Jurassic Park: Book vs. Film

It’s common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie. Except for when it isn’t. Jurassic Park is a fairly unique case, in that the movie is an incredible achievement and is distinctly superior to the book, and yet in adapting from print to screen, it takes some liberties and changes some characters and plot arcs for the worse. While I do believe that the best version of Jurassic Park exists on the screen, there are some notable caveats that go with that statement, and depending on your storytelling priorities, it’s perfectly reasonable to favor the book. It’s sort of a tie, then, isn’t it?

Below are the elements I favored in each version.

Better in the Film

  1. Almost all of the characters. Except for the case of Gennaro (made into a symbol of corporate greed and embodied primarily by cowardice) and Nedry (who remains a fairly simple bumbling villain, and yet another character motivated by greed), they’re all more human and complex.
    1. Hammond is refreshingly reformed, not a simple corporate bad guy or “evil Walt Disney” like the book, and I think his realization over the course of the film that the park was a bad idea, his recognition that his consultants’ concerns about power, control, and chaos were right, provides a fantastic character arc that also serves to reinforce the central theme of the movie in a better and more subtle way than the preachy lectures from Malcolm in the novel; this also provides a nice setup for Hammond’s reformation and attempt to get the dinosaurs left alone that motivates him to act in The Lost World.
    2. Grant has a fantastic new arc, becoming more comfortable with children and developing paternal characteristics that had otherwise been lacking and suggest a likely improvement in his long-term relationship with Sattler (and so I’ll never really forgive Jurassic Park III for bringing the two back as exes, with Sattler having found another partner to start a family with).
    3. Speaking of Sattler, the sensitivity and fearful resolve brought to the role by Laura Dern make for an improved character over the more generic Action Hero Woman defined solely by beauty and nerves of steel in the book.
    4. Malcolm is made to be hipper and funnier, somewhat less a boring know-it-all, in part thanks to far fewer speeches and in part due to the magnetism Jeff Goldblum naturally produces.
    5. Switching the relative ages of dino-nerd Tim and scaredy-cat Lex, and then making Lex a computer geek, makes Lex far less annoying and gives her something practical to do while retaining Tim’s function in the story. Helpful, endearing kids–who are still kids and require protection–make Grant’s arc even more plausible and, more importantly, make it easier for the audience (or at least me) to care when the kids are imperiled. (I literally gasp every time I watch that Explorer slide over the edge with Grant and Lex barely grasping the line to safety in time.)
  2. The design of the park is gorgeous, the sets are amazing, and it looks better than I could have imagined from reading the book alone. In fact, the book makes the park seem smaller, in a way, even though there’s a more involved tour and then the extended river raft sequence to show more of it and more of the dinosaurs in it. (Tough to beat the lush Hawaiian ridges in the background of the film for making the island and park seem enormous.)
  3. The movie focuses on a smaller set of intense action scenes with plenty of smaller character moments in between. The book is too much a run of threat after threat, with virtually no character development (I’ll talk in the next section about the cool moments of meandering the book gets into, but they’re not there for character development).
  4. The movie really nails moments of awe. In the book, there’s more sickening dread throughout. Whereas the movie still opens with the Velociraptor attack, it then shifts to introducing our characters, and when we get to the island, we get the cool Brachiosaurus scene. The book lingers on moments of horror, characterized by the introductory scene in which a maimed man is brought back to the mainland to die, followed by a prolonged subplot about several Procompsognathus that have escaped to the mainland to prey on infants.
  5. The movie ends with a sense of hope and renewed purpose. The book ends on a darker note, with a much higher body count, the island napalmed, predators escaped to the mainland, and the surviving protagonists held prisoner.

