Dinosaur Family Values: The Real Monsters in Jurassic Park

Dinosaur Family Values: The Real Monsters in Jurassic Park

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Dinosaur Family Values: The Real Monsters in Jurassic Park

"The striking moral exhibited in this story, is the fatal consequence of that presumption which attempts to penetrate, beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature."

Playbill for the first stage production of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein(1826)

In a recent PBS special about the possibility of cloning dinosaurs a la Jurassic Park, Steven Speilberg reveals that he felt his film version of Michael Crichton's novel had been a success because "There's such a reality to it."Later, one of the scientists interviewed during the show admits that the idea of resurrecting dinosaurs is so imaginatively compelling because every paleontologist "wants to see the real thing."In fact, throughout the PBS documentary the criteria used to evaluate all possible schemes for cloning dinosaurs is always framed as a question: How "real" would the resulting dinosaurs be?The most scientifically credible method discussed would involve injecting dinosaur DNA into bird eggs with the hope that several generations later the birds would become "dinosaur like."Yet every one of the scientists interviewed evidences a clear lack of enthusiasm toward this method because, as one of the paleontologists puts it, "of course, it wouldn't be a real dinosaur."Meaning, we can only conclude, that only a dinosaur born of dinosaur parents can be a "real" dinosaur.The program ends with two quotes, one from the novel's author, Michael Crichton, and the other from actor Jeff Goldblum, who plays scientist Ian Malcolm in the film.First Crichton informs us that Jurassic Park is, above and beyond all else, a "cautionary tale about the hazards of genetic engineering"; and secondly, Goldblum ends the program by expanding on Crichton's warning and advising us that we are "better off marveling at the past rather than tampering with the future."

The PBS program very tidily echoes and summarizes the central ideology of both the Jurassic Park films (Jurassic Park and The Lost World), which seems to me to be an obsession with the difference between natural and unnatural breeding practices, and how natural breeding results in and from traditional parenting, and unnatural breeding results in and from non-traditional and therefore unsound or inpure or, to put it as simply as possible, unnatural parenting. In other words, I beieve both of these films make basically the same argument: that there is a difference between natural and unnatural parents, and thus natural and unnatural families.The metaphor the films use as a cinematic stand-in for this quite conservative take on parenting is science, or rather natural vs unnatural science.

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And it is furthermore within the dynamics of this distinction that these films make what is fundamentally an anti-rationalist argument that can be traced back to the anti-science tracts and novels of the early 1800s.In other words, Jurassic Park and The Lost World hint that perhaps some of our prejudices about what constitutes a natural family are linked in very subtle ways to our prejudices about what constitutes acceptable science--and the success of these films at least in part demonstrates how willing the public is to accept this argument about natural vs unnatural breeding and parents and families, as well as how little public fears about the powers and dangers of "unnatural" science have changed in the last two hundred years.These films focus those fears in a particularly consistent and revealing set of figures, i.e., the human and dinosaur parents represented in the films.

Even the staunchest critics of Jurassic Park and The Lost World admit that their special effects are amazing, that the dinosaurs seem absolutely "real."Yet the reality, or perhaps to be more accurate the purity of those dinosaurs is questioned time and again during the first film.This issue is first raised during a scene where the park's creator, John Hammond, tries to convince the visiting scientists that his park is not only safe but scientifically worthwhile.One of the scientists, Ian Malcolm, disagrees vehemently.In a most remarkably polemical speech (especially in a film wherein most of the rhetoric consists of growls and screams), Malcolm reprimands Hammond for achieving his ends without sufficient struggle through means."You didn't earn this knowledge," Malcolm admonishes him--by which he means, we can only guess, that Hammond did not struggle single-handedly to "earn" or discover the principles of genetic engineering which produced his dinosaurs.

This is indeed a curious position for a scientist to take, for two reasons.First, it would seem to suggest that only knowledge which an individual personally discovers is his or hers to apply and advance--a markedly Luddite-like argument for a scientist like Malcolm, who is suppsedly on the cutting edge of 20th-century chaos theory.Secondly, Malcolm appears to be arguing that the knowledge which allowed the dinosaurs to be "recreated" by Hammond is somehow "sacred."By implication, he is labeling the dinosaurs which resulted from Hammond's "unearned" application of this knowledge to be profane, and therefore, in some fundamental sense, not natural.And if we equate the natural with the real--which the film seems to insist that we do--then of course Hammond's dinosaurs aren't "real" dinosaurs.

