‘Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should’, says Ian Malcolm – all clad in black like a nerd rock star – to the congregation of genetic engineers swooning over their wondrous achievement of cloning long-extinct dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park. The lesson of the 1993 classic, which by the way is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, is that we should perhaps think twice before acting on our radical ideas because we may not have the acumen or necessary understanding of the world to handle the consequences.
Ironically, the takeaway message from that old movie about a sad old man clinging to some childhood nostalgia and consequently resurrecting a whole host of long-extinct animals, which were never meant to cohabit the world together with humans, became an illustration of the very thing the story was warning against. The seemingly self-contained and uniquely brilliant story escaped from its paddock and wrought terror upon the unsuspecting world. I suppose, at this point at least one finger should be pointed at the Scarfmeister General Steven Spielberg himself, who personally convinced Michael Crichton that the world of Jurassic Park could give birth to more narratives. One thing led to another, and we are now in a universe that knows not two, not three, but six distinct movies set in this universe, all connected by the thinnest of threads; just about enough to sustain a logic flowing from one movie to another without raising too many eyebrows.
Nevertheless, we are not here to discuss the franchise woes of the Jurassic Park, however tempting it may be. What I believe its case is useful for is understanding how the landscape of sequel propagation has shifted in the last decade-or-so, as we have progressed from simply appending another chapter onto an already existing narrative continuity – with or without its principal protagonists – to wholesale remaking the original movie with a handful of tweaks, and a pair of new characters to coexist briefly with the original stars until either a baton is passed, or the oldies give up the ghost. Or both. Thus, the film would be perfectly capable of cashing in on nostalgia for the original drawing the audiences into what essentially is a classed-up ersatz of what they may remember as a formative cinematic experience. In addition, younger generations of filmgoers, perhaps not well-attuned to the idea of swooning over movies older than themselves, would get their kicks as well at minimum cost to the storytellers who get to push out a product they never had to put together from scratch because the template had been there for decades.
Remember that time not too long ago when Nokia announced they were bringing back their legendary Nokia 3310, the indestructible meme of a phone? It looked, at least from afar, just like the original from the 90s, with that sexy curve to its form and tactile physical buttons. However, it was by all accounts a modern phone running on an ersatz Android OS lookalike and capable of doing mostly everything its competitors could. It was just chunky, clunky and not as intuitive in usage as you’d typically expect a modern smartphone to be. Its battery wasn’t as good as other phones, and the screen was quite a bit smaller than what you’d have grown used to. That’s because it was not invented to push the boundaries of technological development or to offer a functional alternative to the state of the art. It was there to make you feel a certain way. It was made to cash in on your nostalgia for the device you had when you were younger, and maybe for younger buyers to buy into some kind of a retro-tech appreciation. It was a nostalgia sequel – a phone that looked (kind of) like the one you remember having, but it just wasn’t the same. It was supposed to give you a brief dopamine rush, which I suppose it did even if you didn’t buy it. Just the thought of it re-emerging as a product you could obtain or at least interact with while out and about in your local shopping mall was probably enough to trick your brain into releasing some of that good stuff into your bloodstream.
Arguably, this MO of focusing squarely on tickling the viewers’ nostalgia glands and having them flock to cinemas like heroin addicts craving a fix from their local merchant of death has been immensely successful in the world of moviemaking. Tron: Legacy, perhaps one of the seminal nostalgia sequels in the modern era, made a lot of money. So did Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed. Star Wars: The Force Awakens became one of the biggest movies of all time. And don’t get me wrong: I am not here to harp on these movies because they are all great in their own right. Watching them, especially at the time, felt amazing. But I suppose – and I don’t have any direct experience in this matter so I can only speculate – shooting your first dose of heroin probably feels fantastic too.
So, we could potentially argue – perhaps quite successfully – that what’s driving the current state of big budget theatrical entertainment is underpinned by fundamental human biology. We are locked in a loop of dopamine chasing. Now, dopamine, the powerful neurotransmitter that it is, is just a tool for our brain to reward itself. We get it in exchange for a job well done. Our brains administer it straight into our bloodstream to make us feel good. What seems to define our current era is biological hedonism – a relentless pursuit of dopamine release while bypassing the hard work required for our brain to reach this decision on its own. From narcotics to porn addiction, we are societally locked in a recursive loop of chasing after brief spikes of dopamine that has turned our civilization into a drug-addled zombie; and this trend has spilled over profoundly onto big screen entertainment.