Better in the Book

  1. Gennaro is done a great disservice in the film by combining his character with Ed Regis and killing him off early. I really like the Gennaro of the book. He’s still representative of corporate greed and irresponsibility, but he’s frankly not a bad man, and he’s provided an opportunity for reluctant redemption. Gennaro’s also the book’s everyman and therefore makes for the most relatable viewpoint character, in contrast to the author’s mouthpiece that is Malcolm or the Action Heroes of Grant and Sattler.
  2. There is not a single best version of Muldoon, but the book’s version has some strong points in his favor. I love Bob Peck’s portrayal, but I also like the older, alcoholic, roguish figure of the novel. I also enjoy Muldoon’s meatier role, as he becomes centrally involved in the subplot of attempting to get the park back online, doing things like tranquilizing the adult Tyrannosaurus, finding Nedry’s corpse, and distracting the raptors when attempting to restore power. And there’s the fact that Muldoon makes it out alive in the book. I do prefer the film’s treatment of death–anyone and everyone is at risk, and even though the body count is lower, it’s not the simple use of violent death as moral consequence that Crichton tends to employ in his books. Still, Muldoon’s a character I want to make it off the island; he knew better, and he actually paid attention to the threat the dinosaurs represented. It’s especially humiliating for the film version of the character in that he’s taken down by the dinosaurs he’s supposed to know and respect/fear.
  3. The dinosaurs in the book are more accurate, at least for the time of publication. The film takes too many liberties with some of its dinosaurs, though they are still mostly quite realistic (again, for the time of release) and certainly dynamic in a way that most audiences hadn’t seen before. Even the weird divergences in the book, like Velociraptor actually being Deinonychus, are explicitly discussed, and the speculative behaviors presented for some of the dinosaurs are exactly that–speculative, not necessarily inaccurate.
  4. The book actually answers the questions raised by its central mysteries. The movie never explains why the Triceratops keeps getting sick (nor does it even bother to suggest that Sattler is right) or how the Velociraptor were breeding without notice or able to escape their confinement to lay eggs in the park. The novel simply had more raptors, so it was easier to imagine them secretly disappearing at night in small numbers, but the movie has only the three, so it’s a little harder to imagine that no one would ever notice (then again, they had a skeleton crew to run the park, even more so in the movie).
  5. The book also spends more time fleshing out how the park is run and staffed, how things go to hell and how systems are restored, and even what the dinosaurs really are. I liked the moments spent with Muldoon, Wu, and Harding and the more behind-the-curtain elements that their stories, and Hammond’s, provided. While I’d never want to see a movie remake of Jurassic Park, which is more or less perfect as is, I really wouldn’t mind at all a television series that adapted the novel and mirrored its more meandering pace and curiosity about every element of how this park could possibly exist. Spielberg rightly focused on the awe and spectacle, but I like Crichton’s intense focus on rationalizing everything, on making it seem real, like an incident that had actually occurred. Crichton was interested in the infrastructure and logistics of it all, and I suppose I am too.

A fairly neutral point is how each version left the state of the fictional universe for potential sequels. Certainly sequels are never necessary, but we’ve certainly had plenty of sequels nonetheless, and it’s interesting to consider how the changed landscapes at the conclusions of the original stories impacted what later stories could reasonably be told.

The book closes off any option of a return to Isla Nublar, given its dramatic napalm bombing finale. However, it does leave the dangling thread of some of the dinosaurs having reached the mainland–at least some Procompsognathus and what is suggested to be Velociraptor. That might have been a rather limited scope for a sequel, but you’d immediately be in a world where dinosaurs were coexisting with remote human populations, and that could have been interesting. I’m rather glad we didn’t see that sequel, though, because I don’t think I’d much care for such a scenario where there were only a few small theropods left. Sure, it could have been an interesting story about preserving and containing de-extinct and now endangered life that was nonetheless an invasive species, but I bet it would have been more a monster narrative about killer dinosaurs.

Ultimately, it was the better choice for Crichton to abandon this subplot. And, given his interest in a plausible prehistoric park and in the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of it, the existence of a Site B makes a lot of sense and is a good starting point. It doesn’t feel like a do-over, but more a reflection that Jurassic Park would have required considerable facilities for genetics, manufacturing, incubation, and raising the young dinosaurs that likely would have to be larger than the infrastructure suggested even in the book’s version of the park. It’s a natural development. I’m also hardly alone in finding that Crichton’s best stories tend to borrow themes and structures from classic literature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he turned to perhaps the most signature adventure story of humans stumbling upon a lost prehistoric land for the sequel, lifting even the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for his novel. Once more, Crichton spends a lot of time on nuts and bolts, building out a plausible sequence of events for the characters to discover this lost world and articulating a coherent explanation for its existence and abandonment. But the plot itself suffers, and he reuses character types from Jurassic Park, down to bringing along two kids. Truly, once the team gets to the island, the plot takes a backseat to a series of mostly disconnected action set pieces, interesting speculative dinosaur behaviors, and long-winded philosophical debates among the protagonists. The central mystery on the island–how can the ecosystem support so many carnivores?–is not especially interesting and keeps getting derailed by the next action scene. And the central antagonists are just bumbling poachers, as Crichton apparently felt it necessary to bring the BioSyn corporate antagonist behind Nedry back into the mix in a rather mundane way. Perhaps the most unusual carryover from the first book is the return of Ian Malcolm, a character who was quite dead. While a bizarre choice, I imagine this was an acquiescence to audience interest and the very living version of the character in the movie. It might perhaps be another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, who in addition to writing The Lost World was of course the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom he once killed off and later brought back.

