Frankensaurus Strikes Back

When the trailer for Jurassic World was released in November, I wrote a blog post arguing that science fiction texts need to take a more sophisticated approach to the representation of genetic modification. This doesn’t necessarily mean that texts should blindly promote science – after all, the role of SF is to critique science, even as it explores its consequences – but I wanted something a little more mature than the old “monster of the week” approach. It turns out that no one listened to me. If you want to see a movie about a monster attacking people, welcome to Jurassic World.

Minor spoilers and a bit of ranting ahead…

Conveniently, the entire plot of the film is presented in the trailer:

And in case you didn’t get it, it’s also the exact plot of the original movie. Two privileged but socially awkward children are sent to Isla Nublar to stay with their aunt, who manages the park. We know that, because her white suit reminds us of John Hammond from the first film. See what they did there? She also has sexual tension with Chris Pratt, who plays the role of Chris Pratt to perfection. In order to thrill the increasingly hard-to-please modern audiences, the science boffins on the island have created a genetically modified hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex. Of course, the hybrid escapes and goes around slaughtering other dinosaurs. Chaos ensues. And then there’s the evil InGen people, who want to use trained velociraptors for military operations. The moral lesson remains the same from the original: playing God is bad, guys.

I wanted this movie to be good, I honestly did. The theatre was crowded with people, and so many of them around my age were wearing faded Jurassic Park shirts. The excitement as the film began was palpable, but – sadly – so was the disappointment at the end. The original film overwhelmed us with its visions of a dinosaur theme park; Jurassic World did little more than retread familiar ground.

But I can’t deny that I liked parts of the film. The familiar locations and John Williams’s score were blasts of nostalgia. (I wrote last week about nostalgia in films – Hollywood has obviously realized the dollar value of endlessly regurgitating our collective childhoods.) Chris Pratt has some terrible dialogue, but he’s Chris Pratt and his goofy face makes me forget about all the problems in the world. The dinosaur carnage provided visceral thrills. There’s some genuine SF sense-of-wonder moments. The velociraptors continue to steal the show. Also, did I mention Chris Pratt?

Hang on, aren't Great White Sharks a threatened species? Why are we feeding them to dinosaurs?
Hang on, aren’t Great White Sharks a threatened species? Why are we feeding them to dinosaurs? Because SCIENCE.

At times, the film feels awkwardly self-conscious. Indominus Rex is created because the park’s visitors want “bigger, louder, more teeth,” a not-so-subtle dig at modern film audiences. It also feels like some of the references to the original film were placed there just to inspire nostalgia.

Yet this film has a different focus to the rest of the franchise. I like Jurassic Park, and even The Lost World, because they were movies about dinosaurs. They were about people bringing an extinct species back to life and learning the consequences of playing God. Most importantly, the dinosaurs were treated like animals. When the park fences are deactivated, they behave like confused wild animals, falling back on their natural instincts. This depiction helped audiences understand that dinosaurs weren’t the slow, lumbering beasts they’d previously thought. But Jurassic World isn’t about dinosaurs – it’s about monsters.

Indominus Rex is the product of whatever shitty animals they threw into a blender. Seriously. It’s like Colonel Sander’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices over at Isla Nublar. She has the camouflage ability of a cuttlefish, the infrared vision of a pit adder, and the thermoregulation of a tree frog (yes, seriously) that allows her to confuse attempts at thermal tracking. The frustrating thing is that these abilities aren’t utilized enough throughout the story. Indominus Rex uses her camouflage ability once, then it never happens again in the film. What else could she do? Laser eyes? Roast a pig in her mouth?

For all its genetic modification, Indominus Rex looks like just another dinosaur.
For all its genetic modification, Indominus Rex looks like just another dinosaur.

Most importantly, Indominus Rex is intelligent. She remembers where they implanted her tracking device and manages to remove it. She hunts for sport. There’s a real sense of malevolence in her actions, something the other dinosaurs are lacking.

The most cynical part of me wonders if Indominus Rex was cooked up because someone had a great idea for a new Hasbro toy. “It’s a T-rex with long arms!”

The whole monster movie thing felt really derivative. It doesn’t add anything new to the genre. Especially when it’s simply monsters vs dinosaurs. I saw Gareth Edward’s Godzilla in the same movie theatre last year. Perhaps it was that memory bursting forth from my subconscious, but I kept expecting Ken Watanabe to appear on screen and say that epic line: “Let them fight!”

I swear in about 20 years, no one will be able to remember if this scene was from Godzilla or Jurassic World. They should've just recycled footage from Godzilla to save money.
I swear in about 20 years, no one will be able to remember if this scene was from Godzilla or Jurassic World. They should’ve just recycled footage from Godzilla to save money.

