Friday, July 3, 2015

Life Finds a Way: Jurassic Park's Obsession With Bad Parents (Spoilers for the series)

Jurassic Park is a series about absent parents. The dinosaurs are mostly clones - they were created from mishmashes of frogs and mosquito guts. They're built as living entertainment products, and raised to obey in cages. Subconsciously you know all this, and it's part of why you root for them to eat people so many times. But they aren't the only parentless children in this universe.

Consider Jurassic World's most obligatory characters: the kids. Zach and Gray Mitchell are tourists, put upon to survive, with minimal contribution to problem solving. They are a checklist of child tropes, and one obvious check item is their parents' divorce. The Mitchells sent them to the park to have one last positive memory before their impending split. Zach and Gray know it's coming, and it brings the younger to tears. The people that gave them life and are supposed to raise them won't stick it out. The older brother reflects that at least he'll be out to college in a couple years. These kids don't even expect to rely on their parents.

It's no accident that the dino-obsessed kid is named "Gray," while the lead raptor is "Blue." They're the lead colors of the logo, most of the promotional posters, and the color filters over the film. They are the opposite sides of Jurassic World's obsession with children of questionable parents.

Zach and Gray are also a direct reflection of the Lex and Tim from the first Jurassic Park. John Hammond only drops a line about it, but his grandkids visit because their parents are going through a divorce. He wants to get their minds off the horrible domestic life with his expensive miracle. They are the prime audience for his grown-up vision of a flea circus. He'll alleviate one bad parenting situation with the distraction of another.

It's not until Jurassic World that the humans do anything about their parenting problem. Owen conditions his raptors from when they hatch, trying to domesticate them like hunting dogs or theme park seals. He is an alpha, a father figure, a provider of snacks who cooperates with them. Arguably, caring for him gets at least one of them blown to bits in the field, and another roasted alive. Owen doesn't have anything on a T-Rex parenting.

Arguably the best parents in the Jurassic Park universe are Lost World's T-Rexes. They hunt to feed and protect their child - which is exactly why the movie has Baby Rex get abducted by InGen. The corporation that gave all these dinosaurs life snatches the natural-born T-Rex for a tourist attraction. There is no court or company policy that would stop InGen's owner from doing so. They even pay their big game hunter with the privilege of being allowed to shoot some of their dinos. Daddy Rex rampages through San Diego to get his child back, but is impotent, with no idea of how to do it. It takes the humans maneuvering against each other for alleged justice to be done: Daddy Rex wounds the CEO and lets his child devour him. It's the most warmth between family members in the series, give or take the homicide.

Humans are way worse parents in Lost World. Hammond is unable to get his nephew to stop his abuse of dinosaurs. And in Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm joked about how he's always looking for a new ex-wife. In Lost World, we meet Kelly Malcolm, one of the kids from those relationships, who almost never sees him. She's put in a position to bond with her dad, and he protects her when she's near jeopardy, but his arc is clearly with his latest girlfriend over his child. It stood out to me as I watched the movie twice in one day. Both my parents wanted to take me, but they were separated at the time.

Lost World has an exemplary dynamic of how these movies view uncared-for human and dinosaur children. Malcolm's daughter is unwanted and often in peril. The most complained-about part of the movie is when she uses gymnastics to knock out a raptor. It's supposed to be her moment of empowerment, but instead, we roll our eyes. We know human kids. We don't believe they can do that. They softened it with Jurassic Park 3's little Eric, who survives by figuring out how to avoid dinosaurs, seldom confronting them without fleeing. 

Remember that empowering scene when Lex "hacks" the park's computers to lock out the raptors? And ten seconds later the raptors just jump through the glass. Jurassic Park keeps its human children in peril, operating on parental fears of the worst things that could happen, and activating our desires to protect them. That's why Alan Grant's arc was towards feeling he could be a father in the first film, and why it's so sad he's alone visiting Ellen Sattler's son in the third before going off to rescue another kid that isn't his own. That the theme survived into the Hunger Games generation is a little funny.

But ever since the first movie, we completely believe that cloned dinosaurs, raised in cages and fed livestock in bondage, could hunt us to the last soul if the power went out for an hour. Most of the main dinosaurs in the series, even up to Indominus Rex, have no parents that taught them how to behave or fight. We believe in instincts their environments shouldn't encourage. What animal is going to repeatedly attack cages that electrify them for their trouble? Yet we buy it. Their young can kill while our young feel overprotected by the script for making it out alive.

