Editorializing with the Fantastic

jurassic worldThe new trailer for Jurassic World came out this week, to what seems like mostly positive buzz. For myself — while the image of Star-Lord leading a raptor pack on a motorcycle makes me as giddy as the next geek — I have to admit I had been wondering, Why now? The first Jurassic Park movie came out 22 years ago. The current members of the #1 movie-going demographic either weren’t born yet or were still in diapers. The two JP sequels were flat, ridiculous monster movies, uninspired and uninspiring. Why return to a well that seems so thoroughly dry?

After watching the latest trailer, though, I think that Jurassic World has ambitions to be more than another mindless summer monster mash. Rather, I think they’re aiming for one of speculative fiction’s most important and valuable cultural functions. I’ll explain more about what I mean after the jump.

The trailer begins with Owen Grady, Chris Pratt’s character, working with the raptors. We already know from the previous films that these dinos are extremely social, extremely intelligent creatures. Grady’s voice-over shows that he deeply understands the instincts that drive these creatures, while Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s manager, does not have the same level of empathy. The implication is that there is a disconnect between the trainers, who have built relationships with the animals, and the business people, who see the animals as a financial investment.

Does this sound familiar at all?

The trailer then shows us huge crowds around a marine tank, where a mosasaur is putting on an awe-inspiring performance. We hear the business people talking about the pressure to introduce new exhibits that are ever bigger and more spectacular. But the latest exhibit, the genetically engineered “I-rex,” seems to be displaying some behavioral problems, even killing its sibling. Soon, of course, it even attacks the humans at the park.

Where else have we heard about large, dangerous captive animals turning unexpectedly violent, against each other and against humans?

Again we hear the conflicting perspectives of the business people, who see the I-rex as “just an animal,” and the trainers, who recognize that these animals differ from humans in degree rather than kind, and maybe aren’t as different as we think they are. The I-rex soon proves this, clawing out its tracking device and, it appears, communicating with at least some of the other dinosaurs. The fragile system of exploitation that the Jurassic World corporation has built is about to come down around them in a big way.

Now, I don’t know how explicit all of these parallels are going to be in the final cut of the film. But it certainly looks to me like the movie-makers are trying to say something about the current systems of exploitation that organizations like Sea World are employing. Like the raptors, like the I-rex, the whales and dolphins at these parks are animals that we know are extremely intelligent and highly dangerous. They are being held in stressful conditions that keep them from being the creatures they have evolved to be. There is a disconnect between the trainers, who love these animals and are trying to do their best to treat them ethically, and their corporate masters, who just see a bunch of expensive trained beasts that have the potential to be highly profitable. Like the Jurassic World park, these marine parks are inherently unsustainable and inherently abusive.

Of course, orcas and dolphins can’t climb out of the water and go after their oppressors, the way the I-rex can. And maybe that’s why they’ve persisted for so long, while common sense tells us that Jurassic World is doomed from the moment it opens. When we stop and think about it, we know that Sea World is cruel and exploitative … but we do our best to ignore that fact, because these animals are so amazing that we want there to be a way we can see them from the comfort of a well-manicured entertainment park. We’re in denial, and we’ve been in denial for decades.

But this is the power of speculative fiction, the advantage that it holds over any other form of social commentary. It lets us reframe the debate over real social issues by getting us to think about them in a way that doesn’t automatically make us defensive and closed-off. You can get a whole lot more people to watch a Jurassic Park movie than will watch a documentary like Blackfish, or read a book like Beneath the Surface. You can sell them a rollicking adventure that will make sure they have a good time — and while you’ve got their attention, you can bring up these issues that have real-world applicability. Not in an obnoxious way, not as thinly-veiled evangelism, but in a way that will gradually send their minds away from well-trod routes of complacency and get them to think about the things that they’ve been comfortable not thinking about.

And is there anything more satisfying as a writer than helping people see the world differently?

Posted by chriswlester