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Laura Dern Week: "Jurassic Park" (1993)

by Chris Feil

How could we celebrate Laura Dern Week without giving a nod to her biggest box office hit Jurassic Park! While Dern may more quickly come to her fans’ minds for her daring auteur-driven or darkly comedic work, her performance in Jurassic Park is the actress at her peak powers of relaxed charisma. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for some of our other favorite actresses to not only emerge from their big budget forays unscathed, but with a performance so slyly delightful?

The film doesn’t function to serve character, but naturally Dern’s Ellie Sattler is its most vivid, all incisive smarts and genuine heart that never fade into the background. She’s just so damn cool.

Precisely what makes Ellie such a boss chick is Dern’s natural ability to be laid back while cutting through the crap. The script doesn’t aim to serve character, but Ellie still feels like a full person and not just a Lady Scientist like we might see in lesser genre films. Dern is instinctive presence throughout, the smartest and most confident in the room when everyone else panics. Here’s part of how you make a fantasy film like Jurassic Park work: cast an actor who can craft realism in unbelievable circumstances.

But the film uses her naturalism to its benefit. Part of what makes the T-Rex chase or the rescue into the raptor-filled maintenance shed so terrifying is her ability to believable conjure visceral fear. With an inviting presence like Dern, she enhances whatever emotion is already there in the scene.

And after all, we first experience the awe of the first major spectacle through Dern’s face. As ever, her face remains absorbing.

Jurassic Park does upend the standard gender roles in that the pseudo-parental role can fall on Sam Neill’s shoulders while she gets to be the more risk-taking scientist. And let’s face it, Neill’s the one we want to spend less time with.

Dern furthers the archetype switch with more of that understated complexity - her Ellie is still warm and physical, not the frigid shrew that could have come from what’s on the page. She is a resilient and tough chick without mugging to the camera for action badass impact, and quite sexy without stooping to teenage boy visions of sexuality. As much as the film is about primitive species behavior, her performance is primal without the obviousness that would suggest.

The film itself may avoid lame gender tropes, but it’s the actress that gets to have fun doing so (and again, the audience as well because of how she allows us to experience things with her). I have got nothing for you if you can’t feel the relish in these words right along with her:

So while Jurassic Park might not be one of her most high-wire performances, it deserves to be equally celebrated for what her charisma does for an already pretty thrilling experience. Now if only her part in the upcoming Star Wars installment (bet you forgot that was happening!) can be as equally rewarding of a blockbuster experience as this.

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Reader Comments (9)

LOVED her in this; in fact, I think this was the first movie I ever saw her in, and she slayed. It's kind of disheartening comparing her character and performance with Bryce Dallas Howard's in Jurassic World - 20 years later and we seem to have taken a giant step backwards in terms of strong heroines.

February 8, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Chris, you're so great. What insightful commentary on something an Actressexual™ site would focus on: strong female lead work in a genre film. And I have been feeling that line of Ellie's since I saw that movie in a tiny theatre almost 24 years ago.

February 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Thank you so much for posting this! Indeed Ellie is the smartest most capable person in the movie but I love that Dern let her fear and vulnerability come to the surface. Plus her scene with Richard Attenborough is just great.

February 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

First Laura Dern movie for me too. We're seeing everythImg through those blue eyes. Those boots look so much more practical than heels when it comes to escaping carnivores, how BDH didn't end up lunch is a mystery.

February 8, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

Love her in this. My favorite part is the combo of when she says 'Oh Mr. Arnold thank god' to Samuel Jackson's disembodied arm and then starts screaming, and then says 'RUN' to herself when she sees Grant across a clearing. Close second is her speech to Hammond about how it's all an illusion.

February 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

As this movie as insanely popular and did grab several nominations/awards that year, where was her Oscar buzz? I honestly would be ok if she got nominated for this film.

February 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

I'm going to safely assume 90% of my generation's fans fell in love with her by first seeing her in this movie. I know I did. I was only 7 and absolutely in love with her by then

February 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve_Man

Lylee - while Dern's is (probably) the greater character and (definitely) the greater performance, I am a fierce defender of both Bryce Dallas Howard and her character in Jurassic World.

She was driven, ambitious, clever, saved the day on more than one occasion, did it all wearing heels and wasn't punished for her lack of maternal instincts.

Pratt's character was a jack-ass and a know-it-all and on more than one occasion jeapordised lives in pursuit of playing the "hero".

Were we REALLY meant to empathise more with the latter!?

February 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Co-sign, all of this. Love the Dern.

"...still feels like a full person and not just a Lady Scientist like we might see in lesser genre films." Like Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World? Because, God, that was a nothing character brought to life(less) by a weak performance.

February 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

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