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Cinematic Dinosaurs & the Apocalyptic Extinction Genre

Posted by Regrette Etcetera on October 8, 2010

Pop-Culture Imaginaries of Radical Neo-Lib Conservation.

A supporting document in the Fauxist Postmodern Bestiaries Project.


– Global Capital & the Family in Jurassic Park 1 & 2

Q: What would you do with a time portal? A: Save animals from the past! “Prehistoric Park” and “Walking with dinosaurs”

Global Capital & the Family in Jurassic Park 1 & 2

‘God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates Man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs’.

A (female) paleontologist replies: ‘[d]inosaurs eat man. Woman inherits earth’.  Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1993) (one of the highest grossing films of all time) and its sequel The Lost World (1997) portray a possible outcome of advanced cloning and nature, the creation of an island themepark-zoo animated by prehistoric animals created by a corporate-scientific collaboration. The key narrative device is the use of preserved ancient genetic material, its combination with contemporary animals, and the effects thereupon when played out in the vicissitudes of the lab, funding, capital etc.  The existence of advanced cloning technologies, associated intellectual property rights (their DNA sequences are altered just enough to make them patentable and thus private property), a market for radical/aesthetic cloning, more radical forms of ecotourism, global capital.

Jurassic Park has widely popularised the idea of surreal cloning (surreal in its temporal extremity), and we can read in it many cautionary ideas regarding extinct/conservation cloning. In a modernist judeo-christian way, it incorporates cautionary tales on a grand scale. However, perhaps the warning is less about the more common GE warning: sentiments, from ‘dinosaurs gone wild’ or ‘humans playing god’ (oh no not another Island of Doctor Moreau, another Godzilla, etc)- than it is about the endless capitalist drive to novelty, the global biopolitics of the spectacle, and global ‘themeparking’ (in nations where the global dinosaurs of the US run wild?).

Beside the catastrophic failure of the park, JP functions as a warning, though perhaps not for obvious reasons. As Turner writes: “Part of the appeal of Jurassic Park is, after all, the domestication via bioengineering of the cloned dinosaurs; what new things can they be genetically made to do, or kept from doing, to keep park visitors entertained?” Jurassic Park is ultimately likely to lose its novelty for the narrow target market that can afford to consume it, or be beaten out by a competitor who has an idea that is, for the moment, better…and  the cycle of planned obsolescence in capitalist production begins anew in The Lost World”. (Turner, 895).

Whatever the results of rampaging reptiles, there still remain rituals of self-congratulation in JP, those concerning geopolitical supremacy and capitalist innovation. In this, cinema creates what Michael Shapiro describes as a ‘moral geography’ of global politics, a cartography that provides orientalist mappings of global politics (Lacy). Susan Sontag argues that science fiction movies are ‘strongly moralistic’, developing a perspective about the ‘proper, or humane, use of science, versus the mad, obsessional use of science’. In this way Jurassic Park and The Lost World articulate what appears to be a ‘counter-cultural’ critique of anthropocentric, technologically advanced society, developing a critique that resonates with the arguments developed in the more radical sectors of critical social and political thought. But these are still funded cultural products, commodities distributed by multinational corporations and are often designed to market consumer goods.

Watching the scenes of hitherto sceptical zoologists, placed as if in a distant past and in awe of the animals, moments redolent with a kind of utopian freedom recur throughout… Modern scientists (here: white parents) touching & commentating upon the dinosaurs, sharing them with their families, thereby circle heteronormative ‘whiteness’ back into deep history. We also see moments of what we call “The Chaotic Sublime”- In other words, the role of Malcolm’s chaos theory in the novel is to serve as a mediating term between capitalism and nature: it reinterprets social forces as natural forces, the embodiment of chaos in predatory animals.

Certain elements kept JP (less so the Lost World) from becoming an apocalyptic-utopic narrative: mostly notable that the dinosaurs are genetically programmed to require certain supplements, without which they die (linking them indelibly to the zoo, the corporation, human control etc). JP is abstractly located on a jungle “island off Costa Rica”- that experimental wonderland of US imperialism, and the horror of Kurtz, dark jungles- and is financed by “Japanese” interests (simultaneously a nod to rising Japanese economic power, cultural difference, and Godzilla?), and the film finds closure and salving of tension by the reunion and resolution of the heterosexuality-nuclear family motif, leaving the stricken, reproductively doomed island behind.

