jurassic World and the Blockbuster paradigm

What the monster movie reveals about the audience of contemporary Hollywood ideology.

//philip conklin
 

© 2015 Lindsay Farris, "Untitled"

© 2015 Lindsay Farris"Untitled"

In Jurassic Park (1993), a group of visitors get a preview of a theme park featuring real live dinosaurs, but when the security system goes haywire, the dinosaurs are set loose, and the group must fend for their lives against these hungry, prehistoric beasts. After two more sequels, we’ve arrived at Jurassic World, in which dinosaurs are set loose in a theme park, and the visitors must fend for their lives against these hungry, prehistoric beasts. The question on all our lips should be, How could they let this happen again? In that spirit, we should also ask, How could we let this movie happen again? More broadly, why do we, the audience of contemporary Hollywood, find ourselves confronted with the same movies being made over and over again, fending for our lives against these hungry, postmodern beasts?

Perhaps the most convincing explanation is an economic one. The Hollywood system, as I’ve written in this magazine before, necessitates the prevalence of franchises, remakes, superhero movies, and the like. The major Hollywood studios (owned by six transnational media conglomerates) which hold a virtual oligopoly over the American movie landscape no longer make money from the theatrical distribution of films. Today, the vertically integrated conglomerates — which, as well as movie studios, own television stations, home media distribution arms, theme parks, record studios, and so on — make windfall profits, rather, through the licensing of intellectual property rights across various ancillary markets, such as DVD sales, digital streaming rights, theme park rides, toys, music soundtracks, special edition McDonald’s beverage cups, television syndication rights, and on and on. In this climate, it’s only logical to make a film with characters, storylines, music, etc., that the audience already recognizes; it’s much easier to get someone to buy a t-shirt, DVD, or theme park ticket if you’re building off already positive relationships and years of cultural influence. Further, superhero movies, comic book movies, dinosaur movies, and the like all provide characters and stories that translate easily across these markets, while also appealing to the most lucrative demographic — teenagers. [1]

Jurassic World fits this mold perfectly, with licensing potential across innumerable markets, as well as over 20 years of percolation in the zeitgeist, ensuring that it’ll make loads of money for Comcast (which owns Universal), lead to future sequels, and generally be a big success.

But this explanation, however valuable and logical, is clearly insufficient. Jurassic World broke the record for biggest opening weekend of all time, beating out both Avengers movies, all the Harry Potter movies, The Hunger Games series, and everything else, with $208,806,270 in ticket sales in the US alone. Jurassic World should be understood partially as a shrewd economic move, but with so many people going to see it, there must be more than the interests of the studios at play. Where does this analysis leave the audience, who, whether or not they’ve been influenced by the interests of the entertainment industry, obviously want to see this movie? What’s behind our continued obsession with these bloated, big-budget action movies? What, essentially, is the audience expecting to get from this movie?

The wager that’s always proposed about these blockbusters is, more or less, this: “Of course, all these superhero movies and dumb action movies and Furious 7 are not the best movies. In fact, many of them are awful. They’re silly, they’re childish, they’re stupid, but hey, it’s what the people want! We want to see explosions, car chases, monsters, superheroes, and giant robots. Why do you think they make the most money? These movies, yes, they’re bad, but it’s just what we all want to see, and so we must simply judge them on their own terms. Over there at the arthouse you have the real good movies, and that’s great, but these are the ones we all like.” I would like to question this paradigm.

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Jurassic World takes place 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park, and the titular theme park has been open for business for some years, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every day, fulfilling the ambitions of the park’s founder John Hammond. Siblings Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) are visiting their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is the operations manager at Jurassic World. While Zach and Gray enjoy an all-access tour through the park, Claire, neglecting her filial duties, navigates the business side of the park, which, in the face of declining attendance and a bored populace, has genetically engineered a terrifying new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, in the hopes of attracting new visitors and corporate sponsors.

