Placing Jurassic World in the Evolution of Mainstream Entertainment

The films of Busby Berkely in the 1930's were elaborate, high- budget spectacles.
The films of Busby Berkley in the 1930’s were elaborate, high-budget spectacles.

There is an age old debate in film studies regarding the superiority of non-mainstream or avant-garde films over populist blockbusters. Recently, in the wake of films such as Jurassic World (2015) with its shameless corporate in-film promotion, and its favoring overstimulating CGI and explosions over plot, one might worry about the future of high-budget films on the overall quality of American cinema. However, this question regarding mainstream, more high-budget, or commercial entertainment vs. independent, experimental, or radical entertainment has not simply recurred in the decades of the 20th Century but for thousands of years of Western history.

This article will explore this debate from Ancient Greece to the present while comparing theories and traditions of the Old World spectacle to their modern counterparts. In doing so, this article seeks to unlock the ways in which even high-budget commercial films such as Jurassic World have their place in the cultural history of mankind, and that its larger purpose surpasses “mindless” entertainment. Ultimately many of these films use expensive spectacle to advance plot points, delight audience and instruct mass audiences, engage large audiences in national discourses, or inspire them. Hopefully this different perspective will provide a larger context and lend a new edge to this debate.

A Man and His Poetics

For anyone asking “What constitutes a successful film in modern times?” one need not search any further. The answer to this question was discovered thousands of years ago. Over the centuries, thinkers and artists have tried to reinvent this ancient wisdom, but the heart of success in Western entertainment lies in its origins.

Western theatre is said to have been born in ancient Greece when the reciters of Epic poetry began to physically perform the poems that they were narrating. The birth of democracy in Athens began a tradition of festivals to the god Dionysus including great contests for playwrights which can be considered an ancient version of the Oscars (which even included the occasional political statement, as the festival was the “most watched” event in the world, at the time). After theatre became an established institution, a man named Aristotle worried about the quality of the plays that his people were viewing and wrote his Poetics as an observation (not a suggestion) of what constituted the winning combination of popular and quality entertainment. Even today, his observations speak to the kind of entertainment which compels human beings. 1

The Festival of Dionysus was a grand event with as large a spectacle in entertainment as possible. This vase shows a performance of the play Electra
The Festival of Dionysus was a grand event with as large a spectacle in entertainment as possible. This vase shows a performance of the play Electra

In his Poetics, Aristotle addresses the first negative commentary on commercial entertainment as the cultural elitists favored Epic poetry as a more “refined” entertainment and saw theatre (Tragedy) as a more vulgar art-form. He says,

“It may be argued that, if the less vulgar is the higher, and the less vulgar is always that which addresses the better public, an art addressing any and every one is of a very vulgar order… All Tragedy, however, is said to stand to the Epic as the newer to the older school of actors. The one, accordingly is said to address a cultivated audience [Epics] which does not need the accompaniment of gesture; the other [theatre] an uncultivated one.” 2 

In defense of the more populist art-form, Aristotle argues the following points which are consistent to the arguments of this article:

  1.  That one should not criticize the genre of popular entertainment as even more elitist forms can be just as overdone.
  2. It is not so much about the form of entertainment as it is about what one does with it.
  3. That populist entertainment can be just as effective and full of substance as elitist entertainment.
  4. And, ultimately, populist entertainment is often more pleasurable. 3

In order to ensure that his reader would know the difference between quality manifestations of entertainment in any genre, Aristotle also outlined the Five Elements of Drama: plot, character, theme, music, and spectacle. Of these elements, he decided that plot was the most important. 4 This is not to say that entertainment can or should do without the other elements.

As theatre technology improved, so too did spectacle as a way to create the world of the play and help advance the plot. First, the skene, a hut located upstage, was introduced for entrances, exits, props storage, and costume changes. Next, scenic flats were painted or put on triangle shaped, rotating pieces called periakoti. As time went on, theatre got more technical as rigging and moving platforms called eccyclaima were used. Finally, the deus ex machina was used to fly actors in from the ceiling.

"Dead" bodies wheeled onstage with the eccyclema.
“Dead” bodies wheeled onstage with the eccyclaima.

