Halftime Leisure

Jurassic World’s High Hopes

December 8, 2014

Though barely a blip on the geological timescale compared to its 65 million year-old subjects, the Jurassic Park film franchise turned 21 this year—and it couldn’t have picked a better way to celebrate than by releasing the first trailer for Jurassic World, a fourth installment hitting theaters next June. Based on the 1990 science thriller by Michael Crichton, the original film was followed by The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1998) and Jurassic Park III (2001). Though mired in development hell for years and almost canceled after Crichton’s death in 2008, Jurassic World, helmed by director Colin Trevorrow, has set anticipation higher than a pterosaur on patrol. (And if you think that alliterates, it’s time to bone up on your dinosaur knowledge.)

As a lifelong dinosaur fan and an active patron of the Jurassic World rumor-mill over the past few months, I went into the trailer with plenty of expectations. Despite the example of another recent scaly monster movie whose first trailer surpassed the eventual product, I am cautiously optimistic that the possibilities teased in the first look at Jurassic World bode well for the franchise—and almost as well for its fans.

First, the good. Jurassic World is set 22 years after the events of the first film and takes place within a fully-operational Pacific-island-based dinosaur amusement park. Replete with varnished CGI, the trailer depicts a technically advanced facility—including the iconic gate from the first film cleverly reimagined as a monorail checkpoint, spherical windowed pods for up-close-and-personal dinosaur appreciation, and an enormous lagoon arena in which prehistoric ocean-going behemoths consume whole sharks in a single bite to the “oohs” and “aahs” of smartphone-wielding tourists.

The film’s contemporary setting cleverly sets it up to comment on certain of the corporate, biotechnical, bioethical, and, indeed, cinematic issues of our time. According to a May interview with Trevorrow, the park is owned and operated by the sinisterly named Masrani Global Corporation. We can thus probably expect a critical perspective on the reckless behavior of today’s moneymaking enterprises—which, as recent history shows, don’t always work in the masses’ best interests when there’s a profit to be turned. After all, we know the dinos are getting out somehow—it has to be somebody’s fault.

Crichton’s novels and the first two JP films have already delved deeply into the biological and technological quagmires that underlie resurrecting extinct animals for lucrative gains. At first blush, Jurassic World looks poised to address something that’s always bothered me about the original films, which I’m terming the “Jaws Effect” after Steven Spielberg’s heavy involvement in both film franchises (he returns as the executive producer for Jurassic World). The Jaws Effect refers to the complete villainization of the main animal adversary of a film in defiance of any rational understanding of animal behavior. Of course, I don’t deny that no movie could reasonably star a toothy T.rex and cunning velociraptors without casting them as audience-terrifying antagonists. After all, portraying dinos as killers is what enabled the now-iconic escapes, car chases, snacking on hapless humans, and one very tense game of hide-and-seek for which the films are famous.

But I’ve always been dissatisfied with JP’s depiction of its dinos as single-minded killers thirsty for human blood. Despite being genetically engineered and raised in captivity, they should still behave roughly the way modern animals do. Instead, upon escaping their pens, they rampage and hunt humans down with unnaturally single-minded intent. This pattern becomes especially onerous by the third film, in which a massive spinosaurus pursues our heroes through the jungle with purposefulness that borders on obsessive. But come on. What kind of dinosaur, especially a giant predator, would voluntarily spend its time and energy stalking people when slower and more docile plant-eating dinos abound? Surely a sauropod steak or a galloping gallimimus is infinitely preferable to a few scrawny humans.

No, JP’s Jaws Effect doesn’t quite pass the straight-faced test. Luckily, the Jurassic World trailer hints that, behind the thronging tourists, we may see some genuine engagement with dinosaurs as animals that aren’t just eating machines. Owen, played by Chris Pratt (a veteran of a different Park-centric medium), was long-rumored to be a sort of behavioral biologist hired to work with the park’s velociraptors. In one of the trailer’s most interesting revelations, he’s seen riding a motorcycle through darkened jungle flanked by several raptors, which appear to have been released intentionally and are running with him rather than after him. The idea of trainable raptors gestures promisingly at a possible depiction of dinosaurs as animals that behave like animals, rather than like monsters that exist only to terrify.

Biology aside, the franchise has also considered the theme of corporatism, especially corporate espionage. (Remember Dennis Nedry?). But now that the park has opened, new questions arise. With dinosaur breeding now commercially viable, who else might be interested in getting their hands the technology? And for what nefarious purposes could it be adapted? Given recent criticism of the practices of some animal-themed amusement parks, like SeaWorld, what might PETA have to say about the ethics of not only growing dinosaurs but keeping them in captivity as well? Maybe we’ll find out.