This argument is reinforced and given another spin during a conversation between Hammond and the paleontologist Ellie, when he confesses to her that his first exhibition "when he came down from Edinburgh" was a flea circus.He explains to her that everything in the flea circus moved by tiny motors, but the people swore they could see the fleas: "Look mummy, can't you see the fleas?I can see the fleas."He believed Jurassic Park would be different, a place with exhibits that people could "reach out and touch, something real, not an illusion."Ellie instantly chides him for misreading his creation."It's still the flea circus,John ... it's still an illusion," she says, clearly agreeing with Malcolm's condemnation of the park and its inhabitants as fundamentally and inherently "unreal"--which is a curious argument in something that is 1) a film, and 2) a film whose sole reason for being is the presentation of convincing illusions

In any case, in all of the arguments in these films about what is real or natural, the agency of "natural" or "real" creation is curiously mystical, unlocatable--assigned most often to Nature with a capital N or, even more broadly, Life with a capital L; while unnatural or unreal creation is a result of, as Hammond puts it (somewhat hyperbolically), "the most powerful force ever discovered by man--genetics."Now immediately we should note a contradiction here: how can Life capital L be everything that is Natural capital N, except for genetics?Which we must assume would be spelled with a small g.Isn't genetics the basis of all life, capital L or otherwise?And therefore the basis of all that is Natural?

Well, the contradiction is not only present but possible becasue in fact Crichton and Goldblum and Speilberg and even Hammond are all lying.Jurassic Park is not a cautionary tale about the "awesome power" of genetics; Jurassic Park is a reactionary tale about the power of sexual reproduction, a power which in the world of the film has "escaped" its traditionally domestic cage.The filmsJurassic Park and The Lost World are quite simply about the disciplining of breeding practices, a necessary condition, they seem to argue, for the creation and education of natural parents, and thus natural children and families.

In Jurassic Park, the one human relationship which receives as much screen time as the dinosaurs' antics is the stunted romantic connection between paleontologists Alan and Ellie.We are made to understand from the first moments of the film that Alan Grant is not comfortable with children; he makes this attitude abundantly clear when he terrorizes a young boy who has the temerity to show insufficient respect for the dead dinosaurs which are Grant's obsession, the vicious raptors.Later, when they arrive on the island where the park is located and encounter Hammond's two grandchildren, the children are used as foils in a contest of wills between Alan and Ellie.The mechanics of the plot seem designed as much to isolate Grant with the children as to provide an adventure story; he is irresistibly forced to become protective and parental toward them.The clear implication by the end of the film--with its final scene of Grant in the helicopter and the two children sleeping cozily against him--is that Grant has now been effectively indoctrinated into the rewards of traditional parenthood, and that he will propose to Ellie the moment they reach civilization so that they might begin siring "real" or "natural" offspring soon thereafter.

A slightly more explicit version of this dynamic is Hammond's attempt to prevent the dinosaurs from breeding by cloning only female dinosaurs--a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, yet one which the dinosaurs easily outflank when several of these females spontaneously "mutate" into males.This was only to be expected, chides the chaoticist Malcolm (whose representation of the complexities of chaos theory is barely more complicated than Murphy's Law, i.e., whatever can go wrong, will).Malcolm's is only one of the many contradictory ideologies in this film.While he views the dinosaurs as unnatural, he also views Hammond's attempt to deny the dinosaurs the opportunity to breed as something which has "gone wrong" with the natural order; and, inevitably he claims, the natural order--which in this case is represented by Hammond's "unnaturally" created dinosaurs--will set things "right" by re-establishing traditional breeding patterns one way or another.Malcolm's lyrical (and most unscientific) explanation for this biological sleight of sex is that "Life will find a way."

But what, we might ask, is "life"?If life is the dinosaurs discovering how to breed against all the genetically engineered odds, why isn't "life" Hammond discovering how to clone dinosaurs in the first place, against even greater odds?Why isn't "life" the advancement of biological knowledge by the park's ardent and inquisitive genetic engineers?Why isn't "life" the very creation of the park, whether as an act of scientific curiosity or of commercial greed?In other words, who gets to decide what is virtuous or "natural" Life heroically asserting itself, and what is impure or "unnatural" life cluttering up Nature's perfect landscape with unreal dinosaurs?

What is remarkably consistent in an otherwise contradictory and duplicitous film is the punishment which always visits anyone and anything connected with attempts to deny or sabotage traditional breeding practices.For instance, Dennis Nerdy, the computer programmer who is responsible for the dinosaurs' escape, is blinded and eaten by a nasty if diminutive dinosaur; and we must remember that Nerdy's sabotage of the park's security systems is meant to facilitate his theft of dinosaur embryoes so that he may sell them to outsiders.Nerdy's crime is in fact a doubling of Hammond's sin: it both mirrors Hammond's "theft" of life from its rightful owner (in Nerdy's case, Hammond, and in Hammond's case, Nature); and it threatens to recklessly multiply and disseminate the "unearned" dinosaur offspring.And then there is Malcolm, who is severely wounded by the T-rex after we are made to understand that he is an irresponsible womanizer, and probably because he put himself on the wrong side of "life" when he made salacious advances toward Ellie, someone who is clearly off limits to any but the most traditional male breeders.And finally there is the lawyer who is eaten ... well, there's no explicit justification for his punishment, other than the fact that he is a lawyer.(Of course, he also leaves the children to the mercy of the T-rex, so I suppose he, too, sins against the breeding/nurturing rules of traditional familial society.)