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had their own loose ends they could have followed up on. After all, there’s no mention of bombing the island. There could have still been dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. Perhaps InGen could have sent in a team to try to control the situation, encountering new threats and exploring previously unseen areas of the park. The mysteries left unanswered in the film could have been addressed. And while the lysine contingency would have gone into effect with the absence of human intervention, the animals’ continued survival would have been another mystery to answer–after all, that was another question left to address on Isla Sorna either way. While they largely scrapped the broad adventure plot of Crichton’s sequel, they did pull in several of the characters, a few of the action sequences, and the broad concept of the second island, so Nublar was left neglected. Of course, the films did eventually get back to Isla Nublar and a reorganized park, but in the process, they left the fate of the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna in shadow. Why was the volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar a potential threat of re-extinction for the dinosaurs if they were thriving on Site B? The only for-certain explanation, provided in ancillary materials like the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide, is that the animals were relocated from Isla Sorna to the new park on Isla Nublar. Were they all moved? How did InGen get around the apparent preserve status set up for Isla Sorna after the events of The Lost World, especially if they completely depleted the newly established ecosystem in the process? Regardless, it would have been nice if each film didn’t act as though there was only one island with dinosaurs on it, that island being whichever one was the focus of that given film.

But now I’m way off topic. The bottom line: there are a great many things I like about both the book and movie version of Jurassic Park, and I’m glad they both exist.

A JP Series of Posts to Come

While Jurassic Park is in my regular rotation of movies to return to, the entire collection of films is less frequent–though I still probably watch them all at some point every year (okay, maybe not III). Spurred on by my excitement over recent franchise news, I watched them all over the course of a week, from the original through Battle at Big Rock. As it’s just not in my nature to have nothing to say with any bit of pop culture, whether I love it or hate it, I did find that there was at least something I wanted to say about them all. So, in the same vein as the series of posts I put up about Grand Theft Auto last year, I’ll have a series of essays up over the coming weeks that relate to the films.

Expect to see the following:

  1. Jurassic Park, the movie that’s better than the book, and the book that’s better than the movie;
  2. Why The Lost World will always hold a special place in my heart, and how it went farther than we could have expected but just not far enough;
  3. How I learned to stop worrying and learned to…tolerate…Jurassic Park III;
  4. Jurassic World from Blue’s perspective and how Fallen Kingdom extends, rather than retcons, raptor loyalty;
  5. The big ideas presented by the little film Battle at Big Rock;
  6. All of the Jurassic Park/World films as metaphors for reconciling family trauma/turmoil;
  7. The gap stories I’d like to see; and
  8. Some hopes and anxieties about Dominion.

100% at Jurassic World: Evolution

Well, I did it. Spurred on by my excitement over the announcement of Jurassic World Evolution 2, I returned to the original game and spent a couple weeks in the Challenge mode. And last week, I finally unlocked 100% of the Steam Achievements for the game. In so doing, I now have a total of 263 hours logged in the game, beating out by three hours my second-most-played game via Steam, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (which still takes the lead in overall playtime, given the hours I’ve logged in Xbox and CD-ROM versions of that very special RPG).

The wild thing is that the 100% doesn’t even represent a true completion or unlocking of all content in the game. Technically, to do that, I’d have to at least play every Challenge map on Jurassic difficulty (the highest difficulty in the game) to unlock every last dinosaur skin. But I only had to play one map on Jurassic difficulty, and even if I’d kept under the suggested par time, it would have still been an excruciating and tedious hours-long experience. Racing to build and maintain a park as extortionate fees continue to rise and veritable epidemics rapidly hop between dinosaurs in between, and sometimes during, repeated Storms of the Century is challenging once but becomes increasingly stressful, boring, and mechanistic on repeat.

That all said, I got dozens of hours of enjoyable time with the game, especially on the time-challenge achievements requiring at least Medium or Hard difficulty. (If you’re going for the time challenges, I’d recommend using the Jurassic Park economy, which is simpler and is typically expected to reach 5 stars in less time than the comparable Jurassic World economy on the same island and same difficulty.) The Hard setting in particular felt like a fair and fun challenge, and I got sort of good at building parks in that mode by the end. I imagine the same could happen with Jurassic difficulty, as I continued to learn from mistakes and improve efficiencies, shearing off time in each play-through, but the herculean effort and enormous time commitment strongly discourage any further engagement from me.

