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Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies

Monstrosity, terror, and horror all correspond in some way to chaos in its old-fashioned sense and with chaos in its scientific sense.

Jurassic Park
Photo: Universal Pictures

With the arrival of the 20th anniversary, 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, what I’d like to convince you of is that the film watered down, significantly, the soul of the novel from which it was based (and we’re talking about a Michael Crichton page-turner for Christ’s sake). Instead of being the kind of decadent, lost-in-the-jungle, labyrinthine cinematic fever dream it could’ve been—one in which the production of the film would’ve eerily re-enacted and factually re-performed the hallucinatory chaos of what it was trying to fictionally record (a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and their respective making-of docs, Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams), Spielberg’s Jurassic Park instead played it safe, and did so in a way that was slick, corporate, and patronizing to its audience. And one of the ways it punted artistically was to almost entirely purge from Crichton’s novel its heavy theorizing about chaos theory and fractals, which, in those days (the late ‘80s/early ‘90s), had just made its way into the intellectual mainstream. I’d like to briefly make the point that this was a grievous mistake (for the movie), because chaos theory and fractals have everything to do with scary movies, and horror and terror and the kind of man-eating monstrosities Spielberg and his team put so much goddamned time and money into making look realistic.

Jurassic Park, the novel, published in 1990, was a work of cautionary sci-fi horror, in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. The billionaire genius John Hammond, who’s responsible for the idea of a freak show amusement park stocked with genetically modified dinosaurs, is himself rapacious and reptilian and says things like, “Personally, I would never help mankind.” Given that the novel is a cautionary tale with a moral to tell, and that moral is that there’s a price to pay for meddling with nature and for placing profit and knowledge and experimentation on a higher shelf of priorities than humble human well-being, things end badly for Mr. Hammond. He gets his comeuppance in the fourth-to-last chapter, via a pack of pygmy-sized Procompsognathus dinosaurs that tackle him to the ground and eat him alive.

But in the movie version, the malevolent CEO version of Hammond has been made over into a lovable-but-misguided grandfather figure (played by Richard Attenborough and the gap in his teeth), who hobbles unharmed at movie’s end into a shiny corporate helicopter, and seems almost pathologically impervious to both the spiritual guilt and the legal liability he’ll soon be facing, given the multiple grisly fatalities that have just occurred at his experimental Caribbean theme park.

In Crichton’s novel, the intellectual foil to the greedy Mr. Hammond is the Ian Malcolm character, played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum in an all-black, latter-day Hamlet-type getup. Malcolm is a rogue mathematician who works “almost exclusively with nonlinear equations, in the emerging field called chaos theory.” Chaos theory was getting popular as Crichton worked on the novel. Chaos: A New Kind of Science by James Gleick came out in 1987, and Mathematics and the Unexpected by Ivar Ekeland came out in translation in 1990. Crichton lists both those authors in his “Acknowledgements” section at the end of Jurassic Park, and Goldblum talked to both of them in preparing for his part as Malcolm.

It’s from chaos theory that the fractal images that decorate the start of each section in the novel, like so, are derived:

Crichton’s Seven Iterations

All these “Iterations” are the phases of what’s known as a Dragon Curve, which is a fractal that’s created by taking a line and then applying a couple of simple transformations to it, then doing that over and over again until a really complicated structure emerges—one that’s more than the sum of its parts and that couldn’t have been predicted, given the straightforward instructions necessary to draw the thing.

In the novel, the Dragon Curve is a metaphor for Hammond’s futile wishes to keep his dinosaurs well-behaved and locked-up in their pens, and to not be reproducing or leaving the island. This is what, in the movie, Goldblum’s Malcolm was trying to explain to Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler with the whole drop-of-water-running-down-your-hand-in-different-directions thing. However, in that little slice of dialogue, chaos theory is reduced to about nothing more than the idea that, well, shit’s unpredictable. In the novel things are deeper than that, and here’s what Malcolm says to Dr. Grant in the book’s version of the same riding-relaxedly-in-the-SUV-before-the-shit-hits-the-fan scene:

“But we have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as something that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is. And chaos theory teaches us…that straight linearity, which we have come to take for granted in everything from physics to fiction, simply does not exist. Linearity is an artificial way of viewing the world. Real life isn’t a series of interconnected events occurring one after another like beads strung on a necklace. Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way.

