I saw the first Jurassic Park movie the day it came out. We spent hours waiting in line to get into the special midnight showing at a theater that billed itself as the “largest screen west of the Mississippi.” The anticipation was palpable as we played cards, read books, and talked to our fellow moviegoers about what we were about to see. Some had read the book and knew what to expect. I hadn’t, but their excitement served only to pump up my own even more.
Watching that film on that screen with a house full of excited fans, all of whom were viewing it for the first time ever, was one of the greatest movie-watching experiences of my life. We were all shocked together; we all screamed together; we all felt the constant rise and fall of tension together. The climactic sequence in which the two velociraptors hunt Lex and Tim through the park’s kitchen, nearly killing the children over and over, was the tensest few minutes of film I’ve ever felt. There is no doubt we were all in a group mind by that time, entranced after two hours of thrills and kills.
It has been over 20 years since that night, and after a long hiatus, the series is making its return to the big screen. Obviously, I have very fond memories of the first movie, but I hadn’t seen any of them in well over a decade. So my wife and I recently did a little binge watching of the trilogy to catch ourselves up and prepare to see Jurassic World when it comes out this weekend. What I found this time was that I’m older, and the movies are no longer just about dinosaurs and danger. There are some deeper threads running through them that speak of real problems we humans have in our relationships to each other and, more pointedly, to the natural world.
The first thread involves our relationship with money. In every film, there is someone who trusts in his money to protect him through the dangers of the park, and that trust propels the death and destruction that ensues. John Hammond, the park’s creator, repeatedly uses the mantra “spare no expense” in describing the electrified fences, security precautions, and scientific advancements that he intends to use to keep visitors safe. Of course, he is frightfully wrong about each and every one.
The Lost World features Hammond’s nephew, Peter, who uses “Site B” as his own personal big game hunting ground and seeks to exploit the dangerous animals for the sake of his shareholders. He loads the island with all he can buy- more weapons, more vehicles, more equipment. The third movie brings Paul Kirby, who uses his savings to fool the experts into helping him save his son. In both movies, money saves no one, and its misuse leads to disastrous consequences.
There is a hubris suggested by the films, a hubris fueled by a fat wallet. These men expect their profligate spending to keep them safe and to place them somehow higher on the dinosaur food chain. Even the “nice” ones still expect their funds to elevate them, and they find out that carnivorous reptiles have very little respect for your bank account. It suggests that our relationship with money in our society is out of whack, that we believe that having money makes us superior to others. You can see this vividly in Lost World, when the group is separated from its leader. Wealthy Peter, the financer of the expedition, tries to order his group to get up and move. Nobody listens. It is only when Nick, who has earned the team’s respect, asks them to move out that they comply.
There is nothing wrong with money, but the trap comes when we feel it elevates us above others. The events of Jurassic Park are an extreme example, but they ring true. Wealth becomes dangerous when people will stop at nothing to achieve it or exploit it. Much like breeding dinosaurs, wealth demands responsibility.
Another thread that winds its way throughout the franchise is a trend of anti-intellectualism. As soon as the scientists realize what is truly going on in this new amusement park, they begin to sound the warning bells. The park establishment laughs them off. The same is true when the mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm urges caution based on chaos theory.
In every case, in each film, scientist characters are called in for their expertise. And in every case whenever they issue a warning – and they do this often – those who hired them completely ignore what is actually very sound advice. Their academic, research-based knowledge is ignored, mainly because these intellectuals are a bunch of Debbie Downers.
This is a constant theme in society. Scientists state their conclusions, but no one listens to them. The most obvious real world example is climate change. Researchers have been sounding that alarm for decades, and yet we still have people in power, usually motivated by the hubris of wealth, who refuse to believe the overwhelming evidence. I see it every day here in California, where we are under the weight of a severe drought, yet every day I see lawn sprinklers sewing their precious liquid all over the sidewalk.
Where scientists seek objective evidence for the truth, the public wants to hear whatever supports their preexisting biases.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of perfect prophecy. What she predicted always came true. Yet she was cursed so that no one would ever believe her. In Jurassic Park, much like in the real world, scientists become the world’s Cassandra. They keep screaming at us to change our ways, but that’s way too hard, so we harm ourselves by continuing our unsustainable patterns. The monster that gets us may not be as dramatic as a T-Rex, but it could be much more devastating.
But maybe the most important thread in these movies is humanity’s profound separation from nature. Historians like Ronald Hutton have suggested that one of the reasons neo-pagan religions developed was because industrialization alienated humanity from the natural world and its cycles. Over 100 years after the Industrial Revolution, we find ourselves even more divorced from the natural world.
Since we live in concrete oases and buy our food from packages in supermarkets, we have little connection to how our actions affect the planet. A couple months ago, I wrote about how the destruction of wolves in Yellowstone caused a chain of events which threatened to destroy the beautiful park. Shortly afterward, this touching video began circulating around Facebook:
It shows how just the re-introduction of a small pack of wolves to the park caused a “trophic cascade” which improved multiple ecosystems within the park. This is the kind of thing the Ian Malcolm character warns about in both of the first two films. You can’t fuck with nature. You can’t underestimate it. You can’t control it. Small alterations cascade into huge problems. The changes caused by everyday human actions may be imperceptible, but they add up over time, and the Jurassic films hit that note repeatedly.
We get enamored with our ingenuity, but we often don’t see the eventual damage. As Malcolm says in Lost World, “Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.”
These three films came out in a different time. Much has changed since part three was released in summer, 2001. And yet, these three problems are still around. If anything, I fear they have gotten worse. Wealth is still abused. Scientists are still ignored on issues that are vital to our very survival. The average person’s connection to the earth’s natural cycles, where their food comes from, and the effects of their own actions is still woefully inadequate.
We have more distractions now, though. We have more to divert our attention from any of these issues. I don’t know if the upcoming Jurassic World will continue to explore these themes. I hope it does, but I also hope it modernizes them. The story is supposed to take place many years after the first three films. I hope that it gives us another chance to look at ourselves over the past 20 years and find our priorities. Like Lex and Tim fleeing raptors in the kitchen, we have a maze to navigate in our world, and we may be out of our depth. We need to avoid the running and the screaming.