In Praise of Jurassic Park's Dr. Ellie Sattler
So I saw Jurassic Park 3-D last night. I know. It was $17. That's ridiculous. But if there's one movie from my childhood worth revisiting on the big, three-dimensional screen, it's Jurassic Park. This was actually the very first movie I remember seeing on the big screen when I was a kid and I vividly remembered all the famous dino scenes—the dilophosaurus melting Newman's face, the T-Rex eating the lawyer, the "clever girl." But I had forgotten one major element of the film: Dr. Ellie Sattler is the best!
At first, it seems like Sattler (played by Laura Dern) is doomed to just be Dr. Alan Grant's pretty sidekick. In the first scenes, out in the fossil fields of Montana, she hangs off Dr. Grant's shoulders while he takes center stage, lecturing a snotty child on how a velociraptor would totally eat his intestines, given the chance. While she plays a somewhat traditionally feminine role—telling Dr. Grant he should love kids, being the object of the lounge-lizard-chaos-theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm's lust—that all changes in one key moment: The shit-digging scene. You remember it.
That's the point where it clicked for me, rewatching the film. Oh yeah. Dr. Sattler is awesome. She's a character who doesn't fit into any typical Hollywood box: A friendly, stable, super-smart woman who wants to be a mother, has her own nerdy career, and doesn't think twice about being a badass. Instead of Tomb Raider gear, she rocks the practical khaki shorts and hiking boots. As Dr. Sattler stripped off her Triceratops shit-covered gloves—much to Dr. Ian Malcolm's horror—I remembered being a kid at the drive-in theater, watching Jurassic Park from the backseat of my parent's Volkswagen Rabbit and thinking, "Yes! That's me!"
In the film, Dr. Sattler makes her own plans and rules. When everyone else heads back to the visitor's center as planned, she sticks out in the field to keep investigating a sick triceratops. When the park's power fails to come back on as expected, she doesn't sit in the emergency bunker waiting for rescue. She makes a plan and grabs a walkie-talkie, heading out to find the power switch.
"I should really be the one going," mutters park owner John Hammond before she sprints off.
"Why?" says Dr. Sattler.
"Well, because you're a... and I'm a..." stutters Hamond.
"Look," she says, "We can discuss 'sexism in survival situations' when I get back."
All that, and she can ID cretaceous-period plant life from 100 yards. What a star.
I saw Jurassic Park when I was seven and from then on wanted to be Dr. Ellie Sattler. As a teenager, I actually went to archaeology science camp, spending summers hunched over a dental pick in the middle of the desert, digging up Tertiary Era mammal teeth. After a couple months of that tedius work, I determined that a life like Dr. Sattler's isn't for me. But along the way developed a life-long love for science. And practical khaki shorts. Thanks, Jurassic Park.
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