Jurassic Park (1993, Stephen Spielberg) has the same message as an engineered oil-based bread spread branding campaign. This may or may not be an oversimplification.
How do you reconcile a movie clearly about the dangers of Man tinkering with the environment, when the author of the source novel was such a raving climate change denying lunatic? As an author, Michael Crichton made a large fortune playing on the public’s fears of technology falling into the wrong hands. He had a story-teller’s grasp of technology, but was paranoid about its implementation. In reality, it was humans he was paranoid of, not the technology. In Crichton’s book State of Fear, climate change science was used maliciously by a “bad scientist.” SOF was about a scientist who falsified climate change data for political reasons. When, in a case of Art meet Life, it was Crichton himself who provided testimony at a Senate hearing chaired by James Inhofe (R-OK). Inhofe and Bush42 both bought into this bunk of science truth from a science fiction writer. Crichton played the roll of technology prognosticator well. I sort of get the sense that Jeff Goldblum’s character in JP, Dr. Ian Malcolm, was channeling a bit of wanna-be-Crichton. Malcolm is a mathematician and self-professed “chaotician,” – the application Chaos Theory to practical real-life scenarios. That’s sounds like Crichton all right. Given this, it gives me pause to read JP as a warning about man’s hubris when it comes to mother nature.
Chiffon Margarine gave us the same message in thirty seconds. For Chiffon, nature was indeed something to be monkeyed with – in fact it was their business model, turning cotton-seed oil into butter-ish. The 1977 classic Chiffon TV commercial ends with the famous lines, “That’s Chiffon margarine, not butter … Chiffon’s so delicious it fooled even you, Mother Nature.” Vexed at the trickery, Mother Nature responds pissed-off with her signature line “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” quickly followed by lightning, a crack of thunder, and additional threats (such as an elephant to charge the camera). It’s not real butter and that’s its marketing advantage. In the butter-topping game, humans, God and animals are at odds.
JP explores this tension as well. It’s a cute little adventure film where a Scottish-Walt-Disney–cum-Santa-Wanna-Be, reconstitutes dinosaurs from DNA captured in amber in order to create a theme park where kids can finally experience, as he calls it, “something real, not like a flea circus.” Santa(Richard Attenborough) wanted to play God. He wanted to bioengineer Real.
This concept of engineered nature is explored nowhere better than the NextNature blog. The blog is a great catalogue and dialogue of projects looking to explore printable foods, virtual reality, biomimicry augmented bodies and so on. Its approach is decidedly different than Crichton’s – NextNature embraces technology as a savior, or, worse, as a “natural” evolution of humanity. It is progress. NextNature is about imagining what’s possible, without the pessimistic lens of most science fiction. JP could have been a NextNature idea.
In JP, man has tinkered with the DNA sequence of dinosaurs to reintroduce them in a controlled environment. But, of course, nature is not a controlled environment, so chaos happens. Take for example the 1991 Biodome project where eight scientists were to lived in a controlled natural environment (biodome) for two years. That project was remarkably unsuccessful, with less teeth and CGI. JP only cost $63M, while Biosphere 2 cost nearly $200 million to build, with an additional cost of about $1 million per year for fossil fuels to keep all the systems running. Biosphere 2’s biggest disappointment was a man named Steve Bannon. Yes, that Steve Bannon – Brietbart, Alt-Right, racist, Trump lackey, Steve Bannon. Bannon was the Executive Director of the project. Biosphere 2 (Earth is Biosphere 1) was based loosely on the 1972 movie Silent Running. Silent running starred Bruce Dern an intergalactic treehugger, was sort of a Monkey Wrench Gang meets Battle Star Galactica. Bruce Dern is the actor-father of Laura Dern who played Dr. Ellie Stattler a paleobotanist in JP. Anyway, like Bannon, Biosphere 2 was a total failure. The project ”ended bitterly with allegations of financial fraud, scientific goof-ups, and a power struggle outside the dome” according to Wired Magazine.
Like Biosphere 2, bad leaderships, rocky science, a faulty energy and security grid underpin the plot of JP. And all this bioengineering goes horribly wrong under the guidance of Crichton. But the connection here is that Next-Nature, or faux-nature, man-made nature, or synthetic ecology is incredibly prevalent today – we don’t need fiction for it. We see it in waterfalls inside of malls, in manicured rafting excursions alongside Disney Hotels, indoor rock gyms, and even in the uncanny valley of artificial intelligence. In a way, these are attempts to neuter nature – to leave the appearance of the wild, but remove the risk of the wild. That’s what JP attempts to portray, a nature that is neutered – kind of literally in that only female dinosaurs are “grown” to keep the monsters from breeding. Of course, the do though. “Life finds a way,” as Dr. Malcolm reminds us. And they get out and they eat people and it’s all wrapped up in the end when a few select (the right) people survive.
I think this melange of topics – Crichton, Hubris, Climate Change and Butter Toppings – come down to wrestling with one of the core underpinnings of the climate denier – that nature is too strong and self-regulated to be affected by man. Man can’t be responsible for climate change, the ecosystem is too vast. And, yet, if man can synthesize nature, then man can make natural disasters over the long haul. Deniers want it both ways – we are both god-like and second to nature. Chaos theory says LIFE finds a way, not MAN finds a way.
One of Crichton’s early (1969) novels, The Andromeda Strain, was about scientists investigating an extraterrestrial virus in Arizona (maybe not far from Oracle, Arizona where Biosphere 2 sat). Through JP though, Crichton drops his guard. The virus is not, as Crichton would have us believe, “in” technology or “from” outside. In JP and in real life, we are the virus.
We are always the virus.