Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Tail of Two Franchises

By: Chelsea Ennen

“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.” – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein  

“You know what's wrong with scientific power? It's a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are.” – Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

*spoilers for Jurassic Park and Godzilla, if that sort of thing bothers you

            Michael Crichton’s most famous, and arguably his best novel is a modern retelling of the Frankenstein story, which is itself a retelling of Prometheus.  It seems after all this time humans as a civilization still haven’t shaken off that pesky habit of hubris: we just keep building ourselves sets of wings and flying too close to the sun over and over in an endless loop.  In the economic boom and overall awesome-ness of the 1990’s, when society’s general fear was that one day science may become too cool and destroy us all, Jurassic Park became a predictably enormous hit.  Twenty-some years later, a look at IMDB will show you there is a fourth installment in the franchise planned for next year, to be titled Jurassic World.  If we leave our world of global warming regrets, go back through 9/11 insecurities, and all the way back down the rabbit hole to the speculative fears of the technological boom’s infancy, what will we see?  What did Spielberg see in one of his most beloved (God knows that’s saying something) films that he wanted to dust off?  
Jurassic Park is a scientific cautionary tale about finding ancient mosquitoes in amber and using the blood to clone dinosaurs for a theme park “65 million years in the making.”  The mastermind behind the idea brings a group of experts for a two day “trial run” but everything goes horribly wrong when the dinos break free of their human gatekeepers and wreak prehistoric havoc.  First of all, let it be said that I know next to nothing about dinosaurs, even less about genetic engineering and chaos theory, and I truly believe that does not matter.  We’re not talking about someone’s dissertation, a PBS miniseries, or even an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Crichton, a distinguished scientist in his own right, builds from what the general public knows about the subjects as real areas of study, which is to say the book hinges on the reader knowing dinosaurs and chaos theory and genetic engineering are real things that real people work on, and that’s it.  This is science fiction, it’s meant to be speculative, so whether or not cloning dinosaurs from ancient blood samples using amphibian DNA to fill in the gaps is actually possible doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Crichton frames his fantastical tragedy as something that grows from what humans are actually doing, therefore upping the stakes and spinning a conceptual web that is not simply “cool” but truly frightening.
            Just to make sure that his readers take the real-life implications seriously, Crichton begins with an introduction informing the reader of what was really going on in the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering at the time.  He describes a great shift in science from the academic to the commercial, where research is frivolous and it doesn’t occur to anyone to use their power responsibly, or to benefit mankind.  Suddenly in the middle of this rather straightforward introduction comes the fiction, and we are introduced to the “inevitable” creation of International Genetic Technologies Inc., or InGen, the company that will go on to create cloned dinosaurs.
            This introduction becomes the first example of how Crichton spins his fable: by always reminding us that scientists driven by curiosity are real and could easily go bad, that human beings are, at our core, selfish and profit driven creatures that will bend or ignore ideas of morality as we see fit.  His characters, though not the focus of the novel so much as the story and concept, are almost always morally complex in a way that is frighteningly realistic. Dr. Wu, the leading geneticist behind the dinosaurs is well meaning to start with but in true Shelley fashion becomes horrified with his own casual attitude towards recreating these extinct species when they begin to tear everyone apart.  Ian Malcolm is an arrogant, pompous mathematician who thinks he’s Bono but damn it if his obnoxious self-aggrandizing speeches about how chaos theory proves Jurassic Park is doomed to fail aren’t spot on. 
Even Alan Grant, who is as close to a protagonist as we get in what is mostly a well-balanced ensemble, has a bit of an insensitive side.  During the tour of the labs, our group meets a baby velociraptor who immediately warms to young Tim, snuggling up to him and nuzzling into his neck like a bizarre, furless kitten.  In any case, it’s a cute little thing that loves attention from humans, and Alan Grant, who is only used to dealing with bones, tries to examine it despite its adorable cries of terror.  Basically, our hero makes a puppy cry.  Of course it isn’t Grant’s fault: he isn’t used to dealing with live animals, and if you were in his position (at this point in the novel we already know that young raptors are his current area of study) you’d probably be curious too, but Crichton is clearly aligning the reader against Grant in this scene.  We aren’t miffed at Regis for ordering Grant to leave the raptor alone; we’re annoyed with Grant for scaring the cute baby animal that just wants to play with the little boy.  Just as the introduction is an example of Crichton pushing reality into speculation on the storyline level, Grant and the baby raptor is an example of Crichton using his concept on the character level to shed a harsh light on what man’s hubris really is: not that we can control the laws of nature and become gods, but our belief that we are inherently good. 
            Crichton uses John Hammond, who is more terrifying than the raptors and t-rex combined, to hold his mirror up to nature and show us what’s underneath that delusion of goodness.  At times Hammond is an optimistic, adventurous old man with the admirable capacity for childlike wonder, but suddenly he transforms into a Machiavellian villain who manipulates his employees (what few employees he has; after all the park had to be as automated as possible to save money on salaries) and buys an entire Costa Rican island to avoid rules and regulations from the US government. 

