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Jurassic Park | Anthropocene and the Edge of Extinction

Notes from the Editor

The following piece is written by Dr Toby Neilson, whose PhD examined contemporary science fiction cinema through the context of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a much-discussed term used by many scientists to define our current geologic period in which humanity has actively impacted our planet through global warming, pollution and driving animal and plant species to extinction. As an academic and an expert in this field, Toby’s work provides a fascinating perspective on how major studio movies have engaged with man-made climate change and how the planet is responding. In his first piece for The Companion, Toby takes a look at 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and how its most striking sequences were more strongly foreshadowed in Michael Crichton’s 1990 Jurassic Park novel than Spielberg’s adaptation.

Even without the intrusion of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, we – the human race – are dangling over a series of tipping points. We are on the precipice of +2℃ of global temperature rise as well as approaching a sixth mass species extinction event. Anthropogenic forces, such as deforestation and rising carbon emissions, have encumbered our planet’s ecological and biological balance to a breaking point. With this era being called ‘The Anthropocene,’ extinction has tragically become a part of our day-to-day lives, be that our own looming extinction event or the series of ongoing extinctions resultant of our imbalanced use/abuse of the planet’s resources.

More and more, we’re seeing these undeniable environmental changes and the imminent threat of our extinction in the age of the Anthropocene addressed in mainstream cinema, beyond the dusty post-apocalypse of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or the violent natural world of art-house mind-benders like Annihilation (2018). Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) might seem like a surprising, unlikely example but it tackles this issue so prominently that it’s impossible to ignore, drawing its inspirations not from studio-mandated PowerPoint presentations but from the themes of Michael Crichton’s original 1990 bestseller, Jurassic Park.

Volcanoes explode, people get eaten and dinosaurs wail with agony as much as they roar with anger in the most recent entry to the now 27-year-old Jurassic Park franchise (a full 30 years if you include Crichton’s novel, but more on that later). For my money it’s not the finest entry into the series, but what particularly struck me about the film is its constellation of extinction events, all of which seem of relevance to the impending extinction events of the contemporary moment. 

Just as we have entered a new geological era in the so-called Anthropocene, the Jurassic Park series supposedly has entered a new era in turn. Indeed, Jeff Goldblum’s returning Dr. Ian Malcolm prophetically tells us “We have created a new era. Welcome to Jurassic World.” Loyal to the words of Dr. Malcolm, one of the core concerns of the film is the means by which we should navigate the ethics of this extinction, be that our own or the dinosaurs’. This platform for ruminating on the notion of mass species eradication is of staunch pertinence to the pressures of the Anthropocene, which calls for us to consider the possibility of humanity’s self-perpetuated extinction, and the collective extinction of 99 per cent of all organic life. Here, at least, the fifth film in the franchise shows more fidelity to the themes of Crichton’s novel than the first.

In Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, man and dino alike flee from the restored apex predator. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, there’s no food chain when the world is erupting. | Steven Spielberg/1993, J. A. Bayona/ 2018

Fallen Kingdom sees Isla Nublar’s de-extinct dinosaurs faced with re-extinction as the island’s volcano becomes active, threatening the lives of all its inhabitants in the process. This faces humanity with a troubling question; should we save the dinosaurs? Or, should we leave them to die and consolidate our footing at the top of the food chain? Given the disastrous consequences of human/dinosaur entanglements seen in every other entry to the series, it is clear that letting these creatures die out would prevent further calamities to the human populace. The opening half of Fallen Kingdom, rather than seeing humanity’s war against these creatures, as per the hunting sequence in Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997), for instance, situates the dinosaurs as endangered creatures needing our help instead. Rather than the dinosaurs immediate threat being their human captors, as in the previous instalments, the threat here is of a distinctly environmental tenor. Isla Nublar’s volcano is spewing ash and lava at an alarming rate, facing the dinosaurs with eradication if they are not evacuated.

Claire Denning (Bryce Dallas Howard), formerly a top brass manager of Jurassic World who pioneered the creation of hybrid dinosaurs at the park, now somewhat ironically works as an advocate for dinosaur animal rights, campaigning for their evacuation in a tritely millennial non-profit milieu. She enlists Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady to return to the island with her to save these dinosaurs from volcanic destruction, using his bond with the last remaining Velociraptor ‘Blue’ as emotional leverage. There’s a specifiable representational twist to the climactic action seen in the film’s opening half. Rather than dinosaur hunting human, or human hunting dinosaur, we see human and dinosaur under threat from the same source. Both are running from the pyroclastic flows spewing from the mountainside, with huge chunks of stone and lava falling around them as they make a mad dash for the ocean. 

This is in dynamic contrast to the established conflict of the previous films in the franchise, which gave repeated attention to these deep-time creatures breaking free of, or conquering, technological constructs and manmade spaces as the T-Rex assailed a Jeep and velociraptors stalked children in a kitchen before figuring out how to open doors, but there are striking parallels to concerns raised by the Dr. Malcom of Crichton’s original novel. While we’re all familiar with more classically Spielbergian alterations (turning John Hammond from a Murdoch-esque money-grabber into cuddly flea circus fan Richard Attenborough, for example), the decision to omit some of the novel’s more prophetic pronouncements meant that the film’s concerns are perhaps less timely than they could have been.

Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcom offers a shirtless explanation of chaos theory in the first movie, only lightly touching on the deeper themes of Michael Crichton’s novel | Steven Spielberg/ 1993.

For example, there’s a moment when a briefly content chief engineer Ray Arnold tries to explain to the bloodsucking lawyer Gennaro why “little wobbles” mean that a system is actually working with a summary that foreshadows, well, everything.

“Living systems are never in equilibrium. They are inherently unstable. They may seem stable, but they’re not. Everything is moving and changing. In a sense, everything is on the edge of collapse.”

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990)

In Fallen Kingdom, the collapse is here. There is no ecology when the world is on fire, and Fallen Kingdom makes this immediately and viscerally clear in its opening half wherein humanity and de-extinct dinosaurs are placed on a plateau of ecological significance in the face of the volcano’s fury.

In the Anthropocene we are told that humans are now geological forces, occupying timescales foreign to the minuscule nature of our own existences. In the novel, Crichton writes:

“To the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.”

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990)

In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom we see this clashing of timescales through the very fact that dinosaur and human now stand side by side, but more pertinently we see that both are under threat of extinction from climactic conditions. Just as the dinosaurs were killed by climate change, we are now proffered images of the human and the dinosaur under threat from environmental conditions dramatically shifting. This is a stark reminder that in the Anthropocene the environment is perhaps a bigger threat to our existence than a pack of Velociraptors or boisterous Ankylosaurus. In the Anthropocene, we must negotiate our entanglement with deep pasts and speculatively fiery futures, and Fallen Kingdom serves these up for us through dinosaurs and volcanoes respectively. In a view of extinction looming for both players as a result of disastrous climatic change. Whether we call this era “Jurassic World” or the “Anthropocene” is in many senses irrelevant, both involve deep world history and the contemporary moment colliding with disastrous consequences.

Shoutouts: A huge thanks to Harry Eastwell, Tom Hunter, and Dan Rothstein, some of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!

Testimonial Author Image

Toby Neilson is a science fiction fan first, and an academic second. With a PhD in Film Studies at the University of Glasgow, where he lectured on ecocinema and wrote his thesis on contemporary science fiction films, Toby is now lending his perspectives on the genre to The Companion.

Follow him on Twitter @tobyneilsonfilm

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