Which is funnier if you've ever watched Battle Royale. And yes, I want that crossover. Coming next summer: Mockingraptor.
This comic is everywhere, but I can't find attribution anywhere. Can someone help?
No one ever asks the dinosaurs about marriage. Was the pregnant triceratops nervous that her mate would propose before she gave birth? Probably not. And she never contemplated her parents divorcing because she's a lab-bred clone. So why is it that all four movies have the constant juxtaposition of children and dinosaurs born from situations that are falling apart?

"Life finds a way" is a series theme. Perhaps the two entwine with notions of how life empowers: that from the first to latest movie, lost children and dinosaurs find ways to persist. They escape mortal peril and their cages. Indominus Rex hunts while everything else must elude her. Whether it's Alan Grant protecting Lex and Tim, or Jurassic World's kids hotwiring a vintage Jeep, children who can't rely on their birth parents make it through. There's an escapist value to that.

The dinosaurs of these movies are genetic orphans, at least until repopulate. Even then, the forefronted dinosaurs of Jurassic World are lab-grown: we watch Indominus Rex be born. She's presented as evil from birth, having eaten her sibling. Science made her evil, just as the military wanted. It's a theme I suspect they'll explore in Jurassic Park 5, and they should, because so many millions of science dollars go annually to the Military Industrial Complex.

We don't pity Indominus Rex for having such monstrous parents, and it's not just because Frankenstein's themes are played out. To Claire and Owen, she might as well be a Slasher Movie killer. We know she's smart, powerful, and is going to eat at least some of us. Just as the T-Rex of the first movie, she's never framed as a creature for sympathy. Sympathizing with her would get you devoured.
What's that, Rod? The worst monster is man?
We have no problem believing the dinosaurs, with no greater experience than having a cow carcass lowered into their cramped cages for a year, can take out armed security guards. Their ingenuity is innate. It's a rare cinema case where being inhuman means you are exceptionally clever and capable. Raptors opening doors was cinema dynamite in 1993. It changed the way pop film presented monsters.

Which is one reason why I like Jurassic World: the raptors are Owen and Barry's children. They're wild, they have killer instincts, but in a moment Barry's scream makes Blue stop trying eat him. She blinks as though in realization, as though to ask, "Is that you, Dad?"

Whether they're experiencing foster parentage or an interspecies pack mentality, Jurassic World develops the raptors more than it does its humans. A generation ago they learned to open doors. Now they're figuring out how to grow up with us. That doesn't mean they won't eat you, but as many children of divorce can attest, sometimes that's fair.


  1. Wow, you really have spent a lot of time in the Jurassic world. I have to admit, I have only watched one of these movies. I totally bought that the dinosaurs could take the humans down, though. I'm pretty willing to suspend disbelief in general. The parenting aspect is interesting to consider, too.

  2. I saw Jurassic Park once years ago, and I only remember very general details about the story.

    Looks like you've been paying attention to a lot of the details in Jurassic World. I don't think I would've noticed how the colors of the movie posters signal certain characters in the story.

  3. I can't say I've looked at the parenting in the movies as an entity all its own, but you've made some interesting observances here. I thought the divorcing parent them in the newest one was thrown in as an afterthought, which was irritating. It feels like that's how they justify sending kids off alone.

  4. I love this thesis, love the examples you used. I suspect a lot of the Jurassic films are based on out-of-date dino knowledge. Certainly the "missing feathers" aspect has been discussed in the media, but I know the discovery that dinos cared for their young is pretty recent too.

    But the other out-of-date trope you mentioned are the "kids abandoned by divorce". That goes back in Hollywood at least as far as The Parent Trap. Films are always so reluctant to explore the idea that sometimes, at least, divorces are good things, even for the kids.

    Also, you just inspired me to read up on the correct way to set up an electric fence. Sounds like the raptor one was too weak for the raptors' pain tolerance.

  5. I haven't seen Jurassic World yet but I think I was expecting them to play on the "science gone wrong" aspect. After all, it's been a while since we had a 'revenge of nature' film and why not combine that with the evils of genetic engineering? Still, I'll keep an eye out for all of this when I watch it!


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