The Paradox of Progress
Gertie the Dinosaur by Windsor McCay (1914)
In Jurassic World, all modern concepts have merged with their opposite, so nothing is able to change
Both scientific and fantastical, both very old and totally new, both a vicious predator and a man-made object of consumption, the dinosaur is the emblem of modern contradiction. Since their discovery in 19th century industrial Europe, thousands of pieces of these giant dragon-like animals have been unearthed and reassembled in the name of natural history. In film, they now serve as a symbol for the power of computer generated images. But a century before that, their skeletons were exhibited at imperial spectacles and world fairs in Europe and North America where they stood as a monstrous metaphor for the mythic force called progress.
Associated with the power to wipe out giants like Brachiosaurus, kings like T-Rex, even whole ecosystems, this progress — an amalgam of evolution and history — was made responsible for the very modern fantasy of extinction which is able to break the linear flow of time, dividing it into before and after. The display of massive dinosaur skeletons proved that for these creatures the catastrophe of extinction had already happened, and it positioned the modern spectator as the survivor of extinction. More importantly, it also suggested that imperial science stood above both of these positions. In the colonial centers of the 19th century, science rose to become a mythological institution, claiming, paradoxically, that it was able to document the events of natural history from the outside, while at the same time being itself an agent of the quasi-natural, quasi-historical force called progress. Displayed alongside colonized and conquered peoplesW.J.T. Mitchell gives a great overview about the multiple connections between dinosaur culture at the American frontier in The Last Dinosaur Book, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998, dinosaur skeletons became an implicit warning of where you end up when your role in the tall tale of natural history is not that of researcher, protagonist or pioneer, but the role of the research object, the trophy, the enemy.
By now, however, the era of dinosaur skeletons seems to have ended, at least according to the virtual spectacle of Jurassic Park. In the final battle of Steven Spielberg’s original 1993 movie, the prominent T-Rex skeleton in the theme park’s foyer falls apart as a computer generated T-Rex throws a computer generated velociraptor right into it. Since then, references to dinosaur bones have more or less disappeared from the franchise. In the recently released fourth sequel Jurassic World, the theme park’s entrance hall is decorated with holograms. The absence of dinosaur skeletons in Jurassic World corresponds with another shift: For the first time in the history of this franchise, none of the main characters is a paleontologist or any other kind of natural scientist. The only scientist in Jurassic World is the theme park’s chief bio-engineer, a minor role. It is he who produced the “genetically modified hybrid” Indominus Rex, the central monster of the movie, and as he has a deal with the films main villain, he is not one of the good guys.
In the original Jurassic Park, the character responsible for creating the monster was sympathetic capitalist and naïve American dreamer John Hammond, who started out with a flea circus and eventually became the owner of a dinosaur zoo. The heir to Hammond’s vision in Jurassic World is Simon Masrani, the Indian owner of a global empire of innovative tech and “sustainable fuel” companies that has incorporated the dinosaur-producing tech enterprise InGenSee the promotional site here. While indulging his eccentric hobby of flying the park’s helicopter, Masrani tries to convince Claire Dearing, the female lead and theme park operations manager, that his involvement is not all about money: “Jurassic World exists to remind us how very small we are. You can’t put a price on that,” he says. Masrani is one of the good guys, but, unlike the white grandpa Hammond from the original, he does not survive. By the middle of the film, he has been sacrificed to the spectacle, crashing his helicopter into a dinosaur cage while failing to save the park.
Masrani’s person is rendered dispensable for the bigger picture, but his contradictory vision remains. His argument that it’s not all about money is a knowing in-joke by the screenwriters, easy for a critical viewer to interpret: obviously Jurassic World is about money, the real blockbuster franchise as much as the fictional theme park. Everything associated with Jurassic Park has always been for profit, including tons of onscreen merchandise whose offscreen distribution prove to be a very successful branding strategy. In the 1990s, Universal Studios even launched an aggressive campaign against all unauthorized copying of dinosaur gimmicks: “If it’s not Jurassic Park, it’s extinct.” See Constance Balides’s 2000 work “Jurassic post-Fordism: tall tales of economics in the theme park” for more.