Of course, it was a also an example of punting artistically for Crichton to have one of his characters bash and criticize linearity in fiction, and bash and criticize the illusion that events can follow one another like beads on a string, when Malcolm himself is just a bead on a fictional string as linear as anything out of Euclid. Regardless, for the movie to have been so dismissive and uninterested in chaos theory and fractals was a lost opportunity to do something thematically graceful and interesting. (Crichton said in aninterview with Cinefantastique in 1993 that, “A movie like Jurassic Park is not the format to have extended discussions on the scientific paradigm.” He was paid $500,000 to collaborate on the screenplay and, one presumes, to allow the teeth to be pulled from the ideas of his novel.) And by “thematically graceful” I’m talking about trying to link up the ideas of chaos theory and fractals with the tradition of the monster movie/horror film.

What the novelized Malcolm said above about “sudden, radical, irrational change”—couldn’t that be a way to describe what a monster is? A monster is change you can believe in. A monster is that thing which violently disrupts your everyday harmony and contentedness, and which pulls you (or your girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings, pets, parents, neighbors, etc.) over the threshold and onto the Other Side (death, nothingness, the infinite, the eternal, the void, etc.). It’s what causes you or your loved ones to disappear, disintegrate, and turn into dust and die. Isn’t that what’s going on with the shark in Jaws or the crows in The Birds or the aliens in Aliens or the spiders in Arachnophobia? Or the oversized, upright reptile in Godzilla? Or Anton Chigurh or Hannibal Lecter or Freddy Kreuger or Michael Myers? Or good old Count Orlok in Nosferatu or Bob in Twin Peaks or Pennywise in It? With the proto-monster being, perhaps, the Grim Reaper, who takes, pulls, steals, or reaps you from the world of life and into the world of death and eternity?

The point I’m trying to make here is that monstrosity, terror, and horror all correspond in some way to chaos in both its old-fashioned, traditional sense (craziness, darkness, destruction, upheaval, and the sundering, merging, and losing of identities), and with chaos in its scientific sense, as developed in physics and math departments from the 1960s onward, and as expounded upon by Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. And I think you can actually see this connection in, for instance, the ukiyo-e print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” that chaos theory/fractal geometry pioneer Benoit Mandelbrot discussed in his recent memoir The Fractalist:

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Doesn’t the wave (monstrous, horrifying, destructive) and that curling, branching white foam that’s about to crash down on and probably kill those poor fishermen look an awful lot like the Dragon Curve from the Jurassic Park novel in its Seventh Iteration?

Seventh Iteration

And what is this shape? It’s a spiral, isn’t it? And hasn’t it shown up in some other movies? Especially some movies that we might, for lack of imagination, classify as “psychological thrillers,” but yet don’t contain any ugly, seething, aggressive monsters at which we can easily point our fingers? What about in, say, the opening credits of Vertigo?


Or what about in Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, Pi?


Of course, in Pi, the spiral is discussed in terms of the Fibonacci sequence, and not as a fractal or as a visualization of a chaotic system. But, for my money, it’s all related. And why might this be? Why does this swirling and looping fractal structure have a lot to do with scary movies? Well here’s something David Foster Wallace wrote about Blue Velvet, and about how, in David Lynch’s movies, the chaos and the wickedness sort of flow through their worlds in a way that’s ambiguous and disturbing:

“Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts. It pervades. Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon.’ Evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, and redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits). In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is ‘implied by’ good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff—encoded in it. You could call this idea of evil Gnostic, or Taoist, or even neo-Hegelian, but it’s also Lynchian, because what Lynch’s movies are all about is creating a narrative space where this idea can be worked out in its fullest detail and to its most uncomfortable consequences.”

