WHEN: 9:00am EST, August 10th, 2013

WHERE: In my apartment in Portland, ME

FORMAT:  DVD on a 19” AOC LED computer monitor

COMPANY: None.

MENTAL STATE: Just woke up, the morning after seeing Blackfish.

BY NO MEANS A GOOD IDEA:

Huge, intelligent, carnivorous animals are removed from their natural habitat and put on display for hordes of tourists. The ethics of the situation are sketchy at best, and despite employee deaths, management wants to continue their plans without skipping a beat. It doesn’t take a chaotician to know that it’s a recipe for disaster.

But you see, I’m not talking about Jurassic Park, I’m talking about SeaWorld, and as the excellent documentary Blackfish points out, it’s very painfully real.

Blackfish1

BLACKFISH:

In 2010, a trainer was killed by an orca whale at SeaWorld in Florida. This would be horrible enough in its own right, but it soon came out that the whale had killed twice before. Blackfish, a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, explores the incidents surrounding this event. From the capture of baby wild orcas in the ’70s to current conditions at SeaWorld parks, the film uses firsthand interviews with trainers and wildlife experts to paint a shocking picture of an amusement park gone wrong.

Seeing this film, which highlights SeaWorld management’s irresponsible actions, poor animal treatment, and crass marketing campaigns, made me think about the parallels to Jurassic Park. As will happen when comparing the fictitious to the genuine, Jurassic Park suddenly felt very hollow, and I was struck by how much deeper into reality Spielberg’s film might have delved.

THEY’RE JUST MONSTERS:

The specimens on display at Jurassic Park are never treated like complex wild animals; they’re treated like monsters. “They should all be destroyed,” says Muldoon in a statement that, by the end of the film, the surviving characters will probably agree with. The Raptors are dangerous fiends. Case closed. Did you see what they did to that nice cow? How horrible.

ScaryRaptor

This isn’t a zoo, it’s more like a scene from Alien.

Blackfish explores how, despite being dangerous carnivorous predators, orca whales are intelligent gregarious animals with complex social structures, and what may even amount to language. It made the viewer fearful for the trainers in their tanks, but also saddened by the poor conditions in which the animals had to live.

One can see why Jurassic Park would eschew such distinctions. It’s a lot easier for the dinosaurs to be portrayed as bloodthirsty demons. If the animals in your film are just monsters, you only need one angle to your story: how to get the humans out alive. But if the animals are complex intelligent creatures with defined families, the situation becomes much more complex… and troubling.

The raptors are shown to be intelligent, cooperative creatures who work together to achieve their ends. This ought to make us question: how intelligent are they? Do they have a sense of self? What are the ethics of this situation?

CONFLICTED EMPLOYEES:

The most striking elements of Blackfish were the interviews with former trainers. These are dedicated, caring professionals, so when they talk about incidents where their fellow trainers were killed, there is a palpable conflict. They love their profession, and working with the animals, but they know that keeping them in captivity is both dangerous to human and cruel to the orcas. It’s a truly compelling dynamic.

So what does SeaWorld’s fictional counterpart have for caring trainers?

Harding

Harding: a veterinarian so bad at his job that he is put to shame by a specialist in fossilized plants.

Jurassic Park fails to show any of its park’s animal handlers as genuinely feeling for their wards. Muldoon even wants to euthanize them. What a wonderfully real, complex character we could have had if they had included a zoologist who actually cared about the animals endangering him! Someone who disapproved of the park’s practices, but still deeply cared about his or her job working with the animals. What a sadly missed opportunity.

THE BLURRED LINE BETWEEN THEME PARK AND ZOO:

Zoos can be very valuable for research which can help us better understand the animals with whom we inhabit this planet. Much can be learned, and education can be furthered. But when the focus shifts from education to amusement, the merit disappears. When facts about the animals on display are warped to fit a company line (saying, for instance, that the normal lifespan of an orca is 40, when it’s closer to 80, because they only live till 40 in captivity), it becomes completely inexcusable. Leaving Blackfish, the viewer is struck by the fact that SeaWorld is by no means an institute for study; it’s a circus.

Orca

It is openly stated that Jurassic Park is a combination zoo and theme park. Yet, despite the many accusations hurled at the park over the course of film, this is never brought up as a true loss. Never before have these prehistoric animals been seen by human eyes, but rather than study them, the first action taken is to parade them before tourists. Malcolm bemoans the “plastic lunchbox” commercialism of it all, but it goes deeper than that. Education and study do not mesh well with entertainment and marketing, and it’s obvious which of these is going to be left by the wayside.

JURASSIC PARK’S FAILURES:

The best films will hold a mirror up to nature, and make us reevaluate the world around us. Blackfish does this exquisitely. It also shows us how blurry and ineffective is the mirror that Jurassic Park tries to hold.

Sattler talks about being unable to control an extinct ecosystem. SeaWorld is a perfect example of how we are unable to control, or even fully comprehend, one single modern animal. Though Jurassic Park still weaves a fun yarn, how much more intriguing might it have been had it drawn a little more from its awful real-world counterpart.

Seek out Blackfish, you won’t regret it.

THE FUTURE:

Recently there were rumors that Jurassic Park IV (which is now in pre-production) would return to Isla Nublar, now up and running as, you guessed it, a SeaWorld-esque amusement park. While there’s no guarantee that this will make it to the screen (it has since been implied that these details might be from an abandoned draft of the script), at least it shows that someone involved is keeping their ear to the ground. Perhaps, whatever form it may take, Jurassic Park IV will take some of the opportunities that the other films have missed. Or it might just bungle the whole thing and embarrass everyone by trying to draw a comparison. Either one.