“‘This isn’t America.  This isn’t even Costa Rica.  This is my island.  I own it.  And nothing is going to stop me from opening Jurassic Park to all the children of the world.’  He chuckled.  ‘Or, at least, to the rich ones.  And I tell you, they’ll love it.’” –Michael Crichton

Seriously, based on that passage alone, why didn’t Crichton just give him a mustache to twirl while he lowers the kids slowly down into the raptor cage and be done with it?  But what makes Hammond truly horrifying with all his comic-book villain monologuing is that Crichton convinces his readers that this man is the culture’s own Frankenstein monster.  That passage comes in at the end of an argument with Wu about the nature of the work being done at Jurassic Park, where Hammond actually says, “personally I would never help mankind.”  A tad on the nose, maybe, but the context is Hammond reminding Wu that the FDA will withhold patents and make delays to manipulate drug prices, so helping mankind really is a kind of dead end.  Sure his idea that companies should be able to charge thousands of dollars for life saving medication is reprehensible, but those same life saving medicines existing on a marketplace controlled by the government isn’t too tasty a concept, either.  And he’s right: technology and innovation are expensive, and that funding is most effectively obtained through the entertainment industry.  Crichton takes our real life profit driven and badly regulated scientific community and pushes it to its logical conclusion: John Hammond.
            If John Hammond is a personification of everything that is secretly rotten about the world, his death is Crichton’s ultimate warning.  When storming off to his personal bungalow, Hammond falls down a hill and injures his ankle.  While trying to slowly make his way back up, little dinosaurs called “compys” find him and, true to their nature, recognize him as an injured animal and therefore prey.  One by one they nip at him, infecting his bloodstream with a strong narcotic, eliminating his desire to fight them off, let alone his ability.  In his dreamy drug-addled state, Hammond calmly watches himself be eaten alive.  If seeing yourself destroyed by your own creation and literally not caring isn’t a big symbol for the larger repercussions of casual, profit driven scientific research, I don’t know what is. 
The novel at large ends with the survivors held comfortably captive in a San José hotel courtesy of the Costa Rican government, until things can be “sorted out.”  The last line of the novel is “None of us is going anywhere, Dr. Grant,” and it is decidedly unsettling.  We should feel safe and relieved that despite some casualties, most of the people we wanted to survive are recovering with room service and poolside mai tais, but the non-resolution here doesn’t offer any satisfaction, nor should it.  In Crichton’s world, and indeed, our world, of complex questions about moral responsibility and the true nature of humanity, there can be no easy answers.
            Enter Steven Spielberg, who had the good sense to snatch up the rights as soon as possible, and the even better sense to keep Crichton on to write the screenplay with David Koepp.  Despite concerns that CGI technologies were not yet advanced enough to make a film adaptation look good, production went forward and Jurassic Park the movie premiered in 1993, only three years after the book’s release.  Widely regarded as one of Spielberg’s best films and the crowning achievement of the monster-movie genre, the criticism it does suffer is usually concerned with a loss of complexity from page to screen, and that comment is not altogether unfounded. 
Jurassic Park the novel is very long, it switches back and forth between different points of view, it has a large cast of characters, most of which get a fair amount of depth (for a concept-driven work, at least), and heaps of explanatory information about genetic engineering, chaos theory, animal behavior, how the real dinosaurs actually behave as opposed to the old assumptions, computer systems, electrical systems, and so on and so on.  Crichton is a talented enough writer to keep a reader engaged with all that in the novel format, but there’s just no way a two hour movie is going to be able to keep those plates spinning.  Spielberg’s film does an equally fine job of telling Crichton’s fairy tale; it’s only refocused, as it must be, for the screen.  If Crichton’s concept is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the novel is the aria and the film is a variation.  Instead of unfurling a nuanced tapestry depicting various examples of human nature both forming and reacting to the wider culture, the film is a Puccini-esque tragedy of optimism and faith as illusory hindrances to surviving in a violent, dark world. 
Just as in the novel, Dr. Grant is our sort-of protagonist within the ensemble.  Whereas originally he openly loved children, here his dislike of them is a bit of a running gag.  It seems more like an excuse for Spielberg to shoehorn in that distant father figure archetype he’s so very fond of than anything else, but it does work.  The scene where Grant and the kids go to sleep in a tree surrounded by the peaceful brachiosaurs is a fitting change from the book’s utility shed.  Grant, who was previously irritated by Tim’s questions about his theories on dinosaur extinction, is now bonding with the kids over the wonder and beauty of interacting with the animals.  Amidst the pain and death and destruction, he connects with kids in a way he couldn’t when everything was going well.  It’s sort of a role-reversal from the novel, where the much needed paternal affection from Grant gives Tim the confidence to survive.  Here, the bond Grant forms with the kids empowers him to save all three of them. 
