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Mindless Entertainment While Awaiting the Next Mass Extinction

Hard on the heels of “Mad Max: Fury Road”, George Miller’s attempt to exploit the success of his previous three films in this series, come “Poltergeist” and “Jurassic World”, retreads of two vintage films with a Stephen Spielberg imprint and playing at your local Multiplex (“Jurassic World” opens everywhere tomorrow). Spielberg wrote the screenplay for “Poltergeist” in 1982 and directed “Jurassic Park” in 1993. Haven’t had your fill of remakes? Then put “Terminator Genisys” on your to-see list. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role (you were expecting Ryan Gosling maybe?), you would have to adopt a suspension of disbelief to regard this 67-year old actor of being capable of terminating anything except an appointment with his urologist.

In technical terms, some in the film industry distinguish between remakes and reboots (or retools). A remake is fairly close to the original, like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” while the other approach involves a new interpretation entirely—the most egregious case being the monumentally stupid “47 Ronin”, a travesty that starred Keanu Reeves as the leader of a samurai suicide mission. The only suicide worth considering is that risked by a serious film buff as a reaction to this CGI-laden mess that includes a shape-shifting monster. The inspiration appears to be the Hercules films rather than the austere 1962 classic “Chūshingura”.

After having been besieged by fans of “Mad Max: Fury Road” as a snob with a prejudice against action films for dubbing it “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I wish I could make amends by saying that “Jurassic World” was “fresh”. Unfortunately, it shares the same flaws as the other film, namely a tendency to make such retreads only faster and louder than the original, as well as stripped of character development and wit.

Having received an invitation to see a press screening of the 3D version of “Jurassic World” last Tuesday in an Imax theater, I went there with the same sort of expectation of mindless entertainment that I had for “Mad Max: Fury Road”. To reprise the opening lines of my review that provoked dozens of Mad Max fans into a pitchfork armed assault on my blog, I would say that “Jurassic World” was indeed mindless but entertaining not so much.

Before saying anything about this retread, I should state for the record that I have a soft spot for some of Spielberg’s work, particularly “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET”. I also found “Jurassic Park” entertaining but less so for the rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex than for Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm who had such memorable lines: “What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” (I wonder what Edward Abbey would have made of this film.)

There are no such characters in “Jurassic World”. The male lead is an ex-GI named Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) who is training Velociraptors for combat. They are part of the menagerie on the island where dinosaurs have been regenerated from DNA mixed with that of other species for the pleasure of tourists. He is like most characters found in films geared to the “Clearasil Crowd”, as Edward Jay Epstein referred to the target teen audience in his magisterial “The Hollywood Economist”, cast for his six-pack abdomen rather than his acting skills.

Opposite him is the park’s operations manager Claire Dearing, who is played by Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard as a career-driven yuppie who neglects her two nephews who are there as tourists. The nephews, as is the case in all the juvenile characters in the Jurassic Park franchise, are totally annoying. The plot of the film, such as it is, is Owen and Claire teaming up to rescue the boys who are in danger of becoming appetizers for a T-Rexish looking dinosaur that has been assembled together from the DNA of nasty creatures past and present. If you are expecting the sort of witty repartee found in the original, you will be sorely disappointed. If on the other hand you get some kicks out of a CGI dinosaur gobbling down the men sent out to kill it, be my guest. Like the case of the swordfish that impaled a fisherman to death a couple of weeks ago, I am inclined to root for the beast.

There is an attempt to elevate the film somewhat by posing the important question of animals being used for military purposes. You could not help but think of the dolphins currently being trained to do mine clearance, for example. Since it is hard to care that much for creatures that are purely pixels, it was (at least for me) something that never generated an emotional response.

If there’s any value in this film other than as mindless entertainment, it is to get you thinking about the extinction of dinosaurs since the question of a Sixth Extinction is very topical right now. To deploy some dialog from “Jurassic Park” on this:

Dr. Ellie Sattler: So, what are you thinking?

Dr. Alan Grant: We’re out of a job.

Dr. Ian Malcolm: Don’t you mean extinct?

Sixty-five million years ago some cataclysmic event took place that rendered every last dinosaur extinct, except for those that had wings (ie., the earliest ancestor of the modern bird.) Just a couple of days before the “Jurassic World” screening, I caught a National Geographic show based on the dominant theory about what happened. It was based on the research of Walter Alvarez, a Berkeley professor and author of “T-Rex and the Crater of Doom”.

Alvarez believes that an asteroid made an immense crater near the town of Chicxulub in the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago. Topping the force of a million hydrogen bombs, the impact was so great that everything that walked the earth was either burned to death or suffocated within months. It also took the lives of most marine animals. It was only the mammals that had existed in burrows beneath the surface of the earth or the flying dinosaurs that survived. If this was a cataclysm for the creatures that struck the fancy of the tourists in Jurassic World, it was also a blessing for the mammals that inherited the earth. Without that asteroid smashing into the planet, intelligent life would never have evolved. (I use the term loosely given the state of most Hollywood movies.)

Jworldrexbig-jurassic-world-the-hunt-for-indominus-rex-is-on

There have been challenges to Alvarez’s theory, mostly on the basis of evidence that three other Mesozoic Era (ie., the 180 million period that came to an end with the cataclysm that occurred 65 million years ago) extinctions were caused by earthquake and volcano eruptions that were related to each other. A prominent defender of this theory is Marc Fisher, another scientist at Berkeley and a life-long friend of Walter Alvarez. As opposed to the radical movement, scientists can often be good friends despite having theoretical differences. Perhaps that is a function of Fisher not being as dogmatic as some on the left. He allows that the asteroid hitting Chicxulub might have triggered the volcanic eruptions that were based in the Deccan Traps of India.

Fisher states that the Deccan Traps were the result of volcanoes triggered by an earthquake that registered 11 on the Richter scale. By comparison, there has only been a couple that registered a 9 in recorded history.

The National Geographic documentary ended on a worrisome note. It said that another object hurtling through space constituting the same kind of threat would almost certainly arrive in another 100 million years or so. As grim as our immediate future seems with global warming, the threat of nuclear war, virus epidemics for which there is no cure, etc., the thought of a million hydrogen bombs blasting off at once is a nightmare scenario.

Lately I have been puzzling over the question of the origins of the universe as well as its end. I cannot visualize the first occurrence since I lack the training in physics to make that possible. The end seems a lot easier to grasp. There is first of all the looming Sixth Extinction, an end to the Anthropocene era as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it. Somehow I have doubts that this will be as categorical as what took place 65 million years ago. Instead I see a long, slow steady decline in which the ruling classes will retreat more and more to “gated communities” protected by private armies.

The arrival of another asteroid or comet is another story. If that is the end of us, it surely is the end of intelligent life in the universe—itself an event contingent on the last asteroid that made the mammal supreme. I have guarded hopes for the future since there is a strong tendency for homo sapiens to act on behalf of the collective, just as the case with the Bonobos, our closest relative.

If we can only get through the next thousand years, we should enjoy smooth sailing once we excise the capitalist ruling class that has reigned supreme for the past half-millennia or so. Considering the fact that we have been around for 200,000 years, that means that private property occupies about 2 ½ minutes in the day of human history. A very bad 2 ½ minutes but one that we should be able to put behind us.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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