But the dinosaur has displayed violent and erratic behavior, and the park is wary to unveil it to the public. After visiting the Indominus Rex, the park’s owner, billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), implores Claire to ask advice from his friend Owen (Chris Pratt), a ruggedly handsome velociraptor trainer and ex-navy man who’s as savvy about dinosaur behavior as about motorcycle repair. Owen, meanwhile, is struggling to prevent his raptors from being developed into living weapons by the military, as the domineering Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) would have it. On seeing the Indominus Rex enclosure, Owen warns Claire that this is an animal after all, and that raising it in isolation may have created an antisocial, dangerous beast, and on top of that, who knows what kind of crazy genetically modified stuff they put in there? Of course, soon after this warning, the dinosaur uses his genetically engineered cunning to escape from his enclosure and wreak havoc on the park. But Zach and Gray are still out there somewhere, and so Owen and Claire must face the danger to save her nephews, restore her maternal love of family, and bring the Indominus Rex down.

The most immediately striking thing about this movie is how similar it is to the original, Jurassic Park. Both feature two siblings traversing the park, a younger sibling with precocious knowledge of dinosaurs, romantic chemistry between two adults trying to save the kids, an adult who doesn’t appreciate children but by the end loves them, dinosaurs on the loose in a theme park, a heavy focus on velociraptors, a deus ex machina courtesy of a T-Rex near the end of the film, and a basic narrative structure involving succeeding episodes of almost being eaten by a dinosaur.

However, the two films also differ in important ways. In the original film, the park is not yet open, but in World it’s been open for years, and so all the thousands of visitors, not just a small group, are terrorized by the dinosaurs. Park basically functions as a filmed theme park ride and is paced and structured in a way that feels more like a classic suspense-thriller, while World is more like a modern action movie — it’s louder, glossier, and moves much faster. Jurassic Park is basically a zoo with dinosaurs, while Jurassic World is a far more imaginative and interactive theme park. And, principally due to advances in computer technology, the dinosaurs look much better in Jurassic World than they did 20 years ago.

Most importantly for our purposes, though, the two films start from a fundamentally different proposition. In Jurassic Park, much of the first half of the movie is taken up with the characters’ wonder at their coexistence with real live dinosaurs, including even a philosophical discussion about the ethics of bringing them back at all. Jurassic World, on the other hand, starts from the assumption that dinosaurs are passé; park attendance is declining, people are jaded, they need bigger and better dinosaurs to keep the public interested. Regular old dinosaurs just don’t do it for us anymore.

The parallel is obvious. We, the movie audience, are the theme park audience. We are the big, dumb, mouth-breathing horde who are no longer impressed by ordinary dinosaurs (or ordinary movies), who need ever bigger thrills, scarier monsters, and more outrageous spectacles to keep us satisfied. The movie isn’t exactly subtle about the metaphor. At one point an employee in the control room, wearing a vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt, pines for the good old days when people were satisfied with “real” dinosaurs, lamenting the short attention spans and lack of wonder in today’s audiences. Just as the theme park Jurassic World is continually responding to its visitors’ boredom with plain old dinosaurs, so the movie Jurassic World is intended as a response to our boredom with plain old action movies.

What does it mean, then, when the dinosaurs start attacking the theme park visitors in the movie? On the one hand, what are we supposed to think besides, “They had it coming. How could they flaunt their power over nature so openly and recklessly and not expect it to come back and bite off their head?” These monsters that attack them are the monsters of their own hubris, of their own arrogant scientific knowledge. But here, again, is where this remake differs from the original. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are able to escape and wreak havoc because a greedy park employee stealing dinosaur embryos shuts down the park’s security system while trying to escape. Despite this, the blame for the rampaging dinosaurs falls directly on Hammond, the park’s founder, and the decision to have made these dinosaurs at all: when they finally escape from the dinosaurs, Dr. Grant says to Hammond, recalling their earlier discussion of the ethics of bringing dinosaurs back to life, “After careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.” To which Dr. Hammond solemnly responds, “So have I.” The antagonism is clear — it’s us versus our abominable creation, which we should never have created in the first place.

In Jurassic World, the conflict is more complicated. The enemy is not these dinosaurs that we’ve brought back to life per se; indeed, we’ve been living peacefully with them as objects of entertainment for years, and Owen is just a few sessions away from getting the velociraptors to sit, stay, and bark "I love you." The enemy, instead, is the abomination of the genetically engineered dinosaur, the beast against nature who was created to satisfy the fickle appetites of the consumer. He is a creature who has no relation to the “real” dinosaurs, or to nature, a monster that we created but don’t understand and can’t contain.

