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An Ode to Dr. Ian Malcolm

The Tyrannosaurus rex is the centerpiece of ‘Jurassic Park,’ but a reclining, almost shirtless “chaotician” may be its most enduring image

Ringer illustration

Ahead of the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, join us as we pay homage to the franchise and the beasts who dominate it. Welcome to Dinosaur Day!

The pose likely wasn’t planned. Before one take of the Jurassic Park scene in which Dr. Ian Malcolm is sprawled out on a table nursing an injured leg, Jeff Goldblum slightly tweaked his character’s look. “There was no discussion ahead of time like, ‘Jeff’s gonna have his shirt open,’” says costumer Mitchell Kenney. “We just got to set and Jeff unbuttoned his shirt a little bit. And everybody was just OK with it.”

The ensuing shot of Goldblum—bare-chested, blood-spattered, sporting a 5 o’clock shadow—is among the most memorable images in a movie featuring a host of realistic, computer-generated dinosaurs.

There’s a reason for that: In Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, Ian Malcolm is as important as the Tyrannosaurus rex. If a world where prehistoric animals have been brought back from extinction is going to feel real, there needs to be a true skeptic. The self-titled “chaotician” fills that role. But Malcolm hasn’t endured just because he’s the voice of reason. His arrogance, wisdom, self-assuredness, sexiness, caddishness, and sense of humor makes him the franchise’s most interesting character. Now six films into the series, he’s still a fan favorite.

“I don’t know if they could’ve cast a better guy for that role,” Kenney says of Goldblum, who is appearing in Jurassic World: Dominion along with several of his costars from the original. “Because in a lot of ways, Jeff is really like that.”

According to Goldblum, Malcolm almost never made it to the big-screen adaptation of Jurassic Park. He told Entertainment Weekly in 2013 that Spielberg considered combining Malcolm and Sam Neill’s paleontologist, Dr. Alan Grant, into one character. The director, thankfully, decided against that. (Also in the running to play Malcolm: a pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Jim Carrey.)

In Michael Crichton’s novel, Malcolm isn’t quite as dynamic as Goldblum’s version of him. The character, who’s more cowardly on the page than in the movie, doesn’t survive the book. Still, the actor had lots of material to work with. Take, for example, Malcolm’s signature fit, which he considered perfect for the heat of an island off the coast of Costa Rica. “If you remember your black-body radiation, black is actually best in heat. Efficient radiation,” the character says in the bestseller. “In any case, I only wear two colors, black and gray. … I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.”

The costume department of Jurassic Park outfitted Goldblum, who’d dressed similarly—and for similar reasons—in The Fly, with tinted black-rim glasses, black pants, and a black shirt. Malcolm’s wardrobe is in direct opposition to park founder John Hammond’s. His black leather coat came from the actor’s own closet.

“Steven wanted Hammond to be all in white because he was a believer,” Kenney says. “He believed that everything was gonna be great. Jeff’s character was more pessimistic about things. So he would all be in black. Jeff kind of chimed in that he didn’t think Malcolm’s character would be bothered with trends. There was talk about him all being in gray at one point, too. That he should be in all black or all gray. He wore a uniform.”

Kenney adds that while it may have seemed strange to have Goldblum wear a leather jacket in a tropical climate, there was thought behind it. “If you start off with layers,” he says, “there are different looks that you can have and maneuver through that day.”

Malcolm’s look is iconic, but there’s more to him than his chest hair. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and actor, the movie’s smarmy know-it-all could easily have become a profoundly unlikable character. He does have his sleazy moments, whether he’s hitting on Laura Dern’s paleobotanist, Dr. Ellie Sattler, or sipping from a flask and telling Grant that he’s “always on the lookout for the future ex-Mrs. Malcolm.” But what inoculates the audience to the unsavory parts of his personality is that, well, he’s right all the time. (And he’ll tell you as much.) Early in the film, he excoriates Hammond over a lunch of Chilean sea bass for having the gall to clone dinosaurs. “Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here?” he says. “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen. But you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.” He ends his rant with this: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And his most prescient, famous line comes when he openly expresses doubt about the Jurassic Park scientists’ claim that the all-female dinosaurs can’t breed. “Life, uh,” he says, “finds a way.”

A guy saying “I told you so” all the time might be more annoying if he weren’t so damn funny. Like when he matter-of-factly comments on the mound of dino droppings staring him in the face. Or his reaction to Hammond comparing the deadly chaos at his new park to Disneyland’s early glitches. “But if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down,” Malcolm says, “the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

Malcolm also gets to be a hero when he risks life and limb to distract the T. rex trying to eat Hammond’s grandchildren. The gnarly broken leg he suffers in the scene lays him up for the rest of the movie, but the character’s sidelining in the third act didn’t stop Goldblum from promoting the movie heavily. During some of his Jurassic Park press campaign interviews, it’s hard to tell whether he’s still in character. Consider this exchange, on Larry King Live, about whether people were going to see Jurassic Park for the human actors or the dinosaurs:

Larry King: “Do you feel like we’re second to them? You drive down, you see the crowd that’s around the block, do you say to yourself, ‘There’s a crowd for Goldblum?’ or ‘There’s a crowd for brontosaurus?’”

Goldblum: “I am humble by nature. And I can’t imagine that people don’t want to flock to see Sam Neill, and Laura Dern, and Richard Attenborough. Although it’s true the dinosaurs are spectacular.”

Because velociraptors don’t have good comic timing, Goldblum hosted Saturday Night Live in October 1993. Naturally, his monologue made fun of (and acknowledged the runaway success of) Jurassic Park, which that month shattered the worldwide box office record.

Malcolm made such an impression on audiences in the movie that Crichton brought him back from the dead in his 1995 sequel novel, The Lost World. And when it came time to develop the follow-up to the original film, Spielberg made the chaos theorist the story’s protagonist. In 1997, a year after starring with Will Smith in the mega-hit Independence Day, Goldblum reprised the Malcolm role for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. This time, he had an equally monochromatic wardrobe and less hair. But he was even more of a hero in the sequel than in the first movie.

The Lost World didn’t measure up to Jurassic Park, but it was still a huge hit. Alas, Goldblum’s days as a brainy action hero were numbered. Malcolm didn’t appear in 2001’s Jurassic Park III.

Still, over the next 20 years, Malcolm’s legend grew. The shirtless version of him became a meme. And a Funko Pop. And in 2018, a 25-foot balloon sculpture in London. None of that seemed to surprise Goldblum. “People come up to me and they have tattoos of my character on their arm and their buttocks,” he told EW that spring. “They make shower curtains out of my character and paintings out of my character.”

It was only a matter of time before Goldblum made his way back to the franchise. Jurassic Park without Ian Malcolm is like Jurassic Park without the T. rex: a hell of a lot less fun. In a world where the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen has been let loose on the unsuspecting population, his wisdom is invaluable. Even if no one listens to him at first.

In June 2018, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom hit theaters with Goldblum in the cast, but he appeared in only a few scenes, mostly to warn the world that their mission to save the imperiled dinosaurs was, well, unwise. The glorified cameo naturally annoyed fans who wanted more of their hero. Now, four years later, he’s returning with a larger role in Dominion.

Life, after all, finds a way.