That all said, I think it’s safe to say that I thoroughly got my money’s worth with this game.

Now bring on the sequel!

Review: Sweet Tooth

I watched Sweet Tooth and loved it. This probably comes as no surprise, after my “Two Apocalypses” post–Sweet Tooth is a post-apocalyptic story with a lot of heart and warmth. (And, just as with the adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy from Mark Millar’s work, the tone of the series appears to be more positive than that of the originating comic by Jeff Lemire, so that’s yet another comic series I probably won’t pick up despite loving the show.)

For those who don’t know, Sweet Tooth is set in a world that has fallen apart after the rise of two simultaneous (and potentially related) events: a highly infectious and lethal illness and the birth of human-animal hybrid babies. Both lack a clear cause or explanation. Years have passed since society came crumbling down, and the show follows a young deer-hybrid boy, Gus (Christian Convery), who lives alone in a national park with his father (Will Forte). Gus breaks one of his father’s rules: don’t leave the fence. This sets in motion a chain of events that results in his father’s death and sends Gus on a journey across states to attempt to locate his mother, escorted by his reluctant guardian, bounty hunter Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie). As the show progresses, the scope broadens to include the stories of a retired and traumatized doctor, Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who tends to his wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), a somewhat miraculous non-infectious survivor living with a chronic version of the Sick; Aimee (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who sets up a preserve for hunted hybrid children with her young adopted pig-hybrid daughter Wendy (Naledi Murray); Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), the teenage leader of an adolescent army of guerilla warriors fighting to free captured hybrids under assumed animal identities who spend their downtime in a sort of Neverland; and the sinister pro-human, anti-hybrid, dictatorial leader of the Last Men, General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), whose objectives and military forces gradually coalesce the various subplots together. All this is tied loosely together with a voice-over narrative provided by James Brolin, probably the only thing I didn’t like about the show, as he drawls out various clichés and uninteresting observations that appear intended to sound profound.

While all the acting is great, the charisma and chemistry of the eventual trio of protagonists–Gus, Jepperd, and Bear–really kept me invested. The casting director, Carmen Cuba, found a remarkable talent in Christian Convery, who manages to convey so much emotional complexity in his role as Gus, and on top of that casually manifests such deer-like body language (further aided with some amazingly expressive prosthetic deer ears). How much of that presentation is due to Convery’s natural abilities versus the directorial input of series directors Jim Mickle, Toa Fracer, and Robyn Grace? Impossible for me to know, but I was genuinely impressed by the talent here, especially the younger actors, given how hit-and-miss child actors can be (and to be fair, child actors haven’t had access to the same range of experiences to draw on yet, which makes Convery’s performance that much more impressive).

The series’ eight episodes provide plenty of drama, unfolding mystery, and action to keep just about any viewer engaged. Given the coming-of-age narrative for younger children, it’s clear that the show is aimed at a family audience, but it certainly has a lot of darker, more mature themes, and it certainly provides plenty to hook an adult viewer. In fitting with the family audience demographic, while violence and death are present in the show, it typically avoids very graphic depictions of violence, relying more on suggestion.

The ending is very much so a cliffhanger, with equal parts heartache and hope. I’ll be devastated if we don’t get a season two!

Final thoughts: Bobby, the little groundhog-hybrid portrayed with an absolutely charming puppet, is a true standout once he makes an appearance.

Review: Jupiter’s Legacy

Very much so connected with last week’s post, I typically find myself turned off by Mark Millar’s original comics, but the screen adaptations turn out enjoyable enough. Kick-Ass, for instance, remains brutal and violent in film but has more heart than the savage world portrayed in the original narrative. I found that I rather enjoyed the new television adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix, and while I have never read Millar’s original comic version, a casual review of plot summaries suggests that this would be yet another instance of favoring the adaptation over the original. I’ll set that aside, though.

What I really liked about Jupiter’s Legacy (the show) is that it provided a unique, consolidated history of superheroes in its own universe that all centered around family and legacy. Its tackling of two mysteries in two distinct time periods, one focusing on the origin of the superpowers for the founding members of the Union of Justice and the other on the contemporary mystery of how a notorious and now-quite-lethal supervillain has apparently been duplicated, provides for ongoing suspense even as it slowly fleshes out its lengthy history between 1929 and the present. Both of these narratives ultimately come together to highlight the tensions between the old ways of the classic heroes with their idealistic code and the demand for change by newer heroes in reaction to a more murderous direction taken by their supervillain foes.