This difference becomes very important in the aforementioned deus T-Rex machina that ends both Park and World. In Jurassic Park, right when our main characters are surrounded by velociraptors and about to be eaten, a T-Rex bursts in out of nowhere and begins devouring the raptors, presumably out of hunger and instinct. In Jurassic World, on the other hand, the Indominus Rex is fighting the velociraptors, who are fighting to defend our human protagonists out of loyalty, but the Indominus Rex is winning. That is until Claire, in a desperate last-ditch effort, draws the T-Rex out of his pen and into the fighting arena, where he battles it out with Indominus Rex in a final showdown.

The fundamental difference here is that in Jurassic World, unlike Park, the dinosaurs are not fighting in their own self-interest — hunger, self-defense, etc. — but in order to win the battle on behalf of the humans. And they win. In other words, we learn in the end not that we let our hubris get away from us, that it was a bad idea to have created these dinosaurs at all, but, on the contrary, that though we got carried away in creating this abomination that wanted to destroy us, the “real” dinosaurs are there, as a force of good, to protect us.

Maybe this would be easier to gloss over if a similar logic didn’t occur in two other recent blockbusters. In last year’s Godzilla, the giant lizard, notorious for gnawing skyscrapers and devastating populi, in the end turns out to be on our side — he does battle with the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) that are destroying cities across America, nobly killing them all and then stomping back into the sea. Godzilla, we learn, wants to protect us, not eat us. (For our purposes we must remember that Godzilla was initially conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons). In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark has created a weapons defense system called Ultron, with artificial intelligence (taken from the magical, interstellar Infinity Stone), meant to protect the Earth from invaders. However, upon booting up Ultron, Stark is horrified to learn that Ultron is much more powerful and sentient than expected, and his plan for defending the Earth is eradicating humanity. Of course, the Avengers are furious — how could Stark be so stupid as to create something he didn’t understand? They are even more shocked when, using the Infinity Stone, he imbues artificial intelligence along with his computer system, Jarvis, into a synthetic body, a move which could threaten to create a monster even more powerful and destructive than Ultron. Luckily, this new creation turns out to be, for the most part, noble and on the side of humanity, and he helps the Avengers to destroy Ultron and restore peace to the Earth.

So we have three cases of a metaphor for humankind’s hubris. One case of man’s power over nature (Jurassic World), and two cases of man’s power over technology (Godzilla [a metaphor for nuclear weapons] and Avengers) threatening to destroy us. But in all three movies we are saved from ourselves either by that very power, or by a different degree or iteration of that power. In all three instances, the point is clear: though at times we may come close to overstepping the bounds of our power, that same power will always come back and save us in the end.

At this point we should ask the biggest question posed by Jurassic World, which is also apparently the biggest flaw in its logic: If we’re so bored by all the usual hoopla and spectacles, then why do we still end up with essentially the same movie we had 22 years ago? Remembering that Jurassic World is utterly transparent about being a metaphor for moviegoing (the director himself has emphasized this in interviews), I think the answer is in the formulation outlined above. Basically, the metatextual ideology of the movie is telling us that, yes, these blockbuster movies are bad, and sometimes we don’t like or can’t control what we’ve created, but gosh darnit, they’re good for us. This is why Jurassic World — despite its endless pronouncements that audiences always want more, bigger, faster, louder, scarier — is so similar to its predecessor. In the end we realize that those classic, “real” dinosaurs from Jurassic Park are all we really need, and that movies like Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are, in the end, good for us.

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The role the media plays in convincing us that these movies are good for us, in sustaining the system as it is, is hard to overstate. Film critics and entertainment journalists are largely involved in a process of legitimizing the operations of the movie industry without questioning its basic structure.

One of the most common types of articles about movies that appears in the mainstream press is the “box office analysis.” In the case of Jurassic World, these articles have been even more prevalent, since it broke the record for biggest opening weekend of all time. Whether these articles praise the studios — like this one in Variety — or are snarky and dismissive — like this one in the A.V. Club — they all, to some extent, serve the interests of the major studios. The fundamental point here is that box office numbers have very little to do with how much money a movie will actually make for the media company that owns it, other than predicting the future popularity of the movie and its varied merchandise. Using estimates given in Edward Jay Epstein’s two books about the movie industry — The Big Picture: The Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood and The Hollywood Economist — we can give a more accurate picture of how much money Jurassic World has made at the time of writing. Box Office Mojo currently gives the film’s domestic box office receipts at $278,389,075 and its international receipts at $315,611,864. The film’s reported production budget was $150 million, so the film appears to have already earned $444,000,939. However, Epstein estimates that, subtracting the theater’s share and other costs, studios only keep about 40% of international box office receipts and 50% of domestic box office receipts. And that doesn’t even include costs for prints and advertising. An article from The Hollywood Reporter last summer says studios now spend $200 million to market a single summer blockbuster. From this, we can estimate more accurately that Jurassic World has earned about $19,041,104 so far.