After all, what are all those legacy sequels trying to achieve? I don’t think anyone worth their weight in salt would ever suggest that – entertaining as they are – these highly profitable and mostly extremely likeable movies are ever attempting anything remotely original. In fact, they are perhaps coldly calculated to hit specific beats and negotiate their way into our cerebral headroom to dupe our brains into thinking we deserve a reward. The Force Awakens is a straight-up remake of Star Wars from 1977. Jurassic World isn’t even hiding the fact it is blatantly retracing the steps of its seminal predecessor. In fact, in this case, you wouldn’t be wrong if you noticed that all Jurassic Park sequels essentially remake or otherwise repackage the original, but the 2015 Colin Trevorrow-directed movie openly recreates specific shots, re-sketches familiar characterizations and re-engineers set pieces to make sure you as a viewer think this movie somehow subliminally connects you to that movie you remember and gambles on a possibility you loved it at the time. Therefore, it creates a faux response in your brain.
Why do you think Top Gun: Maverick re-imagines the familiar beach volleyball scene? Why do you hear the signature bell sound from its iconic theme? Why did J.J. Abrams get Harrison Ford to reprise his role in The Force Awakens? Why does Ghostbusters: Afterlife sport an utterly indulgent final sequence with CG-recreated late Harold Ramis? It’s all for you to remember movies you find formative. It’s a cold-blooded calculation to go after properties from late 70s and 80s because the box office war is won by way of convincing the middle-aged demographic to go to the cinema. Twenty-somethings and teenagers don’t really need convincing. It’s the aging millennials and Gen-Xers who need coercing because they are too busy working their butts off to pay off their mortgages, taxiing their kids between school and extra-curricular activities and the alternative of just plonking themselves on the sofa to watch whatever is hot on Netflix at the moment is often too powerful to contend with using conventional marketing means.
In fact, TV has caught up to this trend of fighting for the attention of the middle-aged popculture-savvy viewer and all entertainment is now geared towards capitalizing on the nostalgia of the 35-45-year-old man who grew up with Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, Rocky, and Top Gun. And I think we are slowly starting to see diminishing returns on this process. As is the case with any addiction, the human brain adapts to continued stimulus and a dose needs to be upped for it to be effective. Thus, a downward spiral begins as – just as a heroin addict will require a more potent shot to fly into the nether – we require our nostalgia sequels tickled ever more egregiously to elicit a noticeable response. As time goes on, I can only imagine the state of big budget entertainment can only deteriorate like a brain on drugs. References will overshadow storytelling, blatant visual point-scoring will take over completely as studio producers who drank the Kool-Aid will keep their fingers crossed that we don’t collectively wake up from the opium-induced slumber. Because when we do, cinema as an industry may flatline. And we’ll have to check ourselves into cultural rehab.
And I suppose it is in our interest to do so as soon as humanly possible because the danger is that future generations – those who see the movies we have now as formative – will one day find themselves in a similar recursive loop, nostalgically hooked on dopamine administered by movies referencing the entertainment of their salad days. Problem is, those movies will be regurgitating the movies which are already regurgitating the entertainment from three decades ago. So, you can’t exactly expect those future movies to be particularly original, can you? Will people my age thirty years from now look at Jurassic World with the same mixture of awe and excitement that I view the 1993 Jurassic Park? Will they see Kylo Ren as an icon of Darth Vader’s calibre? Or will they be able to look past nostalgia sequels and direct their admiration towards movies as old for them as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is for me now?
It’s possible. But we must agree it is highly unlikely. After all, it takes mental preparation and purpose to look at movies from six decades ago and enjoy them without the veil of history obscuring our vision. Do we want our kids to have a relationship with Michael Keaton as Batman because they will remember him from the 2023 The Flash? I think I’d like them to be aware of the 1989 Batman and maybe – even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of it – establish a personal connection to Robert Pattinson’s rendition of this iconic character.
To bring this tirade back to where it started, I strongly believe we must heed the lessons of Jurassic Park and cease to clone dinosaurs for our own amusement because we don’t know what we are doing. We are not equipped to even comprehend the ramifications of how we are warping our culture by indulging in incessant dopamine chasing. Instead, we should let dinosaurs evolve into birds so that we could admire them as such, just as Alan Grant admired a majestic pelican (or a pelican-esque bird; shoot me, I am not an ornithologist and at this point I am not going to research the bird they used in the movie!) on his way out of Isla Nublar.
Let’s face it: this trend is going to blow up in our faces, sooner or later. Life finds a way. Cinema will find one, too. But, at what cost? And will we be around to see it? Or will we be completely braindead by the time it happens?