With four out of five installments running as big-budget monster B-movies, it can be easy to forget how much of a character-focused story the first Jurassic Park was (the movie that is, not Crichton’s original novel). As a kid, I enjoyed it for the dinosaur thrills, but returning to it as an adult, I’ve been impressed with how Steven Spielberg, David Koepp, and Michael Crichton weaved together character growth. Most recently, I’ve become obsessed with the surrogate father status that Dr. Alan Grant has with Lex Murphy. I’d long appreciated it from Alan’s perspective, but Spielberg subtly crafted an arc for Lex that both compliments and improves Alan’s.
Alan’s arc, which is discussed at length in this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay, involves him – a great scientist – becoming a good man, primarily through his treatment of children. He grows from mean and dismissive to reliable and protective. Moreover, in taking responsibility for Lex and Tim, Alan also grows in confidence and courage. The arc is grounded and sincere, thanks to Sam Neill’s performance, but it takes Lex to provide the final, critical element.
The groundwork for Lex’s arc is laid even earlier in the movie than Alan’s, established through implication rather than exposition.
Gennaro: You’re telling me that Hammond can’t even be bothered to see me?
Paleontologist: He had to leave early. He wants to be with his daughter. She’s getting a divorce.
This divorce obviously affects Lex, Hammond’s granddaughter. Seeing as she remains close with her mother’s parent, as shown when she and Tim arrive on Jurassic Park, this could imply that Lex has a strained relationship with her father. Relationships in divorce can be much more complicated than that, but for the purpose of this essay, we will take this interpretation as fact. After all, Spielberg is no stranger to using father issues in his films.
As a result, Lex is lacking the support her father ought to be providing. Once she arrives on Jurassic Park, her dinosaur-obsessed brother latches onto the famous paleontologist, even decked out in similar outfit. That’s the first cue for her to notice Alan, as her sibling has already attached himself. The second cue comes from Ellie who directly sends her to Alan. This is played as a joke on Ellie’s part, but there’s also an undercurrent of fatherhood to it. Ellie and Alan’s primary disagreement in their relationship is children; Ellie wants kids, and Alan hates them. Therefore, in sending Lex – currently lacking the support from her father – to Alan, Ellie unintentionally marks Alan as a potential father figure for Lex.
Therefore, Lex herself latches on to Alan as well. She keeps holding his hand after he helps her up. The camera makes a point to show her watching Alan and smiling as he gleefully interacts with the Triceratops. It’s Alan that she calls for when the lawyer Gennaro ditches them to the T-Rex. Even the dangerous move of turning on the flashlight could be interpreted as her trying to draw the T-Rex away from Alan’s car.
Up until this point, Alan has tried to keep his distance from Lex and Tim, but in a critical moment, when Lex finds herself abandoned by yet another male adult – “He left us!” – Alan rises to become the exact sort of father figure Lex has been looking for. He charges out of his own car with a flare, shouting to draw the T-Rex’s attention away from Lex and her brother.
I would like to stress how critical it was to have Alan in a separate car from the kids. It’s not only key to his character in avoiding them or key in providing the added drama between him, Ellie, and Ian, but it also magnifies his choice to help Lex and Tim. Because that’s ultimately what it is: a choice. Being the only adult in the car, responsibility of the kids is defaulted to Gennaro, and he runs. Alan is separated from Lex and Tim and chooses to make them his responsibility. It’s a critical moment for his character development, and it’s the moment he begins affecting Lex’s arc.
Alan: Now Lex, listen. Listen. Lex. I’m right here, I’m going to look after you, but I have to go help your brother, so I want you to stay right here and wait for me.
Lex: He left us! He left us!
Alan: But that’s not what I’m going to do.
Once Alan commits to protecting Lex and Tim, he finds himself not only in charge of their physical wellbeing, but their emotional state as well. He has to calm Lex, motivate Tim, break-up arguments, encourage them both, and stay aware of their emotional needs. For Lex in particular, Alan both challenges her to move outside her comfort zone –
Lex (at a dinosaur): Go away!
Alan: It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s a brachiosaur…
Lex: Can I touch it?
Alan: Sure. Just think of it as kind of a big cow.
– and acknowledges her boundaries.
Lex (watching the T-Rex): I want to go now.
Alan: Look how it eats.
Alan: Bet you’ll never look at birds the same way again.
Lex: Go now…
Alan (snapping out of it): Okay. Keep low and follow me.
Therefore, when Alan does leave Lex and Tim back in the Visitor Center, Lex doesn’t feel abandoned. For one, Alan leaves only because he believes that they are safe, but when danger does arrive, Lex isn’t frozen into inaction. Instead, we see her rise up and take responsibility for protecting her brother, her actions mirroring that of Alan’s.
The first act she does upon reaching the kitchen is to “Turn the light off, turn the light off…” When the raptors slip in, she turns to Tim and says “Follow me,” as they keep low. When the raptors close in on Tim, she might not have a flare, but she still uses sound – clanking a ladle on the floor – to draw the raptor’s attention to her. Then, like Alan throwing the flare into the forest, she plays a trick on the raptor’s sight to keep herself alive as well.
And it’s not just in action that Lex is reflecting Alan; but in courage. One of the best things that Neill brings to his performance as Alan is his fear. It is constantly reflected on his face. You see his eyes widen and his Adam’s apple bob. You see “I regret this decision” stamped all over his expression. And yet he plows ahead.
Ariana Richards is no slouch in portraying fear either – Lex’s actor was hired for her screaming capabilities – and it is stamped all over her expression as she and Tim are being stalked by raptors. It’s a far more intimate threat than the T-Rex attack; there are no doors or windows between them, and there are no adults coming to the rescue. But by this time, Lex has watched Alan push through his fear time and time again, and in that, she has learned how to push through hers. In fact, her most courageous act (hamstrung by the only bad editing in the entire movie) is when she charges at the freezer and, by extension, at a raptor.
During the scene with the raptors in the kitchen, Steven, what he wanted was for me to absolutely let loose. Go crazy when I was running towards the door to push it close and save my brother. He said, ‘Scare us.’ (Ariana Richards, “Return to Jurassic Park: Making Prehistory” featurette)
The result was Lex screaming, eyes squeezed tight, as she flies past Tim to slam the door shut.
In the kitchen, she is constantly moving, constantly active through her fear. When Ellie and Alan return to find them, Lex seizes on Alan while Tim buries himself in Ellie’s arms. Unlike the T-Rex attack, where all she could repeat was “He left us,” Lex now turns and gives critical information about where the raptor is.
When the survivors at last reach the helicopter, and Lex and Alan are collapsed in exhaustion, it’s a rest they’ve both earned. It’s a family they both made. Lex and Tim caused Alan to rise to this responsibility, and in rising, he taught Lex how in turn. Lex’s arc shows that Alan is not just willing to be a father, but that he will be a good one.