The fact that Jurassic World won the “Biggest Opening Weekend of All Time” is doubly problematic in this context. The creation of such a category is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it’s self-evident that a movie that’s part of a franchise or is a reboot of an already popular movie is going to get more people to the theater on the first weekend it opens. How could Spy or San Andreas, the second and third best-performing films at the box office the weekend Jurassic World opened, hope to compete with an entry in an already wildly popular film franchise? For one thing, Jurassic World, even in the absence of direct marketing, enjoyed a 15-year passive marketing campaign since Jurassic Park III, the original series being so popular that vestiges of it remained in the lexicon (for example, I enjoy playing a certain Jurassic Park arcade game). Indeed, when you look at a list of the biggest opening weekends of all time, nearly every film in the top 50 is part of a huge franchise. It’s also important to note that the “biggest opening weekend of all time” category is judged by total ticket sales, not attendance, and doesn’t take into account inflation, assuring that the record will continue to be broken at least every few years.

Whether intended or not, these articles about box office results clearly function as a form of marketing. Exactly how much money a movie made is less important than where it is on “the charts,” which is taken as a clear indication of its popularity, if not its quality. A movie, like Jurassic World, that tears up the box office, and whose tearing up of the box office receives glowing media attention, will surely attract more people to the box office next weekend. In a positive feedback loop, the movies that did well will continue to do well.

There are many other articles besides box office analyses which serve to legitimize the film industry. A google search for “Jurassic World sequel” reveals a plethora of articles about all the ways the movie set itself up for a sequel, what the sequel should be, and so on. There are also myriad articles about product placement in Jurassic World, including explanations of the narrative logic of including so much product placement in a movie like this. I read one article called “'Jurassic World' Product Placement You Might Not Have Caught While Running From The Dinosaurs On The Loose,” which details every product that was placed in the movie. One article about how images of an Indominus Rex toy were “leaked” in February ends with the line, “Fans will simply have to wait until the June 12 release date to have all of their questions answered.”

Certainly many people are interested in box office results, and some probably also in the type of product placement in specific movies. But it would be hard to argue against the fact that all these articles serve the needs of the studios over those of the filmgoing public. In The Big Picture, Epstein quotes one top Sony executive who says, “These days we supply multiplexes with two different products, movies and marketing campaigns.” [2] Marketing is so important for the studios, Epstein explains, that they spend nearly as much on prints and advertising as they do on making the films themselves. [3] In other words, marketing films is as important as making the films. Entertainment journalism, as a free form of marketing for the studios, is a vitally important part of this. And one need only look at the tone of most of these articles to see whom they are written for: “It’s corporate synergy at its finest.” “Hollywood take note. That’s how you build a blockbuster.” “But ‘Jurassic Park’ was a big engine for corporate tie-ins, largely due to its leadership by Steven Spielberg, a master of the craft.” One also begins to notice who is quoted in these articles: media analysts, senior marketing executives, Mercedes Benz, studio executives, and the like. Almost without exception, articles about box office results and product placement serve as an extension of the studios’ massive marketing machine.