More concretely, the trailer teases a question that will hopefully form the backbone of the film: what happens when fictional audiences get bored or disenchanted with genetically engineered dinosaurs, as they have with so many other modern technologies? By way of response, the film further fleshes out the role of a modified hybrid dino rumored to go by the name D-rex that was confirmed as part of the film by Trevorrow in May. Though information about it remains sparse—limited to a large tooth lodged in a destroyed vehicle, a few seconds of stomping feet, and Pratt’s declaration that the creature is “highly intelligent”—the Internet is abuzz with possibilities.

Whatever form it eventually takes, a hybrid dinosaur raises two issues. The first is the role of scientists in both the JP films and Hollywood in general. In the trailer, we get a voice-over from Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a geneticist who helped create D-rex and boasts of having “learned more in the past decade from genetics than a century of digging up bones.” Piggybacking off the scientific themes of 19th century novels—think Frankenstein—and budding science fiction, Hollywood has for decades delighted in depicting scientists as either ethically unbarred, condescending, progress-oriented technocrats (like Jurassic Park head geneticist Dr. Henry Wu from the first film) or morally irrelevant action heroes (like Dr. Alan Grant, the first film’s paleontologist protagonist). Of course, such scientists aren’t entirely fiction. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller both strongly supported nuclear weapons, the latter inspiring Dr. Strangelove, the 1964 satire of MAD. But the scientific community has been fictionally saddled with enough reckless egomania or moral softness that the prototypical “evil scientist” has become an instantly recognizable trope. If Jurassic World follows suit, arraying its scientists on one side of the ethical equation and their hubristically bred prehistoric creations on the other, things may not bode well for Claire and her colleagues. And far worse than villainizing its scientists, JP all-too-often turns them into stock action-heroes who rely on physicality—that is, running away from dinosaurs like ninnies—to solve problems.

Pratt’s character may offer a moderate solution. Despite his scientific background, Owen appears in the trailer as a down-to-earth realist with few delusions about park’s dangers. Making Owen a hands-on scientist rather than a theoretical egghead both provides a more credible action hero and acknowledges the fact that a more relatable and genuine understanding of animals often comes from interacting with them in the flesh rather than sequencing their genetic codes.

The second issue raised by D-rex supersedes the first, at least as far as the film’s audience and critic-pleasing capacities go. To put it bluntly: will a made-up dino make for a good villain? One of the big reasons JP succeeds in terrifying is because of the plausibility it brings to the idea of prehistoric beasts running amok in our modern world. Though the science is suspect, the movies draw credibility from the fact that these animals once actually lived. Despite many cinematic embellishments, it’s worth appreciating that no other monster movie franchise that doesn’t involve modern animals (Jaws and its ilk) can match JP’s particular brand of realism. It’s much harder for audiences to suspend their disbelief about a radiation-breathing Godzilla and extraterrestrial terrors of the kind that populate Alien (1979), Cloverfield (2008), or Super 8 (2011). Whether a fictionalized dino holds the same antagonistic sway as its predecessors will likely depend on how well it exploits dinosaurs’ built-in terror factor while cultivating it in creative new ways. Fingers crossed.

The trailer isn’t all perfect, especially insofar as the science goes. Movies rarely are (cf. Interstellar). But they do often successfully disseminate at least some accurate or progressive scientific ideas among the general public. As one paleontologist recently pointed out, the first JP film caused a revolution in scientific and public interest in dinosaurs. But scientific thinking has evolved since 1993 in ways that Jurassic World fails to reflect. Modern paleontological evidence, for instance, suggests that nearly every dinosaur was fully feathered. (For example, here’s the iconic final shot of the T-rex from the first JP film with feathers added). While T. rexes that look like big chickens probably wouldn’t thrill audiences, Jurassic World’s fully plucked dinos represent an undeniable betrayal of the franchise’s legacy

Nevertheless, the fact that some paleontologists were moved to voice their concerns at all articulates the series’ enduringly potent role in the American cinematic and cultural canon. Sure, the film will probably end up a rip-roaring scarefest designed to terrify audiences and recoup the millions spent to produce it. Yes, cheap toys, video games, and other franchise-obligated junk will abound. But so will, hopefully, a renewed fascination with understanding scientifically how dinosaurs actually lived, and maybe even a better appreciation for the people who dedicate their lives to that pursuit.

In the end, the trailer did exactly what it was supposed to do. Jurassic World promises to give audiences genuine questions of technocracy, corporatism, and bioethics to gnaw on—and maybe something for film critics to sink their teeth into as well. But all that comes later; for now, consider our appetites whetted.

Photos: cinemablend.com, datainfox.com, forbes.com

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