In college I took an elective titled Faith, Film, and Philosophy, in that course the professor pressed upon us the subversive nature of film and television. When we go to a debate or watch the news we are prepared for a social commentary and an argument. When we go to the cinema or turn on most entertainment programming we usually are not prepared for an argument, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one being made. Most films have a philosophy and worldview that directs and often undergirds the film. Films present us with commentary on the good life, virtue, evil, and where we ought to put our hope. If we aren’t careful viewing a film turns from entertainment into a subtle modification of our worldview through our attachment to and distaste for certain characters. Is it possible that the 24 phenomena of the mid 2000s changed our views on the acceptability of torture and means to an end government thinking? Is it possible that Jon Stewart and now John Oliver have been a force for the liberalization of American youth? Have you considered whether the ever increasing sexualization of Hollywood has impacted the sexuality of the high school and college students? Film and television are forms of entertainment that allow us to relax and enter into a deep world of imagination and art, but they have message too.
In this post I want to focus on a message presented in last summers blockbuster Jurassic World, which posed significant questions about the pursuit of progress and the connection between progress and control. Aside from reinvigorating the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World presented viewers with a depiction of how foolhardy we might be in our pursuit of progress. Or, more exactly, our pursuit of progress as a means to another end. In many cases, progress is a not only subjective, but a euphemistic tool that pushes forward an unspoken agenda. In essence, JW sets our desires for progress alongside our pride and lack of patience in the pursuit of these agendas. Consider Chris Pratt’s first scenes.
Side Note: a brilliant strategy to wait until 19 minutes in to give us the films hero. It builds anticipation both in how we await the appearance of the headliner in the film and in the anticipation of finding a character that we can root for. It also helps that we might the immensely likable Pratt/Owen simultaneously with the slimy Hoskins.
Pratt, playing Owen Grady, is a raptor trainer. He is tasked with building a relationship with and training a set of raptor siblings. His supervisor, Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), a military contractor is working to find military application for the dinosaurs and attempts to convince Owen to turn his trained raptors into military personnel:
Hoskins argues for the weaponization of dinosaurs from the stand point of progress. The key to the scene takes place when Owen responds to Hoskins comment that “progress always wins” with the quip “maybe progress should lose for once.” This line is critical to the philosophy of the film. Coming from the protagonist and general american hero type, it signals to us the perspective the film takes. We are suppose to ask if this entire project is really about the amorphous idea of progress or if “progress” is being used to cover over the goal of finding the next generation of military weaponry.
Another important element of this scene is the mention of control. By my notes it is the first time the idea of control appears in the film, but it is most certainly not the last. In this scene Owen rejects the idea that Hoskins controls the wild animals. The question of who is in control arises again in the two subsequent scenes with Owen and Claire.
A few scenes later Owen is approached by Claire to assess the paddock of the Indominous Rex. It is explained to Owen that the scientist at JW created a new species of dinosaur.
While (Spoilers) the I.Rex will be the main source of tension and danger in the film, she is not the antagonist. This is displayed in a scene in which Owen, after witnessing the I. Rex eat two people, enters the control room to chew out Claire and discovers that a non-lethal containment operation has been launched to capture the I.Rex. Owen explains that she is trying to simply figure out what she is and where she fits on the food chain, as animals do. The I. Rex cannot help but be what it is, as Dr. Wu says, “you can’t have an animal with exaggerated predator features without the corresponding behavioral traits.” The real bad guy role falls to the quartet of Claire, Hoskins, Dr. Henry Wu, and Mr. Masrani. Each of them is guilty to a certain extent of coloring over their actual desires and agendas with the undefined idea of progress. In the end Claire will redeem herself, Masrani will relinquish the idea of progress, but his actions will come too little to late to save even his own life. Hoskins’ version of progress literally devours him, and Dr. Wu escapes probably to receive his reckoning in one of the forth coming films.
When Owen and Claire reach the paddock, an interesting exchange again reveals the disconnect. Claire and Owen approach the paddock while Claire explains the reason for a new dinosaur. Like the space program—she explains—in order to stay relevant and continue to receive funding and visitors the park needs to produce a new “attraction” every few years. Something to create the “wow” factor. In this exchange it is revealed that progress is being used as a cover again. The truth is that “progress” is driven by need—for capitol, for relevance, for popularity. It would be too much to say that without out these external agendas scientific progress would be undertaken safely as an intrinsic goal because after all it is a film not reality, but it does prompt questions about how we pursue science, who is funding it, and what motivations lie behind progress (fame, funding, publication). Owen shows little patience for this game and responds with, “they’re dinosaurs, wow enough.” Early in this interaction and again after the escape of Indominous the issue of control is brought back up. The frequent pairing of the ideas of control and progress are interesting and we will return to it later on, but let us consider one further interaction in the film.