And yet, contrary to typical mad scientist figures, Alan and Ellie and even to a certain extent Malcolm are made to seem the most compassionate and "human" characters present; even Malcolm's egotism is more of a joke than a threat.And it is with these anti-mad scientists in mind that some critics have argued that it is in fact a relatively enlightened "monster movie" because it places the formulaic warnings of doom and disaster in the mouths of scientists rather than hysterical anti-science fanatics.But this is in fact only a "first order" reading of all these characters.For one thing, none of the scientists criticize Hammond's creation in scientific terms; that is, Malcolm doesn't question Hammond's quality control procedures or experimental data or simulation criteria; rather, he condemns the entire venture as something which should never have been undertaken in the first place, or, to quote from the playbill for Frankenstein, "that presumption which attempts to penetrate, beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature." And this is the view of Ellie and Alan as well.In fact, the "scientist" figures in Jurassic Park are not really very good scientists when it comes down to the business of observation and hypothesis building--which is what they were invited to do in the first place.Rather than using 20th century strategies of scientific reasoning to critique Hammond's work, they resort to 19th century prima facie arguments for humankind's trust in Nature's wisdom, and our acceptance, even embrace of certain limitations on our knowledge and resourcefulness.

To turn to Jurassic Park's sequel for a moment, last summer's blockbuster The Lost World.In an interview before the film was released, Steven Spielberg said that his main disappointment with the first film was that the dinosaurs didn't interact enough with the actors; and thus in the sequel he wanted to make the dinosaurs much more interactive, make them an apparently living component of the film.In other words, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park still weren't real enough for him, and he made another 100 million dollar film to try even harder to bring them to "Life," to make them more "natural."

In fact, all of the obsessions of the first film with natural vs unnatural parenting and breeding are carried over into the sequel, and if anything writ even larger.The major story line of the second film would be impossible if Ian's daughter didn't stow away on his trip to dinosaur island, thus placing herself in danger of being eaten by a T-Rex.Of course, Malcolm's near abandonment of his daughter is meant to stand in stark contrast to the absolute loyalty of those selfsame T-Rexes, who pursue their child into the humans' camp and rescue it.The parental aspects of the scene are underlined with Malcolm's line--used extensively in trailers for the film--that "Mother is very angry."Clearly the T-Rex is modeling for Malcolm what a good parent is willing to do for its child, regardless that it is hatched rather than born.

But for an even more pointed example, think of the opening sequence of the film.A rich and obviously somewhat dysfunctional family is shown picnicing on what is, unbeknownst to them, dinosaur island.Their attention focused on the champagne and foi gras, their daughter wanders away unnoticed, only to find herself surrounded by cute little vicious dinosaurs who attack her.

Thoroughout the Jurassic Park series, children are used as the main currency in this economics of natural vs unnatural practices.Engaging in unnatural breeding or parenting places them in danger; acting according to "natural" instincts--instincts often based on a reflexive and anti-intellectual violence--rescues them.If science stands here as an apposition for breeding/parenting, then engaging in unnatural science places the offspring of that activity--that is, those who share a community with the unnatural scientist--in grave danger; while responding to those dangers with the most sentimental and even savage of reactionary philosophies--as for instance in the T-Rex's enraged attack--justifiably punishes the transgressors and simultaneously provides the opportunity for the young to be rescued.

What I wish to emphasize is the capricious and even at times contradictory nature of the "natural" in these films.What is real, i.e. what is natural is assumed to be a reliable category of reference--so reliable that it stands outside any definitive enterprise.It is, in the language of the poststructuralists, a transcendental signifier, a term which is taken for granted in the discourse and never questioned; and therefore a term which can float freely from one meaning to another without being subject to any logic of consistency: and so the dinosaurs which result from Hammond's unearned cloning knowledge are "unnatural," but their ability to mutate into males is perfectly "natural"--and there is no recognized discontinuity between these two assertions."Life will find a way" is the explicit epigraph of these films.But in point of fact, its argument is that the results of unnatural science/breeding will "find a way" to punish those who tamper with the traditional order of things.

To make the connection to Frankenstein even more explicit, consider all the components of that novel which focus on various unnatural acts of procreation: Victor's asexual creation of the monster; the monster's demand for an equally unnatural mate; Victor's decision to destroy the half-constructed female--and along with it his entire family--due to his fear that the monster and mate will sire an entire race of unnatural progeny.And of course much has been made of interpreting the novel as Mary Shelley's representation of the nightmares of motherhood and birth.Much of the analysis of Frankenstein since its publication has suggested that the success of the novel and its imitators is connected with a wide-spread anxiety evident in the 19th century about unnatural breeding, particularly as it eventually gets expressed in the pseudo-science of eugenics.

And I would argue that Jurassic Park and The Lost World are in fact an only slightly updated versions of that one hundred and fifty year old playbill for Frankenstein, and countless other 19th century anti-science tracts by Carlyle et al which warn against transgressing certain "natural" boundaries; boundaries which are meant to restrict and regulate creative scientific effort.Thus the "real" monsters of these filmsdon't have sharp teeth and green hides; rather, its monsters are 19th century anti-science moralists masquerading as 20th century scientists; and, while their illusion may be terribly convincing, they represent attitudes that are much more of a threat to worthwhile scientific inquiry than all the T-Rexes and Raptors one could ever clone.
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