Doesn’t Wallace’s line about the “evil stuff” being “contained within the good stuff—encoded in it” sound like what Malcolm, in the Jurassic Park novel, is quoted as saying to Dr. Grant during their SUV ride, about chaos being “built into the very fabric of existence”?
Here’s Wallace again:

“If a movie is structured in such a way that the distinction between surface/Light/good and secret/Dark/evil is messed with—in other words, not a structure whereby Dark Secrets are winched ex machina up to the Lit Surface to be purified by my judgment, but rather a structure in which Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up—I am going to be made acutely uncomfortable. And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find a way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible. From my survey of published work on Lynch’s films, I can assure you that just about every established professional reviewer and critic has chosen one or the other of these responses.”

So, notice how Wallace says that, in Lynch’s movies, Good and Evil are “mingled, integrated, literally mixed up.” Now here’s a quote from Benoit Mandelbroit’s The Fractalist about how he came up with the word “fractal”:

“When my soon-to-come-out book was still tentatively titled, in French, Concrete Objects of Fractional Dimension, the publisher, Flammarion, was horrified and asked for something better. Friends concurred. ‘You have written about a brand-new idea. You are entitled—in fact, obliged—to give it any name you want. Make it snappy.’ I could have given a new meaning to some already overloaded old word (think ‘catastrophe’ or ‘chaos’). But I chose to coin a new word—one not directly evocative of anything in the past. I wanted to convey the idea of a broken stone, something irregular and fragmented. Studying Latin as a youngster taught me that it is a very concrete language. My son Laurent’s Latin dictionary confirmed that the adjective ‘fractus’ means ‘broken’ or ‘shattered.’ From this adjective, I thought of the word ‘fractal.’”

If a fractal is a model for a system that’s unsteady and rough and on the verge of collapse, if a fractal is, geometrically, between dimensions (trust me on this), then maybe what makes a scary movie scary is that it shows people whose lives/psyches are on the verge of collapse—whose lives are being pulled down into a vicious cycle (a spiral), at the bottom of which they’ll be crushed/swallowed/flushed into the abyss, for either external reasons (hungry large animals, colonizing armies, inclement weather, etc.), internal ones (unfulfilled sexual perversions, unrelenting mathematical genius, drug addiction, etc.), or some combination of both. And a really scary movie—like, in my mind, Mulholland Drive, Requiem for a Dream, or Children of Men—is one that finds a way to show how day-to-day reality, everywhere, all the time, is on this same existential edge, and has that principle of chaos, evil, predation, and perversion swirling through it fractally, at all scales, in all moments, be them banal or dramatic. It’s inside you and everybody you care about, and it’s only because of a very thick veil of illusions that we pretend otherwise.
Jurassic Park, of course, as a scary/monster/horror movie, is about as tame as it gets. There are some screams. There are some creepy and hungry monsters. But it’s a slick corporate product. It’s not meant to disturb you or to make you doubt yourself. It’s meant to reassure you and to encourage further participation in the linear, orderly, steady and civilizing process, via your consumption of the movie and its elaborate associated apparel, and via the fancy technological progress that made the movie’s special effects possible.

Both the novel and the film pay lip service to chaos theory, but neither of them had the artistic sac to let that spiraling, recursive, jagged structure of the fractal dictate the flow of the plot or the division within it between good and bad. You only have to watch the incredibly lame and tame “The Making of Jurassic Park” (hosted, oddly, by James Earl Jones), or read EW’s equally lame and tame “Welcome to ‘Jurassic Park’: An Oral History” to see that the creation of this movie was an act of financial calculation and myopic computerized obsessiveness, with a bit of “dinosaurs are cool!” boyish curiosity sprinkled on top. And you only have to compare those testimonials to what Francis Ford Coppola says at the beginning of Hearts of Darkness to know what it’d be like to make a movie in which the line between fiction and reality was as fucked-up as a fractal, i.e. to make a movie on the edge, which is the only place, for my money, from where good movies come:

“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money. Too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.”

Jurassic Park

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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