Saturday, June 11, 2022

Two Versions of an Extinction: Prehistoric Planet and Jurassic Park

A similar image of dinosaurs in the snow circulated at about the same time from two very different sources. The first, above, was from Prehistoric Planet as series on Apple TV, and the second was from the trailer of the latest Jurassic World film. These images reflect the changing scientific theories of the dinosaur which have shifted from slow scaly reptiles to what are now considered smart, fast, feathered, warm blooded animals. This is especially true of the former which uses CGI and paleontology to produce a kind of Planet Earth for the prehistoric world (complete with David Attenborough providing narration). The latter is less fettered by science, but has used some recent discoveries, smart velociraptors hunting in packs, T-Rex's that walk with its parallel to the ground like land sharks, and so on when they have served the story. 

As much as the image of the dinosaur in the polar ice caps might be justified by contemporary science it undermines a scientific theory, or story. that many of us grew up on: namely that dinosaurs became extinct when an asteroid hit the Earth cooling it under clouds of debris and dust. This fact took on almost mythic significance for kids growing up with a love of dinosaurs. Love of dinosaurs was always ambivalent, on the one hand they were real unlike other fantasy creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and Godzilla, they could be seen in museums and studied in school, but they were also gone, extinct, lost forever. They also were how most kids learn about extinction, about climate change, and about how the same planet, Earth can very quickly change to become inhospitable to life that previously flourished on it. The frightening image of a cold and dark world in which the last dinosaur stumbles and falls to the ground is a powerful image of loss and change. This is something that the creators of the show Dinosaurs knew all too well. I think that the image of dinosaurs in the snow should be read against this backdrop. It suggests the possibility of survival in the face of extinction.

In this way it reminds of one of my favorite passages from Adorno's Minima Moralia: 

Mammoth. – Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. But this does not exhaust the notion that prehistoric animals are still alive or at least went extinct just a few million years ago. The hope excited by the presence of what is most ancient, is that animal creation might survive the injustice done to them by human beings, if not humanity itself, and bring forth a better species, which finally succeeds. 

Thus, it might be possible to suggest that the dinosaur is no longer tied, as it has been for so long, to images of exploration, to scientific discovery of lost continents, time travel, and genetic manipulation, but to decline and extinction. This is particularly the case with respect to Jurassic World: Dominion which can be considered an entry in what could be called evolutionary horror, in which the fear is one of extinction or, at the very least, humanity being displaced as a dominant species. At least this is what the trailer of the film suggested. The advertising, including this prologue of a T-Rex at the drive in not in the film, suggested scenes of dinosaurs roaming the earth and coming into conflict with human beings. The scenes which open the film of Mosasaurus attacking a fishing ship, a Stegosaurus on the highway, Pterodactyls nesting on skyscrapers in Manhattan, and Apatosaurus showing up at a logging site are in some sense uncanny. As strange and otherwordly as the creatures seem the scenes of human and animal conflict are not too dissimilar from the scenes we see of whales in the Hudson River, coyotes in the city, or moose in the suburbs. The long extinct animal stands in for the habitat displacement or destruction endemic to modern life. The films use of grainy home video for some of these scenes suggests the aesthetic of youtube clips of actually existing human and animal conflict. 

In some sense Jurassic World: Dominion can be considered the first true sequel in a series of films that are otherwise a kind of bad infinity of the same premise being repeated again and again, namely, humans cloning dinosaurs with disastrous results. The film takes place a few years after Fallen Kingdom, with dinosaurs and a cloned child on the loose, and brings back the entire human cast of not only that film but the original in what can only be described as an overestimation of the audiences attachment to the characters. I love Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum but their performances are not why anyone goes to see a Jurassic Park movie. Once the film gets started it becomes clear that the scenes of human dinosaur conflict,  and the species conflict they suggest, are really a pretext to the actual story. The real threat comes not from Tyrannosaurus Rex showing up at the drive in, but from prehistoric locusts destroying the food supply. The bait and switch from dinosaur to insect is perplexing, However, it is perhaps easier to suspend disbelief in prehistoric plagues of locusts than it is to think that giant alpha predators would somehow be a threat to humanity when all of our actual alpha predators are at the risk of extinction. More to the point, the film's reference to crop failure and mass starvation is a kind of slip of the Anthropocene Unconscious (to use Mark Bould's phrase), a sobering reality check in a movie where dinosaurs chase motorcycles on the streets of Malta. Although in reality the only role that the Cretaceous period plays in such a scenario would be in providing the biomass that has become the basis for fossil fuels and not, as the film suggests, in providing the genetic material for locusts the size of dachshunds. 

Continuing with the theme of the anthropocene, at least in terms of its causes, these locusts are revealed to be genetically engineered by the Biosyn corporation to devour every crop except their modified seeds. A corporation risking global famine to corner the food supply marks a real shift from a series which started with a very different image of the corporation. In the first film we meet the avuncular John Hammond who, as a kind of stand for Steven Spielberg, only wants to bring wonder and joy to the children of the world. That the dinosaurs get out of control is an event outside of his control, so much so that we need chaos theory (not to mention Newman from Seinfeld as a computer hacker) to explain how it comes about. With each subsequent film the series inches closer and closer to making the corporation the villain, to recognize that it is the drive for profits, and not the chaos of nature, that will be the source of our demise. Now, in the last film, as if those running the series had been reading the memes, we get Campbell Scott playing the CEO of a corporation willing to risk global famine for profits. I liked Scott as a CEO and loved the fact that his compound had an underground hyperloop on which he met his predictable, but inevitable demise. It appears that hyperloops are not even viable forms of transportation on secret corporate lairs. What can I say? I am a sucker for the corporation as villain. 

Unfortunately the corporation only serves as a pretext to get the cast of humans together in the corporations dinosaur preserve in the Italian Alps. (Some genetic code from a James Bond film seems to have gotten into this movie). Once they get there we get some new dinosaurs to spruce up the plot. I was particularly happy to see Dimetrodons as well as Gigantosaurus and Therizinosaurus making an appearance. This novelty at the level of species, of content, is undermined by repetition of the level of form, as we get the same plot points, complete with an attempt to reboot the main computer, and scenes that are callbacks to the original, right down to "don't move," Goldblum waving a torch, and the real star of the series, the Tyrannosaurus Rex saying her signature line or roar. Nature is infinitely prolific, producing multiple sizes, shapes, and colors of dinosaurs: the modern Hollywood blockbuster is less so, remaking variations on the same lumbering and slow witted animal. In the midst of all of this repetition there is novelty, but only at the periphery, there are some references to animal smuggling, and a blackmarket of weaponized dinosaurs and illegal dinosaur fights, all of which could be used to say something, anything at all about the fate of actually existing endangered species. In a world where Pablo Escobar's hippos are causing havoc in the Amazon one could expect our digitally created Jurassic fictions to keep pace with the reality of the Anthropocene. On top of that I just think a film about a kind of dark Jurassic Park where the wealthy hunt dinosaurs and bet on dino-fights and all of that going awry as dinosaurs start killing the ultra-rich would be really entertaining. Is it too much to ask to at least have our dinosaurs eat the rich? 

The film ends, as it begins, with images of dinosaurs in our world, but now the connection to endangered species is made more explicit, we see Mosasaurus swimming with humpbacks and Triceratops herds running with elephants, the dinosaurs, or more to the point, mass extinction is already here. These images are accompanied by Laura Dern's voiceover about learning to trust and cooperate in order for species to survive but these lines fall flat, or at least fail to be as utopian as the image of a dinosaur in the snow. Sometimes the trailer is the best part. 

No comments:

Post a Comment