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Thoughts on The Lost World: Jurassic Park

2010 August 29
by Carter_Soles

Caveat: I am a very rough-draftish and stream-of-consciousness blogger, so please bear with me.

In my ongoing research for a paper I plan to present at ASLE 2011 in Bloomington, I have been thinking a lot about the Jurassic Park films, especially the second one, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, dir. Spielberg).  While both of the first two JP films invoke themes of technology vs. nature, seeming to posit that whether or not the “nature” we humans encounter is in fact naturally occurring or human-made, it lies (dangerously) beyond our ability to control it, it is that second film that really haunts me.  The main reason for this, besides its decidedly darker tone than the first JP, is that The Lost World features multiple characters whose investments are explicitly environmental.

First, there is John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who since the first Jurassic Park film has changed his exploitative ways to become a staunch defender of the right-to-isolation of the dinosaurs he created: as the film’s protagonist, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) puts it, Hammond has “gone from capitalist to naturalist in just four years.”  Hammond’s preservationist attitude is ultimately valorized by the film — he is a “good guy” this time — while simultaneously (and subtly) undermined by The Lost World‘s plot: a young girl is injured by dinos on the beach in the first scene, and a T-Rex escapes the island and invades San Diego in the third act, showing (I think) that true separation of humans from dinosaurs (given the world the JP films posit) is not possible.

Another key character is the new CEO of InGen, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), who (similarly to Hammond in the first film) wants to exploit the dinosaur creations on Isla Sorna’s “Site B” for profit.  He is shown to be totally irredeemable and ends the film as lunch for the captive T-Rex and its baby.  Through his treatment and horrific demise the film seems to posit that exploitation of natural phenomena for profit is bad, period.

Conversely, all of the film’s heroes —  a ragtag band led by Malcolm — feel great pain upon seeing the dinosaurs of Isla Sorna rounded up and caged in an early sequence, a feeling the audience is encouraged to share via multiple shots of the suffering dinos being wrangled, intercut with indignant, pathos-laden reaction shots from the principals.  When one of Malcolm’s sidekicks, an Earth Firster played by Vince Vaughan, decides to set all the dinos free again by cutting the locks on their cages, the other protagonists readily agree, and the subsequent sequence where the dinos run amok, destroying Ludlow’s camp and equipment, is presented by the film as a victory for the humane treatment of other species — note the close-ups of the faces of the stegosaurus and trike in that cage-breaking sequence to see how the film encourages us to empathize with the dinos and their liberators.

Lastly but perhaps most importantly, there is Roland (Pete Postlethwaite), the big game hunter who leads Ludlow’s expeditionary force.  He is the character I have the hardest time accounting for.  He has a very different relationship to the dinos than the liberal, environmentalist heroes of Malcom’s group, yet he is not presented as particularly evil, nor out for profit in quite the same way as Ludlow.  I would like to know more about ecocritical interpretations of big game hunting (and hunters) before I venture to say too much about Roland’s place in The Lost World‘s proceedings.  I only know he is important, and his presence interests and vexes me.

Of course, many of these plot points and melodramatic plays for pathos are bound up in generic considerations: The Lost World is a monster movie, and one of the key strategies of virtually all monster movies is to elicit viewer sympathy for the monster(s) and those human characters who would defend or protect them.  Further, one of the generic pleasures of monster movies is getting to see monsters destroy human cities and civilization — like most horror films, monster films revel in the destructive power of the return of the cultural repressed.  One of the key arguments of my paper (and it is not a new one) is that monster films (like their slightly higher-class cousins, the disaster films) are particularly potent vehicles for environmental messages, precisely because so many cinematic monsters, from King Kong to the giant ants in Them! (1954) to the dinos of the Jurassic Park trilogy, serve as thinly veiled substitutes for real-life animal populations, happily living their lives until they are rendered monstrous due to the incursion of humans into their world. However, these generalities aside, I am especially interested in The Lost World: Jurassic Park because of its specifically environmentalist (and anti-environmentalist) discourses and its plethora of stock characters we would expect to see involved in environmentalist debates: scientists, Earth First activists, big game hunters, and unscrupulous big business CEOS.  Now I just need to sort out what this all means.

(In this connection, I am grateful to Steve for pointing out that there is present-day tourism occurring at the old shooting locations for Jurassic Park.)

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Salma permalink*
    August 29, 2010

    This sounds like a paper with a lot of promise. I couldn’t help pick up on your puzzlement about the Ludlow-honcho character and the query about hunting and ecocritics. It’s a worthwhile idea to pursue as many of the writers that ecocritics admire are devoted hunters (Leopold and Rick Bass come immediately to mind). In general, there’s a long history of sportsmen supporting environmental causes (Roosevelt and his legacy stand out, of course) that can add some interesting commentary to the paper.

  2. srust permalink*
    August 30, 2010

    Initial thoughts:

    Roderick Nash is always a good place to turn of course. Bambi simply can’t be ignored given this context as well as it raised the ire of Hunters upon its release and yet is almost always considered today as a problematic depiction of “nature”. Theresa May has a great theater journal article titled “Beyond Bambi” that’s been key to the development of ecocriticism in theater that might be worth a look. Disney can’t win but I think that’s part of the point. Neither can Spielberg. While Pat Brereton wants to raise him up as an eco-auteur the established core of film historians in SCMS clearly see him as a “malign influence” bringing about the end of New Hollywood. I’m still pissed at him for Jaws.

    As far as hunting goes it reminds me of how “Ducks Unlimited” sees itself as an environmental organization. Save habitat for ducks to shoot more ducks.

    More later?

  3. srust permalink*
    September 1, 2010

    It’s also worth noting here the impact of Isak Dinesen’s ‘Out of Africa’ which reappeared in book clubs in the 80s and led to the oscar award winning film version of her book. Classic melodrama that must’ve influenced Speilberg’s approach to Empire of the Sun and Color Purple in some way and really brought back the image of the great white hunter as standing against imperialism. Redford plays Dennis Fynch-Hatten in the movie.

    Also did I say this before, but think about the Spotted Owl and the efforts of environmentalists to win try to win over hunters – think Jeramiah Johnson, Dances with Salmon, etc.

    Never thought I’d care so much about Jurassic Park II. Do you think the B factor comes into play with that film. How does camp impact ecology?

  4. November 15, 2010

    The best ecocritical work on hunting I know of is David Petersen (2000), HEARTSBLOOD: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Also, of course, there is Paul Shephard’s evolutionary perspective–it comes through in many of his books, but especially THE TENDER CARNIVORE & THE SACRED GAME (1973).

    As SRust noted, Dinesen is a good read (and the film a good show).

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