From the 1970s onwards, images depicting the future have been increasingly dystopic: by the 1990s, ecopolitics had become so ingrained in popular consciousness that one movie, Twelve Monkeys, entertained representations of ‘radical’ ecologists attempting to wipe out the human race in a surreal time travel story. (lacy) Indeed, if anything, the films that document acts of resistance exhibit what William Connolly has described as a ‘nostalgia for a politics of place’ (to which We would add ‘time’), an attempt to re-affirm the idea that our territorial forms of liberal democracy are still viable political structures in a period of deterritorialised risk and multinational capitalism; accidents will happen but an ‘open’ society can still restore justice and order.

Q: What would you do with a time portal? A: Save animals from the past! “Prehistoric Park” and “Walking with dinosaurs”

‘The biggest thing on television in 200 million years’   BBC press pack  1999

Other major pop-culture events that combine prehistoric/dinosaur narratives with the zoo are those of Prehistoric Park (6-episode mini-series premiering 29 Oct. 2006) and Walking with dinosaurs (6 part BBC production, 1999). Walking with dinosaurs had an audience of 15 million for the first episode, with another 3.91 million tuning in for the repeat on the following Sunday, making it by far the most watched science programme in British television history (The Guardian, 1999c).

Both use CGI/video technologies to portray dinosaurs and ancient environments in small ‘s’ surreal ways, notably by enabling the inclusion of humans within these spaces/times. Thus there is a further rupture/portal than in JP then, in that humans travel back in time, (as well as dinosaurs ‘forward’), to appear in a pre-cultural/human landscape which is made present only through scientific-media technology, and thus inherently, values.

In making Walking with Dinosaurs, the director realized that, in order to create the sense of immediacy he wanted – what he called his ‘window into a lost world’ – he needed to ensure that his dinosaur protagonists “did not depart too radically from their digital predecessors as envisioned by Spielberg (Jurassic Park), since this image was still fresh in the minds of viewers”. (Scott, 12). As such, prior forms, genres and works constituted a restrictive referential basis or ground for copying, acts of manipulation and recombination, and efforts aimed at further ‘perfecting’ and simulating the already mediated. (2000: 75) Thus, analysing the way in which we choose to represent dinosaurs, an extinct prehistoric life form, has much to tell us about the role which the new media might play, not only in shaping our understanding of the past but also in determining our future relationship to reality itself in the postmodern world. (Scott) .

In Prehistoric Park (PP) and Walking With dinosaurs (WWD), scientists (naturally white, male, anglo, seemingly heterosexual etc etc) travel back in time (via a time portal) to witness and explain an apparently independent reality for us. In PP the teams- acting as ‘vets’ for a zoo-park located in the present- visit times and places (like an oxymoronic “Prehistoric China”) to watch and interpret significant events in evolutionary time (eg. sabre-tooth tigers overpowering flightless birds), and capture/rescue sick or ‘doomed’ dinosaurs as to bring back to safety and control of the contemporary park/zoo etc (also notably utilizing the ‘volcano threat’ narrative). All is controlled and mediated by these scientists who enter ‘the’ past- notably one distant enough to not involve human narratives. (see the series “Walking with cavemen” for this…).

What are the lessons and presumptions of these narratives?

Less the impossibility than so much the expansion of awareness, intervention, and ultimately, control backwards and forwards in (deep) time-space, information technologies that can represent any reality, and reopen a speculative and spectacular past that capitalism and contemporary culture and nature can be written onto. Also that zoos or conservation parks are/would remain the most effective form of care, control and appropriate knowing. Thus scientific knowledge, intervention and control becomes timeless, becomes less sci-fi, less about alternate social realities, the nature-film genre eternal, television eternal.

Wwd and PP show possible versions of an interpretive/educational use of the time/nature/culture flux, unquestioned and devoid of almost any social comment. Such works seem to differentiate themselves from something like Jurassic Park by their educational/ethical/conservation zoo framework, avoiding the clumsy capitalist critique.



– Alan Cholodenko  “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR”: The Virtual Reality of Jurassic Park and Jean Baudrillard     International Journal of Baudrillard Studies   Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005),

– Michael Matthews   Walking with Cavemen—fact or fiction?, AiG–US  17 June 2003



One Response to “Cinematic Dinosaurs & the Apocalyptic Extinction Genre”

  1. […] Cinematic Dinosaurs & the Apocalyptic Extinction Genre […]

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