I had some major problems with the characters. The older kid, Generic American Teen Actor #5, goes around staring at women like a young Norman Bates. He’s also got a girlfriend back home, who serves no purpose in the film except to remind us that this guy is a jerk. As if we don’t know that, he also treats his younger brother like crap. I guess you could say it’s part of his character arc, but I am not that generous. Irrfan Khan, playing the role of park owner, Simon Masrani, has very little impact on the overall plot – I am wondering why he wasn’t developed further.

Also, how could Bryce Dallas Howard outrun a T-rex whilst wearing heels? Even Jeff Goldblum couldn’t outrun a T-rex, and (to quote my friend Garreth) he “had a 100m head start and brundlefly powers.” Truth.

I’ve also noticed a pattern to velociraptor attacks. If you’re a no-name redshirt, the raptor attacks you in a blur of claws and teeth – you’re dead. But if you’re a main cast member, the raptor will dance around in front of you, preparing to pounce, giving you valuable seconds  to run away or be rescued by a deus ex machina. It gets tiring after a while.

Moving on to more serious analysis, there’s been extensive debate on various sites about the movie’s use of wrong science. We now know that many dinosaurs had feathers. Should this be reflected in the films?

Despite my general grumpiness surrounding this film, this issue doesn’t bother me. I’ve written numerous times before that I don’t expect science fiction to have accurate science. Scientific verisimilitude often stifles a good plot. But when scientific verisimilitude and good plot are both missing, that’s when I despair. The genre isn’t meant to be an educational tool; more than anything, it should function as a critical mirror of society. So, no, I’m not fussed that the dinosaurs don’t have feathers. They didn’t have feathers back in Jurassic Park, and I am happy that they chose to preserve the continuity of the franchise. And they can easily explain it away as an outcome of their hybridization process.

CHRIS PRATT!
CHRIS PRATT!

But what about the representation of genetic modification? The franchise has always walked a fine line with its depiction of science. None of the films explicitly suggest that genetic modification is a bad thing, but they show what happens when scientific experimentation is motivated by corporate greed. Science can be corrupted.

There is a strong dialectic between natural and unnatural running through the narrative. And it’s here that the film begins to fall apart under serious scrutiny. Chris Pratt’s character, Owen, warns that combining genetic traits to form a hybrid is a “not a good idea” (this is an understatement). It is an imprecise science; they don’t know which genetic traits will be dominant. Indominus Rex is an unnatural creation, a malevolent identity, something that is treated differently to the “natural” dinosaurs in the park (T-rex, velociraptors, etc). Frankensaurus seems like an appropriate name, especially as it turns on its creators. Yet they seem to forget that all of the dinosaurs in the park are hybrids – a result of the scientists filling the gaps in their genetic sequences with frog DNA. There’s nothing natural here. Indominus Rex is simply the latest in a long line of genetic experiments.

I was hoping for something more sophisticated, something that spoke of an mature perspective on genetic modification. Jurassic Park was successful because it raised ethical questions about bringing extinct species back to life. But Jurassic World gives us just another monster. The film reinforces the negative public perception of genetically modified organisms without adding anything fresh to the debate.

It says a lot about this film that most of my critical discussion about its subject is in the post I wrote after first watching its trailer. So go read that. I’ll go find my old Jurassic Park action figures and film them on my iPhone and see if I can resurrect the glory days.

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2 comments

  1. It’s disappointing when bad science defeats even my most affectionate nostalgia for a movie. The first “Jurassic Park” came out when I was seven; as a typical dinosaur-obsessed kid, I couldn’t get enough of it. I saw the 20th anniversary re-release in the theater a few years ago and, despite feeling reeeeeally old, still enjoyed it immensely. What does the new “Jurassic World” offer that the original didn’t (besides the entertaining Chris Pratt and more sophisticated dinosaur effects)? The franchise already tackled the dark consequences of genetic engineering; it would have been been more interesting to explore the positive side. Genetically modified crops, for example, still suffer from terrible public perception, despite many studies showing both their safety and their potential to solve global food crises. Discourse among we non-scientists would have benefitted from some fresh thoughts on genetic engineering. But sadly, science is once again just a flimsy pretense for building a better monster. Come on, Hollywood, I did that when I was seven! No, seriously, I did. I had one of those dinosaur skeleton kits and spent many happy hours inventing my own species from the various bones: a sauropod neck with T-Rex legs and a parasaurolophus skull, or stegosaurus plates on a triceratops. If that’s all it takes to make a blockbuster dinosaur movie these days, I demand my overdue Oscar!

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