Monday, June 15, 2015

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

Universal Pictures
I had intended to break my (relatively) long silence with a piece on the pitfalls of confusing research infrastructure with big science. But instead, I’ve ended up writing about Jurassic World. Go figure.

I’ll put my cards on the table straight away; I didn’t have high hopes for this movie and my instincts were right. Despite the relentless noise, roaring, shouting, running, etc., I actually dozed off about halfway through. Colin Trevorrow may be a highly competent director, but he’s no Steven Spielberg.

Which is a pity, because there was at least the kernel of a good film here. The idea of a world where genetically de-extincted dinosaurs are so commonplace that you have to engineer fake ones to meet the public’s demand for new thrills is an interesting one, and also quite meta given that this is exactly what the Jurassic Park movie franchise felt it had to do to drum up an audience. The massive figures for the opening weekend suggest that it’s a winning formula.

Look beyond this, and there are some more worrying things that emerge. Others have written more eloquently than I can about the clumsy misogyny represented by the portrayal of the main female character as a career driven ice-queen who can’t relate to kids and needs to be humanized by exposure to a real man. Knowing my daughter and her friends were watching made me feel a bit queasy about the message being conveyed; yeah, a woman can have an important job, but real fulfillment will only come when she gets herself a man and a family.

Clare Dearing is certainly no Ellie Sattler, but then there’s no Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World against which to measure her, and precious few scientists of any description. In the previous Jurassic Park movies, the scientists were the heroes. In this one, we have an ex-military dog-whisperer, which says a lot about where we’ve gone since the last JP movie came out, in July of 2001. Yes, we still boo the military-industrial complex – represented by Vincent D’Onofrio’s character – but now we want our leading men to come with the approved stamp of heroism that only Serving Your Country can bring.

Owen Grady may talk a lot about Alphas and pack structure, but this is animal behavior reduced to the level of understanding of the guy that teaches obedience classes for your dog. In Jurassic World, “science” is represented by the geneticist, Henry Wu; a character far more reptilian than the things he cooks up in his lab. Wu is not so much villainous as completely lacking a conscience; in one of the better moments of the film, he is asked why he has created the monstrous creature that is running amok in the park. “Because that’s what you wanted,” he says, or words to that effect. More teeth. Cooler. The fact that it is also lethally dangerous is not Wu’s problem.

And that, in a nutshell, is the message of Jurassic World. Science generates a genetically modified organism and releases it into the world with no concern for the troubles it may cause; deciding whether such a thing is right or wrong is not what scientists do. It’s left to an ordinary guy who understands, in a vague, gut-driven sense, that animals are sentient beings and not “assets” (to use the Park’s terminology) to save the day for humanity. This is a far cry from the original Michael Crichton novel, which argued that only scientific theory can critique and predict the perils and pitfalls of turning reconstructed dinosaurs into tourist attractions.

My colleagues in museums around the country are looking forward to cashing in on a new wave of dinosaur popularity, and for this I guess we have to show some gratitude to Jurassic World. But the overwhelming message that the movie leaves you with is that science is a dangerously amoral pursuit that is no substitute for a good old boy on a motorcycle who can relate to “raptors.” Given thelevels of public skepticism about the motives of scientists, I’m not sure this is something we should be embracing.