There are a few movies that blew my mind with their special effects when I first saw them. The worlds they portrayed were so coherent and immersive. Star Wars, of course, is the gold standard of this for my generation. And then The Matrix took science fiction storytelling to a new level of technical expertise. But the worlds in both of those movie franchises were not our own world. We knew that they were stories set in “a galaxy far away” or in a thought experiment from Philosophy 101 class.
But Jurassic Park is a different story. I remember when the first one came out in 1993, and I saw it in the theater. I was frightened. It wasn’t that the story itself was too scary and gave me nightmares of velociraptors. I was frightened by how blurry the line between fiction and reality had become. The CG dinosaurs were so realistic—they looked and sounded amazing, and I could feel the Earth shaking (couldn’t I?) with every step of a brontosaurus on the screen. I wondered how long until we couldn’t tell the difference between the real world and a story. And that was before the internet and social media.
My worries about this have taken another gigantic, earth-shaking step forward with Apple TV’s Prehistoric Planet. The connection with Jurassic Park is too remarkable to pass over: Richard Attenborough is the actor who played the white-haired, white-suited funder and founder of the dinosaur theme park; his brother in real life (at least if the internet can be trusted to tell us the truth!) is David Attenborough, who narrates Prehistoric Planet. This show (or is it a documentary?) has phenomenal footage of dinosaurs in their ancient natural habitats, and it is narrated exactly like Attenborough’s other nature documentaries. They are so similar that it makes me wonder whether those other documentaries are real! I know this one’s not real (right?), but the special effects are remarkable. “They spared no expense” to quote the other Attenborough in Jurassic Park.
The era of deep fakes is upon us. I’m not claiming that Apple TV is purposely trying to deceive us or that the Jurassic franchise movies will be mistaken for news coverage of actual events. I’m just worried about what will happen if this incredible technology of mimicking reality falls into the wrong hands.
Technology falling into the wrong hands, of course, is the central worry in the Jurassic movies. So let’s turn from my meta-worries induced by the technology of movie making, to the movies themselves.
The Jurassic Franchise
If you don’t know the story arc, Richard Attenborough (I’ll use the actors’ real names, since in another example of blending fiction and reality, I can’t remember the characters’ names) attempted to make a theme park where tourists could go and look at actual dinosaurs that were recreated from ancient DNA. What could go wrong? Underestimating their intelligence, freak storms that knock out the power, life’s ability to find a way when we thought we could control it—to name a few. And of course the possibility of making a lot of money by smuggling out some dino embryos is just too tempting. The first three movies keep amping up the peril and all that can go wrong.
By the second trilogy of movies, a couple of decades later (in both real life and the movie timeline), we learn that a theme park was successfully built and run for a number of years on an island. But it actually got too boring. Profits were down and something more was needed to bring the tourists back again. So the scientists not only revived ancient dinosaurs, but genetically engineered them to be bigger and more exciting. Chris Pratt even trains the velociraptors to follow commands. What could go wrong? At the end of Jurassic World, the park has to be abandoned, because the dinosaurs are out of their enclosures roaming freely around the island.
At the beginning of the next movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, a volcano is erupting on the island, threatening a re-extinction of the dinosaurs. Now the wealthy descendants of Richard Attenborough just want to save the animals, and put them on a different isolated island to live by themselves. So they get Chris Pratt to lead a rescue operation to snag a few dinosaurs and take them to the new place. What could go wrong? It ends, and the new movie begins, with dinosaurs being loose in North America. Jeff Goldbloom testifies before congress, “Humans and dinosaurs will have to learn to live together… we’ve entered a new era, welcome to Jurassic World.” I’ve seen Planet of the Apes; I know how this story goes.
Dominion, Technology and Tribalism
The new movie is called Dominion. For those of us in the science and faith business, we can’t help but hear the calling of humans in Genesis to have dominion over the Earth and its creatures. Goldblum sees it differently. His congressional testimony from the previous movie continued in this one: “We have no more right to safety than any other creature. We don’t have dominion over nature. We are subordinate.”
Is that kind of fatalism the last word? Are we humans really getting pushed a few notches down the food chain? Or if we just work harder and smarter could we really have dominion? In the movie “dominion” seems to just mean “control,” and the question is answered pretty emphatically that we cannot control life. Life will find a way, and it won’t be what we intended.
But this is just a story, right? It’s Hollywood, and of course they want the dinosaurs big and terrifying and never completely subdued. That way another sequel is always a possibility. Yes, but I think the story they’re telling applies to us as well. The very last words of the film are a narrator’s thinly veiled commentary on the actual world, “If we’re going to survive, we’re going to have to depend on each other, trust each other, coexist.”
In our real world the threat isn’t dinosaurs, but…tribalism. That tribalism might manifest itself as mass shootings, or immigration policies, or the inability to stop climate change, or name your favorite divisive topic. And this tribalism has been magnified by a technology we thought we could control: social media.
In our real world the threat isn’t dinosaurs, but the narrator seems to be pointing toward tribalism. That tribalism might manifest itself as mass shootings, or immigration policies, or the inability to stop climate change, or name your favorite divisive topic. And this tribalism has been magnified by a technology we thought we could control: social media. If you think this is an overstatement and haven’t read Jonathan Haidt’s recent article about it, please go read it now.
I’ve written before that technology is neither good nor bad… but neither is it neutral. It does something to us. And just because science figures out how to do something like genetically modifying mosquitoes to eradicate malaria, reviving mastodons, or creating a new social media platform, that doesn’t mean we should do those things. Who is making those decisions? And on what basis are they making them?
One of the most believable parts of Dominion and the other Jurassic movies is that there is always a technology corporation at the center of the storyline. Perhaps the capabilities of the scientists in the corporation are somewhat exaggerated, but the motivations of the people involved seem accurate to me. Some genuinely see the good that might be done if their work is harnessed properly, and they believe that controls can be put in place to guarantee that. Others acknowledge the positive potential, but worry what could be done with the technology in the wrong hands. And still others are the wrong hands, not weighed down by ethical concerns at all and simply trying to exploit the technology for financial gain.
If you’ve seen the other movies, you know the last group of people always gets eaten in the end—to the cheers of the movie audience. I’m afraid that’s just Hollywood. And I’m afraid that the Jurassic movies as cautionary tales about technology don’t do anything to make us act more wisely with technology. They’re just stories, right?
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