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What “Jurassic World” Teaches Us About Pope Francis’ New Encyclical

June 30, 2015


(Spoiler alert! This article contains details about the movie Jurassic World.)

Fourteen years after the third installment of the Jurassic Park trilogy, the fourth film has finally come to theaters. Unlike the last two, this one takes place on the fictional island named Isla Nublar, home of the original Jurassic Park. Like Disney World to its older, smaller and less awe-inspiring sister Disneyland, Jurassic World towers over the original park with its vast technological advancements, luxurious amenities and, not surprisingly, much bigger and more terrifying dinosaurs.

It’s an enjoyable summer film. I don’t think it rivals the original one, which still holds a special place in my heart. My preference for the first one might partially have to do with nostalgia over merit, but Spielberg’s version has stood the test of time. With quirky characters like Dennis Nedry and Dr. Malcolm and unforgettable scenes involving night vision goggles, a rippling cup of water and a toilet, there was just no way this one was going to top it. Still, Jurassic World is a decent film. The story is very similar to the original one–throw in a big dinosaur that makes its way out of an enclosure, some greedy and arrogant businessmen, two awkwardly-aged siblings and, of course, some velociraptors and you have the recipe for a summer blockbuster.

It’s interesting that this film, which is blatantly cautionary about the misuse of nature, science and technology, came out right before the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home). At moments, it’s as if the filmmakers anticipated the papal warnings about the exploitation of technology, the moral implications of genetic modification and the unhindered drive toward “progress” for the purposes of consumerist entertainment and soaring profits.

“…The most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man.” (Laudato Si, 4)

In Jurassic World, this “turning against man” that Pope Francis speaks of comes in the form of a white, genetically modified dinosaur. More than twenty years after the close of John Hammond’s original Jurassic Park, the amusement park is operating again under the ownership of Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), CEO of the Masrani Global Corporation. The film begins with two brothers heading to the park to visit their aunt Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s Senior Assets Manager, and enjoy a vacation at this fantastical, prehistoric world. Claire proves a passive and distracted aunt, preoccupied instead with projected profits and the unveiling of the newest attraction primed to create the “wow factor” guests crave. The plateauing profits mark the public’s increasing boredom with the park’s current dinosaurs, which is why a new, genetically modified dinosaur has been concocted. Claire stands in contrast to Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a Velociraptor trainer and expert, who is critical of the disregard for these animals’ well being and the consumerism-feeding blindness that has beset many of the park’s stakeholders.

It doesn’t take long before this GMO dinosaur, ironically named Indominus Rex, which means “Untamable King,” escapes its cage. The animal’s ability to become camouflage and avoid thermal detection, combined with its unparalleled intelligence, enables it to escape. These unnatural qualities are the result of fusing DNA from a host of other animals (both extinct and non-extinct). And so sets up the ensuing scenes that are packed with the dinosaur’s frenzied killing of everything in its path as it makes its way to the center of the park where over 20,000 unaware and enthused guests are staying.

Although the film gives light to a handful of warnings and truths echoed by Pope Francis, a primary one is the disordered greed for profit at the grave expense of other human beings and animals.

“But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” (Laudato Si, 34)

We are reminded that John Hammond, the original owner of Jurassic Park, created the park to suggest our smallness in the scope of all of history and nature–to garner a sense of humility in the face of the sublimity and beauty of creation. It’s in praising creation as is, God’s first book of revelation to Man, that we come to know God more fully and our place in His masterwork. Even one of the park’s tech-savvy operators refers to the original park as “legit” because of its focus on the wonder of the animals themselves as opposed to the need to continually shock and awe guests for the crude sake of heftier profits.

This unhealthy desire to control nature for selfish “interests” is directly highlighted by Vic Hodges (Vincent D’Onofrio), the park’s head of security operations. Hodges sees the ability to control the velociraptors as a great “weapon” to be used in war. His respect for these animals extends insofar as they can serve his agenda for power and control. For him, nature allows for a refining of the strongest–a pruning of all that is weak or seemingly useless–so the true “alpha” can rise and take dominion over all of creation. His worldview leaves no room for compassion or humility–it embodies senseless brutality and unmeasured might. It’s a view that stands in contrast to Owen’s view of the animals, and to a larger extent nature. In one scene Owen corrects Hodges, telling him that his relationship with the raptors is not based on control, but rather, “mutual respect.” The “nature” Hodges chooses to envision ultimately becomes his reality when he is killed by one of the raptors. Furthering this theme of control (or lack thereof), Masrani ironically says at one point, “The key to a happy life is to accept you are never actually in control.” It’s unfortunate that Masrani, Hodges and other characters in the film do not heed this critical piece of wisdom.

“It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” (Laudato Si, 33)

Pope Francis also contends that our desire for control can mount to heights of emulating the Divine Craftsman, plucking, yet again, fruit from the Tree of Knowledge:

The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).” (Laudato Si, 66)

Again, this disruption in harmony is enfleshed via a grotesque dinosaur that destroys everything–both human beings and other dinosaurs–for no reason. The white, albino character of the Indominus Rex may also be a nod to the whale in Moby Dick. The “whiteness,” in this film–like in Melville’s book–alludes to the danger and power of nature. This lack of respect for nature leads to a blind, mindless evil–the manifestation of sin itself. The animal’s dealing of terror, suffering and death is humanity’s own fault–it’s merely the “disordered” consequence of sinning against nature.

“Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things.” (CCC 339)

Ultimately, the characters are saved not by technology–the “progress” of human development–or even themselves. It’s their cooperation with nature that leads to the destruction of the Indominus Rex. Owen’s act of “mutual respect” toward the raptors–the removal of the military device from the “beta” raptor’s head that signals the restoring of the animal’s freedom and dignity–wins over the animals’ support. This is combined with Claire’s literal freeing of the Tyrannosaurus Rex from its cage. The natural species of dinosaurs (or as “natural” as possible accounting for the limits of resurrecting extinct animals), when shown “value” in and of themselves collaborate to save them. When they begin interacting with nature as respectful stewards as opposed to against it as domineering tyrants, they are able to overcome the chaos and terror due to sinfulness and destroy the Indominus Rex.

Of course, the solution for saving our world from its sin-spawned brokenness does not come from simply cooperating with nature. That’s only a secondary element to the solution. Rather, it comes primarily from an ordering of our lives to God and to the service of others in a spirit of humility and love.

“…the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems…require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. [Patriarch Bartholomew] asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing,  an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs.” (Laudato Si, 9)

At the end of the day, this is just a fun, summer action movie. But nevertheless, it calls to mind some serious issues that Pope Francis explores and warns against in his brilliant new encyclical. Pope Francis offers a solution that is the same one we’ve heard for 2,000 years. In order to create a flourishing, sustainable and habitable world we have to work as co-creators with God, calling upon His Spirit and guidance as we progress toward the future. As we hear in Pope Francis’ prayer at the conclusion of his encyclical, it’s in rightful praise of Him, the Creator of all creation, that we will learn to properly care for our shared home and every creature that dwells in it.

“Father, we praise you with all your creatures.
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!”