The way most critics address blockbusters like Jurassic World is also essentially a self-defeating procedure. Consider, as one example, Anthony Lane’s review in The New Yorker. Writing to what we all assume is his relatively high-browed and cultured audience, Lane has some fun with a few dinosaur puns while patently dismissing the film, saying that it’s “doggedly dull for the first hour and beefy with basic thrills for most of the second,” that it pales in comparison to the “master” Spielberg’s original, and that it’s cheesy and poorly plotted. One wonders what Lane thinks he’s doing besides writing exactly the review one expects from The New Yorker, a review which will perfectly fulfill the expectations of its readers and nonreaders alike, and will neither change anyone’s mind nor convince anyone to see or not see it. One would expect from a critic in a publication like The New Yorker a real critical analysis. Perhaps the audience doesn’t care if the dialogue in Jurassic World is terrible, or if there are holes in the story — even if the movie is terrible, which I and other readers would surely be willing to consider, there are certainly more convincing reasons. All these reviews, moreover, display some awareness, sometimes an acute awareness, of Jurassic World’s place in the system of Hollywood blockbusters (two reviews on the New York Times, for example, are titled “In ‘Jurassic World,’ the Franchise Feeds the Beast” and “‘Jurassic World’ Bites Into the Modern Blockbuster”). However, they all stop short at recognizing that franchises exist, with no evidence of critical reflection about the reasons that we have franchises at all. Critics who tactfully or playfully condemn a blockbuster’s shoddy dialogue while conceding that its special effects are indeed spectacular, who point out the plethora of remakes in today’s film culture without analyzing why, have already acceded to the terms laid down by the studios by even engaging in the debate on the movie’s terms.

All of this suggests that, far from giving us what we want, Hollywood blockbusters and the media coverage that surrounds them tell us what we want, give it to us, and then spend a lot of time analyzing how much we want it, why we wanted it so bad, and how what we want will be packaged and delivered to us in the future. The one thing that is unequivocally assured by all this “criticism” and “journalism” is that nothing about film culture is going to change except on the media conglomerates’ own terms. The journalist earnestly reporting box office figures, the writer assiduously cataloguing product placement, or the critic giddily panning the latest Transformers movie — each confronts the system as it’s presented to them, and, by reacting to micro-variations on its surface, tacitly accepts the system the way it is. With such an immense amount of space and energy devoted to these concerns, our attention is siphoned away from broader questions about the actual quality and types of films that are allowed to be produced in the current system. Will we continue debating who will be the right actor to star in the next Indiana Jones or Spider-Man reboot, or will we ask whether we actually want to see these movies at all, and if not, why will they be made anyway?

The key point all this media coverage is missing is that the audience’s participation in the film industry matters in so far as we buy things, and in that way it is qualitatively different from the film industry of the past. It matters less that we go to the movies than that we buy the products that are licensed across various markets ancillary to the film itself. In response to this, a massive media-ideological apparatus has arisen which makes us accept this system the way it is without questioning the never-ending imperative to buy.

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So maybe you’re saying, “Okay, I get your point. All these superhero franchises exist because they’re the best vehicles for the licensing of intellectual property rights across various markets, which these media conglomerates need to survive. The film industry is dominated by marketing, both direct marketing by the studios and indirect marketing across the media landscape, and that critical assessment of this system is lacking. All of this coincides to produce a specific film culture in this country. Well, that doesn’t stop me from liking Jurassic World, The Avengers, or anything else. And hey, I also like what you’d consider ‘art cinema,’ but sometimes you just want to go to the theater and turn your brain off, and this is the best way to do it.”

And to that I’d say, you’re right. Partially. To be sure, it’s not my aim to make you not like movies that you like. I like a big, loud action movie as much as the next guy — probably more than the next guy. And there are definitely pleasures to be had from Jurassic World. The theme park itself is nicely imagined, and feels like a pretty accurate depiction of what a real dinosaur theme park might look like. Chris Pratt is an eminently watchable leading man. Yes, Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle through the jungle flanked by velociraptors is pretty cool. And hey, there’s even a fight between two massive and quite realistically computer-generated dinosaurs. It’s just way too short.

© 2015 Francois Pretorius, "Jozi Haiku"

© 2015 Francois Pretorius"Jozi Haiku"

More broadly, it’s hard to deny the appeal of outrageous spectacles, including those offered by blockbuster movies. Undoubtedly, people have always been drawn to spectacles, and not just in movies — circuses, vaudeville, and other forms of popular entertainment could be grouped in this tradition. And long before filmmaking in this country was dominated by a handful of transnational media conglomerates, there were big budget spectacles like Intolerance (1916), Godzilla (1954), Ben Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and many others. Even in the modern “blockbuster” era of media conglomeration there have been big-budget action movies that I’d consider masterpieces, such as Total Recall (1990) and Pacific Rim (2013).

