorable. I think that’s what makes Riley’s new book, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, memorable. These are stories. Riley goes into the characters of these dinosaurs, into their everyday lives, into how they would have behaved. And I think you need that. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of really old petrified bones.
And these were fantastic animals. Dinosaurs really were. Of course, birds today are dinosaurs. They evolved from dinosaurs. They are part of the dinosaur family tree. But really, there’s nothing today that looks like a T-Rex or triceratops or a brontosaurus. These are like dragons or monsters from our imagination or from fairy tales. But they’re more fantastic than that. These were real.
And I think we can’t just look to the modern world and to modern animals to completely grasp what dinosaurs were like. We need to use our imagination and storytelling through films, television shows, books– this is how you really reach people.
RILEY BLACK: Yeah. And to just jump in on that real quick. Like when Craig created the film Westworld before Jurassic Park– and it’s the same basic idea, right– it’s like technology gone awry and it can’t be controlled. And what Jurassic Park really did was come up with an idea to match that into something new and different. He came up with an idea, something that other people had played with. There’s actually an old episode of GI Joe that does the same thing about, what if genetic material could be saved and dinosaurs could be brought back to life?
Because previously, if you had a dinosaur story, it would be something like a million years, BC, where it’s like cave people and dinosaurs together or like The Lost World, where there’s some island or something somewhere. So the idea that science might intentionally bring dinosaurs back was a form of storytelling and prehistoric media in general that we just never had before.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a good point. Because I remember we spent years debating whether you could take ancient blood out of a mosquito and actually recreate a dinosaur. And Yara, it taught people a lot of science. We were talking about it for years. It’s something akin to when COVID happened, we all became biologists.
YARA HARIDY: Yeah, absolutely. And you know what. People do ask me if they think that’s a net negative. Oh, gee, do people ask you about ancient DNA and how can we get DNA out of fossils? But I find that a great talking point. It’s a good way to take a step back and tell them there is ancient DNA. And just recently we’ve been able to sequence parts of mammoth genomes. But DNA is so unstable that it does degrade quickly. So even if we did find a mosquito that did bite a T-Rex, the chances are we’re not getting that DNA back.
IRA FLATOW: I know you do a lot of youth education about paleontology. Are the Jurassic Park films still a good tool for getting young kids into science and dinosaurs?
YARA HARIDY: Oh, absolutely. When I get to talk to classrooms full of kids, they know the dinosaurs better than I do. They ask me about indominus rex and all these other ones. And even if they know that the animals aren’t real, they ask me about DNA. And it often makes kids Google DNA and ancient DNA. And now, there’s such a wealth of resources online where kids can educate themselves and come with informed decisions.
So in the end, I still think it’s such a net positive. And it’s a good talking point not only for modern classrooms, but even just across the world. Everyone knows Jurassic Park. I can now talk to people in other countries about this particular talking point. They know what I’m talking about. So it’s a great tool.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
I love that phrase of Jeff Goldblum’s, “Life will find a way.” And I mean, that is the other theme. You’re right– there’s the theme of, we have all these dinosaurs that we’ve recreated, but then we also have the conflict about, can you control what you are creating or do you understand the consequences of what you’re creating? And that is just still true today. We’re talking about ChatGPT being the next dinosaur maybe run amok.
RILEY BLACK: And I will say, honestly– this is something that has to do entirely with my own identity– but the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are trans icons. They change sex in the movie. That’s an important plot point. So I want to make sure that’s preserved, too, just to have that be representation amongst our dinosaur friends.
IRA FLATOW: Are we going to get this movie banned someplace, where we won’t be able to see it?
RILEY BLACK: Maybe in Florida it would be.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. There was such a period of dinomania in the ’90s. If Jurassic Park didn’t come out, do you think dinomania would have been so big for kids? Steve I can’t imagine it not.
STEVE BRUSATTE: I think the film did play an enormous role in that. And I think that’s why, when people ask me, do you think the film was a good or bad thing– was it a net positive– absolutely, it was a net positive– by leaps and bounds. I mean, yes, of course, the dinosaurs weren’t completely accurate. But, my goodness, that film and the sequels have introduced new generations to dinosaurs.
And that has led to so much more public interest, has led to museums putting on more dinosaur exhibits, universities putting on more dinosaur courses. It’s led to more jobs for paleontologists.
And there was even money that Universal and NBC and Amblin Entertainment donated to a charity, called the Jurassic Foundation, that was used to fund, and is used to fund, paleontology research. I got a couple of those grants as a student. I was able to go to China and to Portugal to study dinosaurs from proceeds from the film.
So the film did so, so much for paleontology. I don’t know if any of us would be sitting here having this conversation without it. I don’t think– I mean– and I think Riley is an incredibly talented author. I think maybe I’m OK. But I don’t know if we’d get our book deals about dinosaur books if there was no Jurassic Park out there. That’s why people want to read our books.
And so I think that you would not have had such a dinomania over the last 30 years if it wasn’t for the film. And that’s why I’m eternally grateful towards it.
IRA FLATOW: Yara?
YARA HARIDY: Dinomania wasn’t a worldwide phenomenon. It actually came later to the rest of the world. And it’s been such a great talking point. Now that I’m a paleontologist, I can talk to anyone all over the world, wherever I visit, even when I go back home to the Middle East. I can use it as a talking point, to, hey, this is kind of what I do in a very distant way.
And it really inspires people to go out and look, turn over that rock, look outside, think of what was and how we got here. And that idea of evolution and just the mystery of deep time, I don’t think could have been delivered into our cultural forebrain in a better way than such a movie.
IRA FLATOW: I’d like to thank my guests, Riley Black, self-proclaimed fossil fanatic, author of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, based in Salt Lake City, Utah; Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, based in Edinburgh, Scotland; and Yara Haridy, vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, University of Chicago– you know where that is– in Chicago, Illinois.
YARA HARIDY: Thank you so much for having us.
RILEY BLACK: It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.
STEVE BRUSATTE: Yep, thank you, Ira. Always a pleasure to chat with you. And great to be here with Riley and Yara. And just a big hello and thank you to everybody in the Science Friday community.