Monday, June 29, 2015
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Jurassic World and the World Wide Web
by Matt McKenna
Welcome, dinosaurs, to the pantheon of horror film monsters including zombies, sharks, and aliens that have been subjected to the sci-fi trope of genetic-engineering-gone-too-far. To be fair, it's hard to blame directors of horror sequels for invoking this narrative cliché--how else are they expected to make their follow-up films interesting? Must they be forced to produce another movie in which the exact same monster plunks around and kills yet more people in precisely the same fashion as it did in the original? Of course not. Sequels have to be spiced up somehow, and the best way to do that is to make the scary monster scarier. And to make a scary monster scarier, a director has but two options: either add more scary monsters (e.g. there is one alien in Alien, but there are many aliens in its sequel) or dial up the intelligence of the scary monster (e.g. the shark is a simple killing machine in Jaws, but it becomes emotionally complex and vindictive by Jaws IV). Genetic engineering comes in as the convenient means by which one of these methods is enacted. It was therefore only a matter of time before Hollywood created a blockbuster film about scientists creating a gifted and talented dinosaur rampaging about eating people. Jurassic World is that film, it's not bad, and it's also a strikingly good metaphor for the current state of the World Wide Web.
In Jurassic World, the dinosaur-filled theme park of the first film in the franchise has reopened after having miraculously recovered from the disaster that occurred decades prior. To no one's surprise, history repeats itself when a dinosaur escapes and eats a slew of park guests. However, this escaped dinosaur isn't just any old dinosaur--it's a genetically modified ultra-huge and hyper-smart murder monster. As expected, the second and third act of the movie consists mainly of the human characters yelling "run" and "go" and really just a lot of yelling in general as CG dinosaurs wriggle around and eat things.
The most straightforward take on this film is the meta reading where we are invited ponder how very much like the genetically engineered dinosaur Jurassic World is itself. As the reading goes, just as we the audience demand scarier monsters in our sequels, so too do the characters of Jurassic World demand scarier dinosaurs in their fictional theme park. Hence the park's shareholders hire scientists to build these genetically engineered monsters to wow their fickle audience. But this reading of the film comes up short because these new, synthetic dinosaurs haven't really changed all that much from their (relatively) "organic" predecessors. Sure, Jurassic World's genetically-modified Indominus Rex is beefy and apt, but the whole shtick of the original Jurassic Park was that park's caretakers underestimated the dinosaurs' intelligence, which led to their escape, their eating of everybody, etc. That hasn't changed in the new film: the caretakers still underestimate the intelligence of their dinosaurs, and that is still why they escape, eat everybody, etc. Frankly, it doesn't matter which film we're talking about; in both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, if a dinosaur is after you, it will probably outwit and eat you. In other words, the difference between a dinosaur in Jurassic Park and a dinosaur in Jurassic World is mostly meaningless like the difference between infinity and infinity plus one.
I therefore think it's safe to chuck the Jurassic World-is-self-referentially-commenting-on-the-state-of-blockbuster-movies interpretation. To see what the film is really about, we must first uncover the biggest difference between the first film in the Jurassic Park franchise and the most recent one, which ends up being fairly obvious once you are able to peel your focus away from the dinosaurs. The biggest difference between Jurassic Park and Jurassic World is not the size of the dinosaurs in the park but rather the size of the crowd of visitors in the park. One only need look at each film's body count to get an idea of the difference in the volume of humanity inside the park: only five human characters are killed in the first Jurassic Park since there are only a handful of visitors on the island available to be eaten. By contrast, in Jurassic World, countless unnamed characters are bitten, stomped, devoured, and dropped from immense heights, which makes sense because we're told that the park runs through 20,000 visitors a day.
Here comes the analogy: the growth in Jurassic World's theme park population is a reflection of the growth of the World Wide Web's population. When the first film was released in 1993 there were only 14 million Internet users. Today in 2015 there are nearly 3 billion Internet users. With both Jurassic World and the Web, this larger crowd has made for a less interesting virtual environment. Indeed, the fun of the original Jurassic Park was that the dinosaurs on this island existed merely as a proof-of-concept, an experiment rather than a bustling zoo. When the protagonists of the first film visit the park, it is nearly devoid of humans while being utterly full of potential. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are impressive, sure, but the absence of humanity on the island is what makes the park wonderful and terrifying since the audience is left to speculate as to what monsters may be waiting behind the next fern. In Jurassic World, the park has been populated with humans, its scares have been literally mapped out on kiosks, and the audience isn't invited to speculate as to what may be waiting behind the next fern since we're explicitly told--it's genetically modified dinosaurs--surprise! Admittedly, knowing there's a genetically engineered monster lurking somewhere on the island is a scary concept, but it's not nearly as scary as not knowing what's on the island at all.
The Internet has had a similar trajectory. In the 1990s, techno-optimists thought the Web would upend modern life. Innovation made possible because of the Web would ensure perpetual economic prosperity, an individual's freedom would increase as they gained greater access to information, and traditional hierarchical organizational structures would dissolve in favor of distributed systems that mimicked the distributed systems of the Internet itself. The optimism directed towards the 90s-era Internet mirror the terror derived from the original Jurassic Park. The glory of both the 90s-era Internet and 1993's Jurassic Park were in the potential for what may unfold in the future. But now in the post-dot-com bust days, the paragon of Internet success is Uber, an cab service valued at over $40 billion dollars. Other hot tech startups include a hoard of food delivery companies and services that promise to provide faster shipping. Turns out, the modern Internet is less useful for fomenting revolutions and more useful for providing driving logistics and ordering take-out food, which is almost as underwhelming as the park in Jurassic World being filled with slightly bigger dinosaurs from the ones we saw on screen twenty years ago.
I admit Jurassic World isn't a bad film, and the modern Internet isn't completely frivolous. However, it's hard to shake the feeling that Jurassic World didn't (and probably could never) live up to the terror created by the original's limited scope. Similarly, the modern Internet didn't (and probably could never) live up to the lofty aspirations set upon it by its more fervent 90s-era supporters. Both the Jurassic Park franchise and the Internet took the next logical evolutionary step in expanding their reach from the small cadre of privileged visitors/users to the masses, and the result is we learned that our 90s-era optimism might have been a tad unfounded. And just as our Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with the blathering of people we don't care about, so too is Jurassic World filled with the howling screams of devoured extras we don't care about either.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 05:06 AM | Permalink