So, yes, in a way these big action blockbusters are just giving us what we want, no matter how you slice it. But whatever base urge these types of movies satisfy, we have to accept that the types of big-budget extravaganzas that are being made today is historically contingent; the reason that there are so many different superhero franchises, reboots, and remakes is not that tastes have changed and the film industry has followed, but that tastes have adjusted to the necessary changes in the film industry. But even if tastes had changed, that people wanted more and more action-fantasy films aimed at teenagers, there’s no aesthetic reason for all of those movies to be sequels, reboots, or based on previously popular material. Why couldn’t we have another movie about rampaging dinosaurs that wasn’t based on Jurassic Park, or a movie about a motley band of space cowboys not based on a series of Marvel comics? Further, to justify the current functioning of the film industry by claiming that it gives audiences what they want is misleading because it presumes that a different organization of the production of films would not produce any of the same types of films, an assumption with no empirical evidence. Certainly there would be far fewer superhero movies and reboots of action movie franchises, but there wouldn’t have to be none at all, especially not if that’s what viewers really want.

In general, there’s a deep and implicit presumption in this country about the impassable rift between art and entertainment, particularly in terms of movies. In commercial film culture, this is the dichotomy between the films at the top of the box office each year and the ones that are nominated for Oscars, which are almost always mutually exclusive lists. Or there’s the dichotomy between what’s playing at the multiplex and what’s playing at the arthouse, or, even further, what’s playing at the museum, which, again, are almost always mutually exclusive. Whatever the historical precedent for this art-entertainment dichotomy — if there is any — it’s clear that today, in terms of movie production, the separation serves the studios over the audience. Far from helping us enjoy movies more, this separation just makes us tolerate bad movies, and gives them an excuse to be bad. There’s no reason to assume that a $150 million film about dinosaurs, or giant robots, or a superhero couldn’t be an extraordinary work of art, or that it could be an extraordinary work of art that could be entertaining even if you didn’t wish to assess its artfulness.

Surely an extravagant, explosion-filled spectacle of the kind offered by a summer blockbuster is something we want, but it’s only one thing that we want, something we probably want about as much as, say, gushy romantic films, or slapstick comedies, or a great murder mystery, all of which can also be masterpieces. However, you don’t find films of that type topping the box office charts today, breaking records, having their toy images “leaked” months before the film’s release, or becoming the subject of rabid sequel speculation. This is not an indication of how much we like these films, but rather a symptom of the reality that those movies don’t make the film business run.

Looking at a list of the top-“grossing” films from the past few years, you see superhero movies, animated movies, movies based on popular young adult fantasy novels, action franchises, sequels, reboots, and remakes. It would be hard to argue that these represent the tastes of the majority of the American filmgoing public. Rather, they are the movies that make money for studios in other markets, that are marketed with hundreds of millions of dollars and the full weight of a massive transnational corporation. The fact that we, myself included, enjoy and are entertained by many of these movies doesn’t change the nature or the urgency of this issue: film production is organized in a way antagonistic to the interests of those who see movies, and a fundamental reorganization, one that opens up possibilities for the types of movies that can be made and seen, is necessary.

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In an interview with Entertainment Weekly several weeks before the landmark release of Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow outlines a fascinating and immaculate postmodern understanding of the Hollywood blockbuster paradigm, his spot-on insights probably at least as important as his directing credentials in qualifying him to helm this installment in the historic series. He explains first how the Indominus Rex is meant to be a metaphor for movies today.

"The Indominus was meant to embody our worst tendencies. We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better. And in the world of the movie the animal is designed based on a series of corporate focus groups. Like in the same way a lot of movies are. They sit a bunch of people down and they ask them, ‘What can we do to make the dinosaurs more entertaining for you? What would make you tell a friend to come to Jurassic World?’ And their answer is, of course, ‘We want to see something bigger, faster, louder, more vicious; we want a killer.’ And they get what they ask for."

Just a few sentences later, commenting on how films are marketed, Trevorrow says, “We’re so surrounded by so much of this marketing and just being told on a regular basis that you have to like this, you will go here, you want this. I found that to me that fit perfectly into what a theme park of dinosaur[s] would be about. It’s a surprisingly simple idea.” Finally, at the end of the interview, Trevorrow is asked how he feels about the fact that images of the Indominus Rex toy were “leaked” before the movie was released. “You know, the toys are made almost a year in advance. We lock this stuff pretty far out. And yet I didn’t really mind it .… The fact that stuff was leaked through merchandising plays right into what we’re doing. Indominus is an abomination and a killer — and on party plates.”