In ancient Greek tragedy, imagine the scene where Medea kills her children. The actors playing Medea and the children would go behind an upstage door which would close. The death of the children would happen offstage (the audience would hear about it from a secondary character and imagine the gore), and then the door would open to reveal a moving platform with the bloody bodies on top. This moment is the climax of the play Medea and imagine how much more effective it was with the use of spectacle. The audience saw, in a dramatic way, a tangible after-product of the imagined death scene; making it more real. Now think about the movie Jaws (1975) and how the audience doesn’t see the shark (or the attack) but sees the bloody dead body. This combination of imagination and spectacle is age old.

The ancient Greeks believed that theatre served the good of society by allowing its free citizens (male) to experience their greatest fears in a safe environment. This was seen as a catharsis or healthy purging of negative emotions for the good of society which spectacle helped achieve. Throughout the centuries, other theorists would try to improve and add upon Aristotle’s observations while debating the merits and downfalls of elaborate spectacle on the overall effectiveness of entertainment.

Gladiator to Win Best Picture

Roman theatre went through periods of both minimalism (“Closet dramas” which were read to a small group in a small room, for example) and lavish spectacles including mock naval battles in the Colosseum. Of this time, one of the most notable theorists was Horace who argued that theatre’s purpose was to both delight and instruct. For the Romans, who rejected the overindulgence of Greek notions such as catharsis, valued good citizenship and decorum. In short: spectacle is okay as long as it is decorous.

The bodies of Medea’s children can no longer be seen onstage, because no one would believe that it is real and then the Romans won’t learn from it. However, an epic recreation of a naval battle with gladiators, while considered populist, both delights the audience in its realistic killings (because they are real) and instructs them on Roman history. Any graphically violent historic picture or war film uses these methods for instruction, although one thing that modern technology provides is realistic/believable onscreen deaths without the need to actually kill actors. Often movies with low budgets and “bad” effects are not taken seriously. They may become cult classic B movies, but are rarely used for any social commentary unless supplemented with the disclaimer: “Now, ignore the bad special effects.” The Romans set this high standard for high-budget spectacle when Horace says:

A recreation of a naval battle in the Colosseum was the height of high-budget entertainment and was considered educational.
A recreation of a naval battle in the Colosseum was the height of high-budget entertainment and was considered educational.

“Medea must not shed her children’s blood,

Nor savage Atreus cook man’s flesh for food,

Nor Philomel turn bird or Cadmus snake,

With people looking on and wide awake.

If scenes like these before my eyes be thrust,

They shock belief and generate disgust.” 5

A more modern manifestation of Horace’s philosophy is in the epic historical movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, particularly Cleopatra (1963) which was advertised as the “Spectacle of Spectacles” featuring battle scenes, parades, parties, violence, and sexuality. Hollywood justified this elaborate piece in the name of instruction and the film has become an American icon.

This trailer for Cleopatra advertises the spectacle.
This trailer for Cleopatra advertises the spectacle.

Therefore, while Horace was trying to break with Aristotle’s ideas on catharsis, they did agree on one thing: the existence of high spectacle and low spectacle. Aristotle favors spectacle which advances plot; Horace is concerned with the quality and societal value of the spectacle. Medieval theatre consolidated these theories to create both high and low spectacle which delighted and instructed.

The Passion Play of the Christ

After Rome fell and the Catholic Church dominated European culture in the Middle Ages, public gladiatorial fights to the death were seen as barbaric, but spectacle was still used to instruct Europe’s mostly illiterate population in stories about God, the Bible, saints, and other matters of faith. Plays about the martyrdom of saints would use graphic violent scenes of torture to instruct the audience or bring them to a state of contemplation. The Passion of the Christ (2004) is in this tradition.

A difference is that oftentimes these saint plays would lean on base and populist humor to draw the audience in. In other words, it didn’t matter how much base material was involved as long as there was a moral at the end. These attributes are somewhat similar to the fact that children’s animated films, such as the films of Disney and Don Bluth, are some of the most influential moralizing forces in our society. While the modern budget is much higher than the budget for Medieval saint plays, many consider children’s films, such as Disney films to be populist junk. Nevertheless, these films mean a great deal to many in our modern world, just as these saint plays meant the world to the Medieval European population.

A very high budget saint play in Spain with a large temporary outdoor theatre and a huge crowd.
A very high budget saint play in Spain with a large temporary outdoor theatre and a huge crowd.

As the years went on, pageants and productions would become more and more elaborate and expensive, but these events brought communities together and gave them something to look forward to in their gray Medieval lives. This sentiment would be repeated during the Great Depression when Hollywood would make musical spectacle films to take the worries and cares away from the struggling population. Films like 42nd Street (1933)  featured lavish dance sequences and lots of optimism which many today might look back on as silly or even wasteful. However, the tradition of entertainment, like that of the late Middle Ages, to release tensions during a highly politicized time.

To Spectacle or Not to Spectacle

Of the European Renaissance, the first name in Western entertainment was (and is) William Shakespeare who created many productions with moderate spectacle to large crowds. Of Aristotle’s Five Elements, Shakespeare put plot above all else and is proof of the effectiveness of plot. One might not think of Shakespeare as a populist spectacle creator; however, compared to other entertainers of his day, such as the Blackfriars theatre (a more elite theatre company which produced smaller, more intimate productions), Shakespeare was the Stephen Spielberg of Renaissance England.

Shakespeare produced dynamic performances involving trap doors and elaborate costumes. He knew how to pack a house.
Shakespeare produced dynamic performances involving trap doors and elaborate costumes. He knew how to pack a house.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV (a coming of age story set against the backdrop of a war) was his Empire of the Sun. Henry V (a play about the national memory of a war with lots of rousing speeches) was his Saving Private Ryan. The Tempest (a play about a magical world which might not be so wonderful after all) was his Jurassic Park. The Merchant of Venice (a play featuring commentary on anti-Semitism) was his Schindler’s List. Shakespeare had every resource possible available to him and used this power of high-budget stage magic to create large productions which spoke to the national values of his society and helped to create an identity for them. Similarly, Spielberg used well crafted plots, characters, themes and large spectacle to explore American identity. His works, like Shakespeare’s are now considered to be World Heritage cultural artifacts and might not have been so without the level of quality in his use of spectacle.

Meanwhile, after Shakespeare’s death, during the Restoration period, a more base spectacle reigned supreme until a man named Jeremy Collier published a pamphlet called A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage which used theatre theory against theatre. Echoing the sentiments of Horace, Collier asked how the modern theatre of his day instructed anyone or made good citizens. The result was devastating for all entertainment. While staging of plays became more and more lavish, substance was lost or censored. A good example of this is Nahum Tate’s adaptation of King Lear (one of Shakespeare’s most tragic tragedies) with a happy ending and lots of of added love stories. One review in 1711 said, “King Lear is an admirable Tragedy … as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical Notion of poetical Justice in my humble Opinion it hath lost half its Beauty.” 6

Tate's King Lear was a lot like dusting off this Jurassic Park jeep and hoping that it would run.
Tate’s King Lear was a lot like dusting off this Jurassic Park jeep and hoping that it would run.

This adaptation might be compared to a film like Jurassic World which was a lavishly attempted re-invention of a classic made “safe.” Despite the bad review, Tate’s Lear was still a success and despite the negative response from purists, Jurassic World was a success. Tate’s Lear, came out at a time when the British people needed to be reminded of their identity during the Age of Enlightenment, as every generation has to do from time to time. Shakespeare’s tragedy did not fit in with the intellectualism of this time. The sufferings of the characters were insults to reason. His Lear was a Lear for his world just as Jurassic World speaks to concerns about (ironically enough) the excesses of spectacle in modern entertainment culture. Therefore, throughout the centuries, the various theorists have wanted to make entertainment a powerful force for instruction and the betterment of the world. Many, however, disagree on how.

War and the War on Spectacle

The conversations on spectacle did not end with Collier’s pamphlet just as there is more to Jurassic World than the fact that it is a remake of an original. By the mid to late 19th Century, the debate between the Enlightenment movement and the Romanticism movement was similar to that between avant-garde enthusiasts and populist blockbuster fans.

Until now, this article has mentioned instances of the use of spectacle to advance well-developed plots or to delight and instruct. However, the 19th Century German movement known as Weimar Romanticism would challenge the use of spectacle for intellectual content all together in favor of high emotion and/or shock value. While this movement may seem like a nightmare for those in favor of a smaller, more “honest” art-form, a German Romantic such as Goethe, Schiller, or Wagner would argue that emotion and illusion are the truest things of all.

Scenic designs for Wagner's operas were gargantuan and aided by a new convention called "lighting design."
Scenic designs for Wagner’s operas were gargantuan and aided by a new convention called “lighting design.”

In my article on Les Miserables and Romanticism, I have highlighted the basic principles of Romanticism as a rejection of the “hollow” bourgeois values of the time. German Romanticism, in particular, stresses that the only true way to achieve positive social change is to abandon moderation completely and embrace passion. In other words: “Go big or go home.”

The tensions between Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism were best articulated by Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy when he talks about Apollonian vs. Dionysian artistic tendencies. The Apollonian favored enlightenment, individualism, reason, civilization, science, idealism, and order (named after Apollo, god of the sun/enlightenment) while the Dionysian favored magic, darkness, intoxication, collectivism, nature, and chaos. Romanticism embraced the Dionysian, being suspicious of commercialism as well, believing that any life that is sold or bought is false. German Romanticism, in particular, called for the death of individualism for the collective good. 7

These ideas of “surrender” and the death of the individual were eventually used by the Nazi regime in Germany; exploiting a collectivism which was ingrained in the German culture by Romanticism. Since then, these ideas have been met with high suspicion, especially in the entertainment industry where the fear is that large spectacle creates mindless minions. However, Romanticism is still used in films to create ideal worlds and ignite the imagination towards a better future.

The "Fellowship" consists of different races surrendering their individualism.
The “Fellowship” consists of different races surrendering their individualism.

A prime example of modern Romanticism in film is the Lord of the Rings trilogy which creates a beautiful world where all races are encouraged to relinquish their individualism (and personal ambition is seen as inherently evil) in the name of a collective good. However, while scholars have interpreted the forces of Mordor to represent Nazism or Communism, the ironic twist is that the so called “good guys” (read: white guys) are given license to completely wipe out the supposedly inferior (read: darker) races. Nevertheless, Lord of the Rings spoke to the time in which it was made. As Lev Grossman says in a review of the film for Time Magazine:

“Popular culture is the most sensitive barometer we have for gauging shifts in the national mood, and it’s registering a big one right now. Our fascination with science fiction reflected a deep collective faith that technology would lead us to a cyberutopia of robot butlers serving virtual mai tais. With ‘The Two Towers,’ the new installment of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, about to storm the box office, we are seeing what might be called the enchanting of America. A darker, more pessimistic attitude toward technology and the future has taken hold, and the evidence is our new preoccupation with fantasy, a nostalgic, sentimental, magical vision of a medieval age. The future just isn’t what it used to be — and the past seems to be gaining on us.” 8

In capturing the audience’s imaginations, Lord of the Rings, like the operas of Wagner used immense spectacle to question the role of science, technology, and the state of our democracy. While this is a valuable discourse, the irony is that without science, technology, industrialism, and commercialism, neither the spectacles of Wagner or Peter Jackson would be possible, bringing the conversation full circle.

There is an element of awe in Jurassic World which questions how far science should go. This brings a whiff of Romanticism to the film as well, favoring a fast paced, emotional ride. Much of the Jurassic Park franchise has always had a focus on natural instinct and nature over civilization summarized in Jeff Goldblum’s famous line “Life finds a way.” As with Wagner’s opera and the epic Lord of the Rings, this suspicion of science is ironic given the fact that without it, there would be no spectacle. Without the spectacle, there would be no adrenaline and no instruction on the dangers of science. This sentiment is also present in other high-budget blockbusters like Godzilla (2014). The cycle continues.

So for thousands of years there has been mainstream entertainment and non-mainstream entertainment. For thousands of years, fans of each have argued to the superiority of their own. However, in repeating Aristotle’s sentiments: each genre has its merits and downfalls.

There are different kinds of “quality” found in different kinds of films, all pertaining to Aristotle’s Five Elements of Drama. Something which lacks quality of plot, might still have quality of spectacle, or quality of character, or theme. Jurassic World has quality of spectacle and that should not be dismissed.

Hopefully this article has articulated the merits of modern populist entertainment as being part of a long tradition of high-budget spectacles which have moved, delighted, instructed, engaged, and inspired the whole of the Western world for generations. Films like Jurassic World are part of this long heritage.

Works Cited

  1. Gerould, Daniel. Theatre Theory Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. New York: Applause Theater and Cinema Books. 2000. pgs. 45-54
  2. Gerould, 66
  3. Gerould, 66-67
  4. Gerould, 65
  5. Gerould, 75-76
  6. Marsden, Jean I. Improving Shakespeare: from the Restoration to Garrick in Wells and Stanton. pg 30. 
  7. Gerould, 339-350
  8. qtd. in Brin, David. “J.R.R. Tolkien — enemy of progress.” The Salon. DEC 17, 2002. Web. Nov 28, 2015.

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  1. Two of my favourite blockbuster movies of recent years are Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which are high concept in the 80s sense and both of which are frequently criticised for lack of plot and character development* but really, who cares? If you want carefully structured plots which both reveal and drive character, go and watch Asghar Farhadi or Andrey Zvyagintsev movies.

  2. The fact that premium movies are treating their audiences like adults is a positive.

  3. Complicated plots are what is needed to string out these movie franchises and make the old characters seem fresh.

  4. The Artifice may well be the best publication around.

  5. The reason there is more character stuff in Jurassic Park is mostly because the effects simply weren’t up to the job, or, rather, that they couldn’t sustain more than a few seconds at a time.

    Nowadays we expect the CGI to be in every shot, even in every frame, and so ludicrous sequences are the norm, which tends to impact on the overall direction of a story.

    • Nah, the reason there’s more character stuff in Jurassic Park is because the film is based on the book by Michael Crichton, and the characters are all in that. Written by a chap who wrote bestsellers (Ok he wasn’t Saul Bellow) that required at least a bit of balance between character/sci-fi plotline. And yet, imho, the effects in Jurassic Park were actually better than in this new film.

  6. Some of the most enduring movies have incredibly simple plots: T2, Shawshank, Dead Poets, Ghostbusters.

  7. Carolee

    Good article!

  8. Nita Crowe

    Blockbusters are too formulaic.

  9. When o when will movie makers realise that you need to base a good movie on a fantastic book? Authors are the ones with the imagination and always have been. If they are looking for an intelligent, amazing plot and character driven sci fi blockbuster then Iain M Banks has an entire galaxy of stories that could be explored.

  10. eliritt

    Clean, efficient storytelling is to be praised (see “Dredd” for a good recent example), but that doesn’t mean a complex plot is a bad thing in itself.

    What absolutely MUST die is the unnecessary, convoluted, dizzying, contrived action sequence, as episomised by the disgusting adaptations of The Hobbit.

    • Yep and sadly it tanked. Dredd was great; for me it really captured the feeling of the comics and went a long way to wiping away the stain that was Stallone’s version.

      The second Hobbit movie made me feel sick (especially during the barrels in the river scene, which I couldn’t physically focus on). The final one just left me cold – I just found I couldn’t care less about any of the characters, and it just turned into another CGI-driven battle which I didn’t care about either.

    • Aldo Yoo

      Contemporary film-makers are frequently guilty of confusing complexity with profundity.

  11. Hollywood keeps recycling the same drivel… Just how many remakes of Batman can you have? The superman franchise was quite entertaining with (the late Christopher Reeve) then there was a remake with a new lead and then a remake of the remake with yet another lead. The back story of the latest provided the best part, complete with Kevin Costner perishing in a tornado… But the rest of it was an anagram of carp.. And total at that.

    The big problem with Hollywood is that it has been reduced to recycling the same dozen or so movies / characters over and over again. If I thought that any Hollywood directors / producers were likely to read this I’d take them into any library or bookshop and provide them with enough material to keep a dozen studios busy for the next twenty years.

  12. The budget spend breakdown for Hollywood blockbusters these days seems to be:

    85% for CGI special effects
    7% for an actor who looks good with his shirt off
    7% for an actress who looks good in a bikini
    0.9% for marketing
    0.1% for the script

  13. Alan Moore had it right the other day when he identified the audience’s fixation with puerile bollocks. If people stopped going to see all the formulaic CGI shit based on infantile American comics, cinema might consist of more thoughtful, thought-provoking and, ultimately, more rewarding fare.

    • Well, maybe the problem isn’t people going to see “formulaic CGI shit based on infantile American comics.” Maybe the problem is the fact that film makers who want to make “thoughtful, thought-provoking, and ultimately more rewarding fare,” don’t know how to package their rewarding thoughts in a way which speaks to the general public. Films like The Avengers or Captain America speak to core American values (which I will be discussing in my next article). V for Vendetta was heavily Americanized and Alan Moore was mortified but the film had a profound effect on political discourses from 2006-the present. Would that have been the case if Moore had his way? Probably not because the 1980’s are over, Thatcher’s dead, and Moore is no longer the anarchist prophet with the long hair and Hagrid beard that he once was.
      An artist is like a sailor and must produce art which captures current winds. Once the wind comes, he can sail with it or against it, but sailing without current wind is impossible.

  14. Very strong thesis.

  15. The hollywood blockbusters have left me perplexed for many years now.

  16. A major factor for the modern blockbuster is the international market, where the majority of the money is now. In trying to appeal to as broad an international audience as possible spectacle will always win out over subtlety and the plot will necessarily be reduced to a mechanism to setup the next big set-piece.

  17. I usually find looking at art from a non-western perspective more fulfilling.

    • I would love to hear your thoughts on that. This article, for the sake of length, only focuses on Western entertainment because most of the readers on here are Westerners who view Western entertainment from a Western gaze. Feel free to elaborate.

  18. My view on the few Hollywood blockbusters I’ve seen in recent times, is that they’re best avoided, because they have little or no plot ot storyline and, generally, wooden acting.

    The films seem to have become a vehicle to show off the latest technology of special effects and wonderfully created and presented though they often are, the actors and plot usually play second fiddle, sometimes to the point of irrelevance – the latest Juassic Park, being a prime example.
    While I can understand their appeal to juveniles, I cannot understand why any thinking individual would want to sit through any of the X men movies or the most mind bogglingly awful and tedious film of recent times, Mad Max: road for morons (or something similar).

    Give this miserable old goat a plot and convincing acting, every time.

  19. What a great article, thank you.

  20. Genuine scripts haven’t graced a hollywood film for many years…

  21. Ian Boucher

    Very interesting piece. “Tate’s Lear, came out at a time when the British people needed to be reminded of their identity during the Age of Enlightenment, as every generation has to do from time to time.” With Jurassic World, my concern is an overabundance of spectacle, a repetition of themes for a new generation. Jurassic World does play to both new audiences, but is also part of something that has become a classic that can be immediately accessed, and, additionally, plays to the nostalgia of older audiences. But it seems to think poorly of its audiences, from its conception of DNA to using elements that speak to earlier times, such as Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. The franchise also seems afraid of Crichton, as the film version of The Lost World completely removed Crichton’s theme of the role of behavior in extinction (despite Crichton being a master of spectacle pushing its limits with its themes). And the Jurassic Park brand’s promotional materials attempt to reinforce its authority beyond spectacle, even affecting how museums try to get the attention of children (but also, ironically, inspires children). So when Jurassic World doesn’t utilize more of the possibilities that its premise offers, when it thinks its own spectacle can only go so far with people, what kind of a reminder is it for culture?

  22. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. Interesting how you tie Jurassic World to a long history of entertainment.

  23. “Recently, in the wake of films such as Jurassic World (2015) with its shameless corporate in-film promotion, and its favoring overstimulating CGI and explosions over plot, one might worry about the future of high-budget films on the overall quality of American cinema.”

    If this were my focus, I would agree think that the Transformers movies would be far better candidates for this subjects.

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