The Ballad of Ray Arnold

In praise of Jurassic Park’s most unheralded hero, the technician played by Samuel L. Jackson, 25 years after the film’s release

Samuel L. Jackson as Ray Arnold in 'Jurassic Park'

“Hold on to your butts.” It’s the iconic catchphrase of Ray Arnold, the bespectacled, chain-smoking chief engineer of Jurassic Park, played by Samuel L. Jackson in Steven Spielberg’s classic 1993 film. Released 25 years ago, Jurassic Park is filled with groundbreaking visual effects and memorable action sequences. But Ray Arnold doesn’t really witness any of the fun. The beleaguered middle manager sits in the park’s control room, hopelessly working to undo the total system hack executed by his traitorous subordinate Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), before dying off-screen when trying to turn the power back on. Ray isn’t just the movie’s greatest unsung hero—he’s also emblematic of its most chilling themes.

The novel Jurassic Park, published in 1990, was written by Michael Crichton as a cautionary tale about technology run amok (the author’s favorite subject). After excavators dig up mosquitos frozen in amber, still filled with the blood of dinosaurs they supped on millions of years earlier, advanced cloning is used to bring the extinct reptiles back to life, a project funded by the cheerful British industrialist John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough in the film with full Santa Claus energy).

It’s a discovery too staggering to comprehend; the scientists Hammond invites to view the park warn him that it’s likely to spin out of his control fast, and indeed it does, as the dinosaurs begin to rampage. Where’s Ray in all this? At the computer lab, working to patch things back together. Though Jurassic Park is all about spectacle, Ray is the man pulling the levers to get the movie’s dazzling stars in place for their big moments. And when the system fails and the reptiles get loose, he’s the one who gets eaten alive, leaving behind only a severed arm for his coworkers and viewers to remember him by.

When Jackson appeared in Jurassic Park, he was just two years removed from his major breakout role in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, and a year away from his Oscar-nominated work in Pulp Fiction. He was still the kind of well-regarded character actor who could play the tenth lead in an action movie. Jurassic Park is a bombastic film, and Jackson is an actor who can deliver bombast; but as Ray Arnold, he’s mostly resigned and businesslike, losing his cool only at Dennis’s obnoxious “hacker crap.”

In Jurassic Park, practically every character has one scene of pure awe-struck wonder, in which they gaze at a dinosaur in extreme close-up (a technique best known as “Spielberg face”). Ray is one of two cast members who doesn’t register any such delight. The other is Dennis, who shuts down the park’s security system to steal its cloning secrets and sell them to the highest bidder. In Crichton’s tales of future-tech, it’s rarely the actual science that betrays us, but the humans behind it.

As a concept, the dino refuge is a park for the ultra-wealthy, a resort on a remote Costa Rican island that people would pay virtually any price to attend. The idea is a goldmine, so it’s little surprise when Dennis gives in to greed—he later fails at escaping the island and gets devoured by a Dilophosaurus. But in the grand scheme of things, Ray’s death feels much more tragic. He’s a functionary, a man with no avaricious intent, who dies trying to save an inherently ridiculous business. In an effort to get the system back online, Ray reboots the power and journeys into the bowels of the park to flip the circuit breakers.

The fact that Ray doesn’t even get a death scene is the ultimate irony. As a keyboard-tapping computer expert, he has every reason to beg off from going on such a mission, but instead Ray throws on his lab coat and ventures out, no questions asked. Spielberg had intended to film Ray’s demise, but those plans were dashed when Hurricane Iniki ravaged the movie’s location shoot in Kauai, Hawaii, destroying several key sets. So all Ray gets as a send-off is a severed limb; eventually Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) brings the power back, though the park is quickly abandoned.

Jurassic Park isn’t just a story about the misuse of science; it’s also a narrative of late capitalism, where technological breakthroughs are devoted not to curing diseases or ending conflict, but to resurrecting extinct species as the centerpiece of an amusement park. Hammond’s core philosophy is showmanship, not advancement. Even though he claims the park will be open to all, Hammond has no understanding of how that would be achieved, just as he has no real sense of the dangers involved in bringing dinosaurs back. As the mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) puts it, Hammond created this park simply because he could. That’s the cause that Ray, and other park employees, lose their lives for. In the end, Ray winds up as a line item on a bank statement; the film’s 1997 sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, notes that his family successfully sued the park for $23 million.

In both Jurassic Park and its eventual sequel Jurassic World (which depicts a more-functional park that later goes off the rails), I always find myself drawn to the scenes set in the control room. After all, even the most opulent production needs its technicians, the people behind the curtain who long ago got used to the incredible, terrifying show they’re helping to cue up for paying visitors. The movie’s viewers, too, are at the circus, and Ray Arnold is there to keep things in check, to remind everyone to hold on to their butts—the sort of noble, necessary work that too often goes ignored.