We know from the novel that the consequences of searching for power will rain down on John Hammond: no one can save him.  In the film, he is the sweet and loving old man he only appears to be in the novel, and his only wish is to open his park to children from all over the world free of charge so he can revel in their joy and wonderment.  The most poignant scene in the film is Hammond and Sattler sitting together at opposite ends of a dining room table discussing how everything went so wrong.  Sattler is in relative darkness while there is a heavenly glowing light shining down on Hammond, John Williams’ flawless score chiming quietly in the background.  Hammond remembers the flea circus he toured with as a young man, how he dreamed of making something real for people to experience, something that wasn’t just a trick.  The camera zooms in on Richard Attenborough’s face as he asks Sattler if his idea was “not…completely devoid of merit?” in quiet desperation as they wait to hear if Grant and his grandchildren are even still alive.  Sattler gets upset with him because he has to give up his fantasy to the reality of what’s happening, to come to terms with fact that his disrespect for the resurrected dinosaurs has put their loved ones in danger.
Interestingly enough, this is the scene that replaces Hammond’s death in terms of thematic importance.  Instead of teaching us that power brings out the evil in man but also ultimately destroys him, the lesson is that blind optimism is itself a kind of evil, that there is a kind of respect in cynicism and a kind of arrogance in hope.  In the novel, Hammond’s crime is he was so egotistical as to assume he could harness all the powers of Olympus for financial gain, but in the film he assumed he could use those powers to bring joy to children.  Either way, Prometheus had no business taking that fire, whether he wanted to bring light to humanity or burn it to the ground.  The glue holding the film and the novel together is that actions have consequences, and not thinking of those consequences is enough to deserve punishment, whether it be lizards snacking on your still conscious body or the sight of your dream falling to pieces as you fly away in a helicopter with what remains of your friends.
So if twenty years ago the definitive monster movie created by the definitive monster movie director based on a book written by the definitive science fiction author was a Frankenstein experiment with hubris gone wrong, what place could a reboot fill in today’s marketplace?  The collective societal fear has moved on, and these days blockbuster movies tap into general fears about the earth crumbling around us: global warming, government cover ups, government cover ups of global warming.  The stories of yore are warnings, but we’ve used up all our crimes and made it all the way to punishments, which means the monsters show up because we already failed, not because we’re thinking of trying.
On May 16 the new Godzilla movie was released upon the world, and though its screenplay is the equivalent of a committee setting out to make a unicorn and ending up with a jackalope, it may give those of us nervously anticipating Jurassic World a glimmer of hope.  The original Godzilla films were an excellent one-to-one allegory for nuclear bombs, but the new focus on hubris in the face of nature was one of the very few things that actually worked in this reboot.  Massive primordial cockroaches wreak havoc in search of radiation (which they get by eating nuclear warheads may I be struck down by lightening if I’m making this up), and the bomb-happy government fails in all its plans to stop them until our hero Godzilla comes to the rescue.  It’s a very Lovecraftian lesson on caution, really: don’t drill so deep you wake up Giger’s-Alien-Crossed-With-A-Cricket, because Godzilla has about as much respect for American monuments as Roland Emmerich and he’s very cranky from his interrupted nap.  Take your half-destroyed metropolis and be grateful, because Godzilla is shooting blue fire from his mouth (yeah that part was pretty sweet) for you, even though you don’t deserve it, puny humans! 

So really, why not bring Jurassic Park back?  Last year’s Pacific Rim was also a monster movie about global warming, and unlike Godzilla it had a fairly good screenplay, so who’s to say Jurassic World won’t turn out beautifully and cement the return of the monster movie blockbuster?  1990’s culture may be fossilized by now, but questions about where our motivations lead us never go extinct. Jurassic World could absolutely work, as long as the screenwriters remember the dinosaurs are meant to provoke, not to provide fodder for pricey 3D movie tickets.  Good monster movies aren’t about the monsters, they’re about humanity.  Are we good?  Are we evil?  Are we heading down the wrong path?  Is it already too late?  Hopefully a year from now we won’t have to add “why didn’t I go see Transformers 7 instead?” to that list.

1 comment:

  1. Chelsea,

    You manage a multilayered and multifaceted piece here, that somehow takes on the nineties, global warming, Godzilla, books and their movie adaptations, sequels, Spielberg....Your voice is so alert and good-humored throughout that your argument of real complexity reads as a lively and effortless riff. Excellent work.