You just went and made a new dinosaur? Probably not a good idea,” cautions Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) in the trailer for the upcoming film Jurassic World. But in an increasingly technology-saturated world, it might be the only way to keep the public’s interest. Director Colin Trevorrow describes his inspiration for the new film: “What if, despite previous disasters, they built a new biological preserve where you could see dinosaurs walk the earth…and what if people were already kind of over it? We imagined a teenager texting his girlfriend with his back to a T-Rex behind protective glass. For us, that image captured the way much of the audience feels about the movies themselves.” Jurassic World seems primed to explore humanity’s ever-changing relationship to new technologies: what once seemed miraculous (or ridiculous) has now become mundane—just consider the iPhone! But new marvels have unforeseen consequences, and the Jurassic Park franchise has long excelled at showing the most dramatic of those consequences.

In my excitement (and apprehension) for the new film, I have been thinking back to the insights of the original 1993 Jurassic Park. These important themes remain just as fascinating now, especially in light of the new film’s premiere. Though gender and religion are my two major interpretive lenses, this is not a critique of the film’s depiction of female (human) characters, or an attempt at an exegesis of the Tyrannosaurus Rex as God—rather, it is a deep reading of what the film has to say about gender, creation, hubris, and the meaning of the “natural.” How do dinosaurs become an instrument to talk about this diverse range of issues? What is the power attributed to genetics, particularly genetic engineering? What religious images and ideologies does the film reference?

One particular moment in Jurassic Park draws heavily on religious imagery. During an early sequence of the film, we reel with awe along with the visitors to the island (Dr. Alan Grant, Dr. Ellie Sattler, Dr. Ian Malcolm, and lawyer Donald Gennaro) as they see a herd of apatosaurus for the first time. We later follow them into the epicenter of creation on the island—the hatchery. They witness a young dinosaur slowly emerging from her egg; the scene is imbued with celestial music and framed as the fruit of “miracle-workers” (genetic engineers). It gives the impression of a new nativity scene: a miraculous birth, attended by wanderers from afar, which will usher the world into a new age.[1] We can even place Hammond, as the white-bearded, fatherly, benevolent orchestrator of all this—who attends “the birth of every creature on this island”—in the role of God.

 

This is a literal virgin birth—but a closer reading highlights the peculiar fact that there is no stand-in for that most significant Virgin.

 

This is a literal virgin birth—but a closer reading highlights the peculiar fact that there is no stand-in for that most significant Virgin. Although this is a moment in the Christian story cycle that centers the Virgin Mary, she has no equivalent in Jurassic Park. Possibilities are present (Dr. Lu? The machine turning the raptor eggs? The frogs and fossils containing the DNA used to create this little creature?) but a true parallel for this generative feminine presence is nowhere to be found.

This is a significant absence because one of Mary’s important symbolic qualities is her submission to the will of God.[2] Her absence casts the scene in a different light: this is not a repetition of the nativity scene, but an inverted reflection of it. It is a usurpation of power rather than submission to divine will. It will inevitably be punished.

The actions of the characters make it clear that this is a moment of malevolent reproduction, more reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby than the Gospels of Luke or Matthew. Dr. Malcolm balks at the scientists’ attempt to curb reproduction, maintaining that “life always finds a way.” Dr. Grant inquires as to the species of the newborn and learns that she is a velociraptor. The scene then cuts to an ominous screeching coming from the adult velociraptor pen.

There is a serious discomfort here with reproductive technologies, and an emphasis on the rightness (and inevitability) of natural, sexual reproduction. This caution echoes sanctions on reproductive technologies by some strands of Christianity. For instance, drawing on the Catholic philosophical tradition of natural law, the writers of Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life”) highlight the moral issues raised by IVF and other reproductive techniques. They note that “The spread of technologies of intervention in the processes of human procreation raises very serious moral problems in relation to the respect due to the human being from the moment of conception, to the dignity of the person, of his or her sexuality, and of the transmission of life.”[3] Though the subjects in Jurassic Park are dinosaurs rather than human beings, the film still characterizes reproductive technologies as a violation of nature that comes with dangerous consequences. Much of the film’s action is driven by this conflict between human technology and natural purity.

 

The film is infused with imagery that suggest the horrors that are wrought by human technological arrogance.

 

The film is filled with imagery that suggest the horrors wrought by human technological arrogance. In a particularly striking scene near the movie’s climax, one of the raptors looks up at our heroes, who are in the ventilator shaft. The ceiling grate emblazons the genetic code pattern (G, T, C, A) over her face. She is the embodiment of all our worst fears about genetics and technology—and she’s coming to get us.

