The Digitized Ancients

Huw Lemmey



Anna Zett presents a crisp and powerful silent lecture, using a series of animated GIFs (with titles) to talk about the relationship between production and subject in the history of dinosaurs films, most notably the Jurassic Park series (1993-2001) and The Lost World (1925).

Zett's compelling argument positions the history of the cinesaur as being about understanding the relationship between modern science and nature (of course), but also about the U.S. writing itself a new prehistory: one that doesn't trouble itself with who might have called the continent home before the arrival of the white subject.

Jurassic Park, she claims, is a celebration of computer effects, yet also displays a deep distrust of computers. What follows in Jurassic Park 2 is an either starker contrast: all technology but the radio is destroyed. In 3, all that is left is a boat and a satellite phone. Of course, Zett says, we are supposed to think Jurassic Park is posing us questions on the technological intervention of man into nature, and the height of man's techno hubris. On screen, however, CGI has already won — and so has the Jurassic Park brand, which is available on the silver screen even before the cinemagoer has chance to buy their own t-shirts and lunch boxes on sale, in the foyer, now.

This contradiction is as old as the dinosaur itself — a beast positioned as both scientific and phantastic, old and new, a precious, rare original and a cheap reproduction: the dinosaur represents symbolically the modern contradiction.

The dinosaur, Zett claims, is the true animal mascot of the U.S. American Empire. A lost giant that once ruled the world, but then disappeared, only to be resurrected by those miners, biologists and frontiersmen. Discovered at the birth of the modern era: "all those modern scientists, all those American dreamers, caught in a bad romance at the frontiers of progress and accumulation".

In the US, she claims, dinosaurs were resurrected to symbolise the death of the ancient Other, but also the dinosaur is also at the forefront of technological development: any new technology in moving image making was immediately test-driven on the dinosaur, from stop-motion in The Lost World through to the latest CGI in the Jurassic Park series.

A clue to why this is the case, she says, can be found in the two scripts written for The Lost World. The first, Plot A, is the script eventually made into the released film, using stop-motion techniques to animate our prehistoric friends. However, doubting the ability of this new technology to truly represent dinosaurs, the producers also commissioned a second script, to be used in the case of the failure of the new technology. In this Plot B the cast are attacked not my dinosaurs but by cannibals.

The stop motion was successful, however, and we only see a glimpse of the Native Americans; the colonial conflict zone was replaced by a zoological one which captured the imaginations of the American cinema-going public, and in doing so, helped create a popular image of a New American Past.

Zett compares these films with other films of reanimated beasts of cinema, including King Kong — again, a tale riven with the violent fantasies of the colonist against the dark interior, and the preservation of white womanhood by the virile white heterosexual male. It too is a film about the power of film-making. The docu-fiction becomes reality: "Seeing is believing in the terror of this industrial magic". Again, the beast is untameable, and the subject of its attack is modernity itself, "because the more alive and terrifying it appears, the more symbols of modernity it destroys, the more powerful modern technology appears to be".

Jurassic Park, however, marked a change it tack for the cinebeast, and CGI marked a changing relationship with the scientific subject. In Spielberg's vision, they cease to be monsters but instead become animals, and the hunters become veterinarians and conservationists. Digitisation accompanied a process by which dinosaurs became unprehistoric, and the digital wilderness must be protected, returned to the conservation park and the laboratory. Yesterday's dreams of de-extinction at the Marathon became unavoidable...

Back in this peaceful conservation paradise history dissipates. Manmade dinosaurs obsessively parent their young. This wilderness, Zett claims, is not prehistoric but posthistoric:

Evolution and history, once dialectically entangled in the name of progress and modernity, have now fully collapsed into each other. The past is a digitized animal and the future is the promise of this animal materialisation and artificial fossilisation.

Modern lovers used to point with cameras and funs at dumb prehistoric creatures. Smart contemporary creatures now point their digital eyes back at modern lovers.

Just like my laptop is looking at me right now.