It’s worth analyzing exactly what Trevorrow is saying here. First, he outlines the basic metaphor of the movie: the theme park audience is us, the movie audience, an audience that is bored with the usual fare, that needs bigger, better, scarier thrills to keep us satisfied. The movie, therefore, is just giving us, “what we ask for.” Immediately after, though, he seems to contradict his previous statement. Marketing, he says, is all around us, telling us what we want to see, where we want to go, what we should like; this movie, which was heavily marketed (this very interview is part of that marketing) is commenting on this trend. Finally, he says that the “leaked” dinosaur toy plays right into what they’re doing, meaning, I think, that it’s a reflection of the logic of the movie; both the fictional theme park and the movie are using these terrifying dinosaurs to sell things. But the merchandising is, in a way, its own negation. It’s ridiculous to put a terrifying abomination of a dinosaur on party plates; it immediately reduces a powerful creature to a ludicrous child’s birthday accessory and a worthless commodity. Yet what would seem to cancel the effect of this dinosaur is actually what provides him his lifeblood; these worthless commodities are what allow the terrifying and powerful creatures to exist — without the party plate, and the slew of other products, there is no Indominus Rex. In the real world, the party plate is actually more powerful than the dinosaur.

What’s fascinating about Trevorrow’s comments is how easily the director is able to absorb contradictory, empirically false, and seemingly self-critical statements into a unified edifice. He seems to grasp the functioning of the film industry (recognizing the importance of the dinosaur toys to his dinosaur movie, pointing out the power of marketing), even going so far as claiming that this movie is a meta-comment — maybe even meta-criticism — of that industry, yet that doesn’t impede his film’s ability to perfectly function within that system.

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek explains the functioning of contemporary ideology, and his analysis has direct application to issues in the modern film industry. Žižek explains that the “ruling culture … recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask.” [4] It is exactly so with Trevorrow’s Entertainment Weekly interview. The director’s insights are spot on, almost to the point that they could be considered a criticism of the film industry, and all this while describing a movie that is perhaps the archetypical example of the functioning of this industry. He recognizes the mask, but still finds reasons to retain the mask.

In another passage, Žižek describes “the fundamental dimension of ‘ideology’” and how it relates to the notion of the “symptom”:

'Ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness,’ an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ — ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence — that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing.’ ‘Ideological' is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness.’ Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him — the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution."

We can see, then, how Hollywood is a purely ideological system. We go to see movies like Jurassic World because it’s what we want, because it’s “fun,” because we know that Hollywood makes the best blockbusters; but the reproduction of this system depends on our non-knowledge of the real functioning of the system — that the movies Hollywood makes are not a reflection of the popular interest but an expression of the particular interests of a handful of transnational conglomerates, that our tastes are largely administered by marketing and the media, that our participation matters only in so far as we buy things, that, in short, this is not the best system for us, the moviegoers. I don’t wish to convince those satisfied with the quality and types of films being produced by the commercial film industry are wrong. But I would like to suggest, at least, that we are subjects of Hollywood’s ideological mystification.

However, we should not underestimate our power to change this system. In a deliberately lo-res video that precedes the new Pixar film Inside Out, director Pete Docter gives a personal statement in which he explains that filmmakers make movies to tell a story, to get across an idea, to basically communicate something; but what really matters, he says, is you, the audience. There is truth, and not a sentimental truth, but a cold, objective truth in what Docter says: because things must be constantly bought to keep the film industry afloat, and because we must buy them, we are the most important cog in the Hollywood ideological machine. This should make us optimistic.

Sources:

[1] See, inter alia, Epstein, Edward Jay. The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood. 2005. Pages 20-21. Films aimed at kids and teens are also easier to market, another huge reason for their prevalence. For example, Wal-Mart — which, according to Epstein’s The Hollywood Economist, accounted for 25 percent of the studios’ DVD sales in 2007 — won’t prominently display an R rated movie; fast-food, beverage, and toy companies often won’t participate in cross-promotional merchandising campaigns with R-rated movies; R-rated movies are harder to license to television because they must be recut to eliminate nudity, foul language, and the like; and theaters are less willing to play R-rated movies for long runs because they’re required to have an employee at the theater to ensure no one under 17 is admitted.
[2] The Big Picture. Page 177
[3] ibid. Page 178
[4] Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. 1989. Page 26
[5] ibid. Pages 15-16


//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.


 

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