Just after the failed containment mission, Owen suggests to Mr. Masrani that he would investigate what his lab is doing given the abilities of the Indominous. Following that advice we see Masrani headed to the office of Dr. Henry Wu, the only character to appear in the original Jurassic Park (1993). Masrani sits down with Wu over a clear glass mug of some kind of herbal tea, during which Masrani questions Wu about the dinosaurs abilities including camouflage and adaptation to hide from thermal technology. As Wu grows defensive, Masrani declares, “What you are doing here. What you have done. The board will shut down this park, seize your work, everything you’ve built.” To which Wu responds:
You are acting as if we are engaged in some kind of mad science, but what we are doing here is what we have always done from the beginning. Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. And if the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.
This is a telling statement. It calls out the major flaw in the pursuit of blind progress or using the rhetoric of progress for the purpose of another means. Wu is pointing out the dangers we run into when we call something progress when it fits our agenda without considering the philosophical and logical implications that follow. Masrani’s park is destroyed because he want scarier and cooler dinosaurs, and dubbed what ever would give him what he wanted as progressive. When our inventions destroy us, they are then by definition not progress. Progress is construction not destruction.
The first time I encountered the idea of progress as a mere rhetorical device was reading That Hideous Strength, the final installment in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. In THS we are presented with the dangers of valuing the amorphous idea of progress. Progress is different for different people, in the current political realm we learned that some people think progress is socialized health-care. Others, myself included, think that is not progress, but rather would like Jurassic World would create lead to troubling ethical issues. One need only pay attention to Northern Europe to see how socialized health-care paired with national debt has lead to increasing laxity on issues of euthanasia, physican-assisted suicide, and abortion—especially as each relate to the mental ill and physically or mentally hands-capped. In THS, Lewis challenges our ideology of progress by showing how our pursuit of it is a lot like the old tales about slowly boiling a frog. The gradual change over a long period of time eventually kills the frog without it even noticing. Progress is the same way. We hail progress…
The N.I.C.E. marks the beginning of a new era—a really scientific era. Up to now, everything has been haphazard. This is going to put science itself on a scientific basis.
And we applaud progress…
If science is given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man really efficient animal.
And preach progress…
The Italian was in good spirits and talkative. He had just given orders for the cutting down of some fine beech trees in the grounds… “I tell you I have seen a civilized tree in Persia. It was a French attaché who has it because he was in a place where trees do not few. It was made of metal. A poor, crude thing. But how if it were perfected? Light, made of aluminum. So natural it would even deceive…we clean the planet.”
Until we come to a point, like Masrani, that we are outraged and disgusted, but all we hear when we ask with whose permission such atrocities have been undertaken is our own names given in response. This is Mark Studdock’s realization in THS:
“I see,” said Mark. The philosophy which Frost was expounding was by no means unfamiliar to him. He recognized it at once as the logical conclusion of thoughts which he has always hitherto accepted and which at this moment he found himself irrevocably rejecting.
We may think that this is not a realistic problem, but only one that is dramatized in films and old science fiction, but it is hard for me not to cringe at articles I read daily, like this comment from Andrea Kramer at the Harvard Business Review.
We have heard too many reasonable people make the argument, almost fatalistically, that the arc of history bends toward justice. That is true. But the arc of history bends because leaders work to bend it. Bias doesn’t just die out. Patience may be a virtue, but patience alone will not bring equality.
The context of the quote is the lamentation of sexism lingering even in this generation, but consider how her words could be taken to advocate any change. Donald Trump advocating xenophobia and sexism? Hilary Clinton advocating increased freedom on abortions? Or the next politican advocating the next thing. What Kramer fails to realize is she just gave a golden ticket to be the next Lincoln or the next Hitler, and quite frankly she did so without any mention of the fact that America is a republic and our founding documents speak in the voice of the people.
Thanks for reading,
Slightly updated and reposted from previous WordPress blog from July 2016.