But Masrani was also right: We are small people in a big theme park, tiny spectators in a big corporate world. Since the natural history exhibit has been taken over by computer generated images, the position of the modern spectator isn’t safe anymore. We are children, the most vulnerable, the most profitable target group alive, or at least we used to be children and our dinosaur childhood memories are now put to work as brand loyalty. In Jurassic World, before the disaster, a disembodied voice announces, “This show might be disturbing to smaller children.” Yes, it is disturbing to see people ripped apart and swallowed by monsters – especially when it happens to Zara, About the unusual brutality of her death scene see herethe child protagonists’ babysitter. But if you are a big child already, you will be ready to understand the pacifying logic of the dinosaur blockbuster: everyone is potentially preyed upon in this park, this world, this universe. Yet as long as you are the protected member of a white family, you’ll probably make it out alive. The story of Jurassic Park began to be told around the same time that the neoliberal economist Francis Fukuyama famously announced the “end of history,” and since then the franchise keeps presenting the same conservative path out of the disaster of global capitalism: becoming father, becoming mother, playing family.
In Jurassic World, operations manager Claire is supposed to take care of her two nephews when they visit the park, but fails to do so until the monster breaks out and she discovers her maternal side. Her busy job secures the boys VIP access so they can take all the rides without waiting in line. Like Hammond’s nerdy grandchildren in Jurassic Park, these child protagonists resemble real-life child tourists proceeding through the Hollywood theme park at Universal Studios, unaware of how ridiculously expensive the tickets were: I am small, they say, but I am a very important person, the ticket is paid for, I am going on a ride, I am having fun. The theme parks of Hollywood are based on the imperial world fairs of the 19th century, yet unlike the former they don’t have any scientific objects to display. A ride refers to nothing but another ride. Ever since Jurassic Park, the backstage tour and the monster movie have become metaphors for each other.
When we go on one of those studio tours to be shown “the best-kept secrets of Hollywood,” revelation and concealment are inseparably connected. The secrets to be revealed by the tour guide might include a park road with a bamboo bush beside it, where the famous T-Rex chase scene in Jurassic Park was shot. As our wagon rolls along that surprisingly short and empty road, the scene has not become less but rather more mysterious. The best way to hide something is to build a theme park around it. The best way to cover something is to uncover something else. The best way to conceal your agenda is to reveal a fake self-reflection. The best way to mystify your process is to produce a making-of.
Jurassic Park, one of the most intelligent blockbusters Universal Studios ever made, is a deeply self-reflective spectacle that draws much of its power from a misleading backstage tour through the dinosaur laboratory. Spielberg’s genius move in his actualization of the dinosaur feature was to associate digital imaging with genetic engineering and to use these (then brand-new) technologies to explain each other. When Jurassic Park’s pioneer protagonists, all of them skeptical scientists, are taken on their introductory ride through the park, they free themselves from the passivity of the cinema seat and force themselves into the activity of the lab. Identifying with them, we are led to believe that we are now leaving the spectacle to find out how dinosaurs are really made. We know bio-engineered dinosaurs are just science fiction, we know animated monsters are just visual effects, and we know that, unlike the dinosaur chicks observed by Jurassic Park’s protagonists, neither of these things is born from eggs.
Upon the hatching of a bio-engineered baby raptor, Jeff Goldblum’s character explains: “If there is one thing that the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously.” Qualities usually associated with frontier conquest and technological innovation are projected onto “life” itself, while the living dinosaurs they refer are in fact generated by computers. Behind the scenes of Jurassic Park, where the machinery supposedly becomes visible, the modern concepts of evolution and history collapse into each other once again. This time, though, it’s not in the name of natural history, but in the name of artificial life.
Made of equal parts photography and animation, the medium of film oscillates between automatic killing and automatic vitalization. It combines the scientist’s obsessive desire for the real with the magician’s dubious devotion to the fake. In the 19th century, Étienne-Jules Marey set out to picture animals’ movements by shooting at them with a “photographic gun.” To become cinema, however, shots of moving things have to be followed by the animation of still images on the screen. Early cinematography, or what Tom Gunning has called “the cinema of attraction,” turned moving images into a magical performance. The actual visual content – dancers in dresses, boxing cats, a train arriving at the station, workers leaving the factory – was less important than cinema’s “ability to show something.” But from the early 20th century onward, film’s narrative capacity was emphasized more than the visual spectacle. It became increasingly important to mark cinematic images as recorded reality and to hide their origin as an exhibitionist celebration of the medium itself.