The raptors are consciously malevolent, and their actions go far beyond normal predator behavior. Their behavior has a vengeful feeling; they continue to pursue a group of humans even after they had been bashed in the face, locked in buildings, knocked from a great height, and had one of their number trapped in a walk-in freezer. Their desire to hunt and kill humans exceeds our usual sense of animal instincts.

Conversations between the human characters also label the dinosaurs as a destructive force. Grant notes “T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to hunt. Can’t just suppress 65 million years of gut instinct.” Sattler adds, “These are aggressive living things that have no idea what century they’re in, and they’ll defend themselves, violently if necessary.” The dinosaurs incarnate within themselves a primal nature that clashes dangerously with our modern era. This isn’t simply about the trouble of living with large predators (Sattler and Grant would have no quarrel with a zoo that kept lions), but rather with animals that do not belong in our age because of their very nature.

The film takes for granted an extreme type of dinosaurian aggression. Jurassic Park develops a very particular vision of the natural, innate essence of the dinosaur, which draws on philosophical and religious ideas of telos. Originating in the works of Aristotle, the idea of telos (function, purpose, end) referred to the form and function of an animal, which is closely related to its behavior and final purpose. The idea of a proper, transcendent human telos was further developed by Thomas Aquinas, while a distinction between the higher human and the mechanistic animal was refined by Descartes much later. Throughout Western religion and philosophy, we see an emphasis on animals as machine-like things, wholly propelled by and subservient to the natural (despite evidence that social factors influence their behavior). Jurassic Park is home to dinosaurs whose telos includes hunting and killing human beings, even when it seems absurd. They are simultaneously following their own nature and punishing those who have violated the systems of nature.

In case we think that these discussions of telos and naturality have moved too far away from issues of gender, consider: how many complementarian theologies rest on a foundation of unchanging, timeless, innate essences of masculinity and femininity? How many advocates of “traditional” gender roles (not to mention opponents of LGBTQ rights) draw on tropes about the “nature” of men and women, and the harm that will come to those who defy those distinctions? Discussions of nature and telos are intimately bound up with ideas of gender. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the embodiments of violated naturality, the Eumenides come to punish hubris, are all female dinosaurs.

The new film, Jurassic World, seems to offer a disruption of some of these old categories, even while it reifies others. We see Owen Grady interacting with velociraptors and even training them, forging a bond that he describes in the trailer as “a relationship based on respect.” Maybe the nature of velociraptors is a little more complicated than the original Jurassic Park film would have us think; maybe human beings can establish social bonds with them, as we have with wolves, wildcats, falcons, and even lions, bears, and whales.

Or maybe raptors have just become the least of our enemies in a strange new world. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, and Jurassic World features a truly unknown adversary: the Indominus Rex, a genetically modified and horrendously violent new dinosaur. “She’s a highly intelligent animal; she’ll kill anything that moves,” Grady notes. Of course, attentive fans have noted that all of the dinosaurs in the films are genetically modified, since non-dinosaurian DNA has been used to fill in gaps in their genetic sequence. But though the raptors and other Jurassic Park originals are not entirely natural animals, at least the scientists have attempted to be faithful to nature in their creation. The Indominus Rex, on the other hand, is a creature completely outside of nature. Her behavior is not shaped by evolution or adaptation, but rather through slapdash splicing within a laboratory, intended not for survival but for entertainment. The genetic basis for behavioral traits is famously tricky to pin down; consider the extreme difficulty in locating determinants for intelligence within the human genome. A lab-designed animal might not necessarily be uncannily intelligent and hyperaggressive, but she would be extremely unpredictable.

Our cultural anxieties are reflected in our fiction: this film featuring a genetically modified juggernaut comes at a time of increasing controversy around genetic modification of food crops. Science fiction allows us to play in these spaces of fear and possibility. It allows us to ask: like Icarus testing his new wings so close to the sun, how far are we willing to push our new technologies?


Alexandra Nichipor is Publicity Coordinator with Cosmologics and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.

 

[1] I am indebted to Dr. Joanna Radin for originally pointing this out; however, all developments upon this observation are my own.

[2] A particularly fruitful discussion of Mary as a symbol of submissiveness for American Catholic women appears in Henold, Mary J. Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2008. Pg. 28

[3] “Instruction for the Respect of Human Life in its Origin and On the Dignity of Procreation Replies to Certain Question of the Day” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19870222_respect-for-human-life_en.html

Image from Flickr via Neil Heney

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *