Cinema is Dead. Long Live Post-Cinema.
Two key things occur in the opening minutes of Jurassic World Dominion:
- A T-Rex interrupts a drive-in movie as melting celluloid is projected across it.
- CG dinosaurs are imposed into viral video clips, some of which, such as a car driving over a cliff, are real and, therefore, had different inherent meanings prior to their use in the film.
Two important thematic elements are established here:
- Cinema, as we knew it, is dead.
- Meaning, aesthetics, and reality, as we understood them, are dead.
With this utter annihilation as a starting point, Colin Trevorrow – instead of despairing for what’s lost – takes us forward into a new realm: post-cinema. And he does so with perverse verve, reveling in the meaninglessness. And, ironically, through this anti-cinema lens, Trevorrow corrects his 2015 Jurassic World (the line, “Jurassic World? Not a fan,” might just be a winking acknowledgement of public criticism, but could also be a candid admission) and finds the liberation of his true artistic voice. As Ian Malcolm puts it, “It’s always darkest just before eternal nothingness.”
What is Post-Cinema?
In a line near the beginning of Tenet, Christopher Nolan reveals the key to understanding post-cinema: “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.” Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (on which, it’s worth noting, Trevorrow has a story credit) elaborates on this with its quintessentially post-cinematic explanation of how Emperor Palpatine returned from death: “Somehow, Palpatine returned.”
The reason is that there is no reason. There is no explanation. There is no justification. There is no logic. There is no meaning. It doesn’t matter and you shouldn’t care.
Such a flagrant violation of the consensus expectations for things like plot mechanics begs the question: Are people going to see a new Star Wars movie because they want a plausible explanation for why Emperor Palpatine has returned? Does it matter? Isn’t the real reason Palpatine is back because Disney paid over four billion dollars to buy the franchise from George Lucas, and it wants to bring back old fan favorite characters to hustle people into theater seats with nostalgia? Isn’t that the naked reality of this transaction?
This is where post-cinema absurdity frees us: it makes that naked reality plain as day. There is no longer any effort to hide it, to cover it up with dull exposition and immaterial explanations. There’s a new Star Wars movie and Emperor Palpatine is back and it doesn’t mean anything.
And now, because Jurassic World grossed over 1.6 billion dollars at the box office, there’s a new Jurassic World movie and that doesn’t mean anything either.
So Colin Trevorrow searches for meaning by exposing a lack of meaning. The meaning is there is no meaning.
There is direct political critique present in Dominion, chiefly via a subplot about a corporation called BioSyn (pronounced bio-sin, a name almost as on-the-nose dumb as Avatar‘s “unobtanium”) unleashing genetically modified locusts to destroy the crops of independent farmers who don’t buy BioSyn seed. There is grim capitalist reality present in this narrative (and parallels about blockbusters vs. indie films could be easily drawn), but what’s perhaps more relevant – and more interesting, particularly in a post-cinematic sense – is BioSyn exec (and the film’s antagonist) Lewis Dodgson explaining that the corporation’s true interest in dinosaurs is mining their pharmaceutical possibilities. In other words: dinosaurs – previously the subjects of awe, wonder, and fear – are now rendered into mundane tools by which the corporation makes money.
This is not to say that when Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park in the early ’90s there was no profit motive behind it – very obviously there was. But the impetus of the creation of that work of art was not simply money. The lead artist driving the production – Spielberg – famously engaged in a bidding war with James Cameron for the rights to Michael Crichton’s book. The two artists – both of their minds alight with cinematic possibilities – duked it out to see which one of them would get to realize their vision.
Thirty years later, the impetus is something different. Jurassic is an established intellectual property. It’s virtually a guaranteed moneymaker for Universal. They have a vested monetary interest in keeping the brand visible and generating revenue. A sequel like Dominion isn’t the result of an artist conceiving a work of art and then shepherding it to fruition – it’s a product commissioned by a corporation, for which a director is then hired. And that is now the artist’s primary role in the equation: building the product that keeps the revenue generating.
Is this role that fundamentally different from that of just about any other mid-level worker? Trevorrow is a cog in a machine, and he can only work within those confines. This, in my estimation, is primarily why his first Jurassic World film failed artistically. The attempt there was essentially to make Jurassic Park but newer and bigger; follow the template for “success.” But Trevorrow (a cog worker) is not Spielberg (a visionary). And Spielberg’s artistry cannot be recreated by following a template; the visceral awe and wonder he expressed cannot be replicated by someone with a totally different skill set working within totally different confines.
If Spielberg is an Albert Bierstadt, perhaps Colin Trevorrow is an Andy Warhol. And Warhol should not be attempting to express sublime awe at breathtaking alpine vistas – he should be recontextualizing cans of soup.
This, I would suggest, is what the objects of awe introduced by Spielberg thirty years ago have been reduced to today: quotidian commodities. Dominion says as much: early on, in a scene approximating the introduction of Alan Grant in the original film, Grant tries to explain the scientific merit of paleontology to two laughing, disinterested Gen Z’ers, who retort by showing him a picture of a dinosaur on a cellphone and saying, “They’ve been around since, like, the ’90s; I don’t get why we’re here digging up bones.”
And the Gen Z’ers are right. What was amazing in the past is mundane now. This isn’t 1993. We shouldn’t be digging up bones. And I don’t mean the bones of dinosaurs in the film – I mean the bones of cinema, which is, in many ways, a dead artform. Aesthetics have shifted. Culture has shifted. Times have changed. Struggling against this reality is pointless. No, worse than pointless – clinging to the aesthetics of past cinema in our present reality is anti-political and anti-art. It’s empty nostalgia. We have to go beyond nostalgia. (“Moving forward is better than staying still.”)
Post-Cinema, Post-Meaning: Semiocapitalist Art
If you’ll allow me some grandiosity, I posit that post-cinema is perhaps the only artform to date that begins to capture the aesthetic truth of life in a semiocapitalist society. Signifiers are divorced from what they once signified. Inherent values have been abstracted into oblivion. The fundamental nature of human reality has been lost. Meaninglessness rules. What can we do but accept it?
In his book Heroes, Franco Berardi comes to the conclusion that the only way to “win” in semiocapitalist society is, essentially, to remove oneself from the game:
“I think that ironic autonomy is the answer. I mean the contrary of participation, I mean the contrary of responsibility, I mean the contrary of faith. Politicians call on us to take part in their political concerns, economists call on us to to be responsible, to work more, to go shopping, to stimulate the market. Priests call on us to have faith. If you follow these inveiglements to participate, to be responsible – you are trapped. Do not take part in the game, do not expect any solution from politics, do not be attached to things, do not hope.”
Post-cinema is an acknowledgement of our bleak reality, of the vulgar transaction inherent in contemporary blockbuster moviemaking, and it allows artists a way out of the exasperating game, an escape from the tired trappings of cinema itself. Fuck logic, fuck plot, fuck pacing, fuck expectations, fuck audiences, fuck your corporate financiers – fuck the whole conventional form. If our capitalist hell dictates that we must resurrect the “intellectual properties” (a concept verbalized by Dodgson) of the past (and fighting that current is fruitless), then goddammit, dig up the corpses of Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant and Emperor Palpatine and Princess Leia and Indiana Jones and drag them through the vulgar aesthetic plane of post-cinema. Fuck what they used to represent – they’re meaningless now. They are mundane. Dinosaurs are mundane. Everything is mundane. There be no awe or wonder here.
So don’t try. Embrace nothingness. Embrace perversity. Kill your idols. Explode the form. Only through this destruction can cinema be reborn as something genuinely new and vital. Only then can we find new meaning.