In the dinosaur movie, however, what Gunning calls the “exhibitionist gesture of showing as such” stayed in the center of attention, wrapped into a narrative. The dinosaur movie is one of the oldest and most successful Hollywood genres, and for a century, dinosaurs were animated still frame by still frame, showcasing the state of the art of visual effects. From 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, through 1925’s The Lost World to Jurassic Park, the history of US-American animation is as strongly tied to the dinosaur as the dinosaur is tied to the modern fantasy of technological progress. See the author’s visual elaboration of this argument in her visual essay DINOSAUR.GIF So in 1993, it was again dinosaurs who introduced a new era in the history of cinema, the era where most recorded reality is overwritten or replaced by digital post-production.
The classical monster, derived from the Latin word monstrare (showing, warning), comes into existence as something that is destined to be shown yet will escape its exhibition. In Jurassic World, most dinosaurs have ceased to be monsters: They have become post-historic, naturalistic, computer-generated animals. But as such they have now become harmless: unspectacular images to our CGI-trained eyes. “Children look at the stegosaurus as if it was an elephant in the city zoo,” says the park manager. This is why the heads of Jurassic World have cooked up a “new” dinosaur in the lab, a proper old-school monster. Masrani, following Spielberg’s spirit, prefers dinosaur-animals to dinosaur-monsters, and blames Jurassic World’s chief scientist for the catastrophic “incident” produced by InGen’s new monster. The latter refuses the blame, explaining that there is nothing new about this creature, it is just as hybrid and artificial as all the other dinosaurs. Progress is repetition, history is evolution, science is commerce, nature is technology. In Jurassic World, dialectics have been suspended, and all modern concepts have merged with their opposite.
The more paradoxical and politically ambivalent a blockbuster’s story, the greater the chance that the masses will identify with its supposed message. “Maybe progress should lose for once,” says Owen Grady, Jurassic World‘s male lead, responding to a claim by InGen’s security officer that “progress always wins.” Owen is not a scientist, but he is a frontiersman straight out of Frederick Turner’s 19th century ideal: a man who has become who he is (a proper white American man) by his experiences at the frontier, taming the wilderness. Owen can train velociraptors, and in fact has such a good connection to animals that he has to confirm which side of the frontier he is loyal to: “I was with the Navy, not the Navajo.” His antagonist, the security officer who takes over the crisis management of Jurassic World in a kind of paramilitary coup, dreams of using Owen’s trained velociraptors as animal drones in anti-terrorist warfare. His plan doesn’t exactly work out and he is eventually eaten by a velociraptor, but generally his vision is proved right: only dinosaurs can kill other dinosaurs, and Indominus Rex is finally killed by the the combined military force of T-Rex and the velociraptor.Some readings hold that T-Rex’s represents the old US empire and velociraptor, the smart, animalized dinosaur represents new, digital intelligence. Following this, Indominus Rex could be read as allegory for Osama Bin LadenProgress has won again. Of course, the dinosaur problem as such wasn’t solved, so that in the next sequel a new monster can be fought and a new family can be formed – for the profit of Universal Studios, or in Owen’s words closing the film: “for survival.”
There is only one thing that is new in Jurassic World: it is the lack of references to paleontology or what they call prehistory – in fact to any history from before the 1990’s. Whatever happened before the supposed “end of history,” before digitization, before the creation of the brand, does not matter anymore. These dinosaurs are no longer creatures of a prehistoric time. They have changed their genealogy, become 250 million years younger and entirely virtual. Therefore they look exactly like they did in 1993, despite the fact that in the meantime the look of many dinosaurs has changed significantly. According to recent research, now mostly based on dinosaurs found in China, these bird-like animals may have had bright feathers and multicolored skin. But feathered raptors and colorful T-Rexes are missing from the American theme park of the present. The filmmakers decided to just stick to the brand. So despite the ubiquity of up-to-date smartphones and smart watches, despite its slick corporate aesthetics, Jurassic World is a spectacle of nostalgia.
As monsters of a digitized modernity, these dinosaurs have dropped their geological heritage. They have left deep time behind and they have arrived in a phantastic present: a conservative present, defined by warfare, patriarchal family norms and straight white privilege: in other words, a present that looks very much like the Euro-American 19th century. The paradox always wins.