That broad focus on fictional superhero history and philosophy used to fuel a fundamentally ethical conundrum about the use of lethal force is given considerably more human grounding by focusing on the families of the original team members. The children of the Utopian and Lady Liberty chafe under the code and their lives in the shadows of superhero legends; one is the catalyst of the entire debate about the code, while the other has alienated herself from her superpowered family and friends, instead choosing a life of high fashion and debauchery. Meanwhile, children of other founding members have their own legacies to cope with and decisions to make in the wake of recent events. There are a lot of moving parts, but this focus on familial relationships gives us a framework for personal investment.

I’m interested in a second season because I want to see where the big mystery in the contemporary timeline, with its season-ending twist reveal, leads, but also because I want to see what the original heroes were like as they operated throughout the mid-twentieth century. It would be interesting to see how they navigated around political entanglement during the wars and other crises of the times, how this setting deals with costumed superheroes during the Cold War, how other superpowered individuals emerged, and how people began to turn to supervillainy.

There are a few things, however, that do bother me about the show so far. First, while the cast is somewhat diverse, the primary protagonists are overwhelmingly white, issues of race have been handled unevenly in the 1930s setting so far, and a disproportionate number of people of color have been killed. Second, while a rather minor point, the greatly extended lifespans of the original Union go unremarked-upon, which isn’t a gamebreaker in and of itself, but it does make it difficult to understand why they waited so long in life to have children; they all seemed to have decided to have kids in their eighties or nineties, for some reason, and that’s more bizarre to me than simply having unnaturally lengthened lives. Third and finally, the Union is clearly analogous to the Justice League, despite key differences, and this invites comparison to DC’s Kingdom Come, which just reminds me what a tremendously better story that was. I’d rather see a Kingdom Come adaptation!

That said, I like Jupiter’s Legacy, and I’d happily take more of it. Even with what must now be dozens of superhero shows out there to stream, this offers something fresh.

Two Apocalypses

I think I’ve demonstrated by now that I have great fondness for animation, and I tend to prefer an optimistic and positive outlook in fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that I rather enjoyed The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Despite ostensibly being a family-friendly movie about a robot apocalypse, it’s really an action comedy that at its heart is about a somewhat dysfunctional nuclear family finding ways to practice empathy to understand each other better and repair the faults in their relationships. The animation was fantastic, the art style had a lot of quirky flair, the voice acting was top-notch (though the younger brother was very distractingly voiced as Not A Child), the writing was sparkling with humor, there were some tremendously silly-yet-epic action sequences, and yet what stuck with me was the family’s struggle to bond and eventual ability to reconnect as the oldest daughter prepares to leave the home for college.

I could perhaps force myself to write a larger review of The Mitchells vs. The Machines. And I had originally planned to do so. But I write enough reviews already for a personal blog. What I found more interesting was what this movie says about me and my values, especially in contrast to the even-more-recently-released Army of the Dead. The latter film, a Zack Snyder feature, is nihilistic and amoral, unconcerned with presenting a clear message. The characters are broad tropes, entertaining at first but just blank enough that it is unsurprising when they die off one by one. Snyder ends his film by allowing two characters to survive–one sure to die but perhaps only after setting off yet another zombie outbreak. The film delights in stylized violence and gore, in big sweeping frames of zombie hordes rallying to battle, and I suppose I should expect as much and nothing more from a Snyder flick (although I’m one of those true believers in the artistry of Snyder’s directorial vision in his DC superhero movies, despite my reservations about that dubious distinction).

It is probably not very surprising to those who know me or have otherwise read this blog for a while that I am really disturbed by depictions of gore or prolonged physical torment. I don’t have the stomach for it. So zombie movies are usually outside of what I’ll watch. There are exceptions, just as there are exceptions to my general avoidance of the horror genre as a whole. I’d made the poor decision to make an exception for Army of the Dead just because of Snyder’s association with the project, coupled with the trailers that suggested this might be a little bit of a winking farce. I was clearly very mistaken, but I stuck the movie out, despite its bloated length for something that boils down to a story about a team of mercenaries fighting their way into a zombie-infested Las Vegas for a big score of abandoned loot and then failing to fight their way out.

What I want to emphasize, though, is that it wasn’t the gore that turned me off to this movie. That would be an easy, and wrong, assumption to make. No, it’s not as simple as Eric Can’t Handle Scary Gross Things. Rather, it’s the emptiness at the heart of the film. They’re fighting and dying for money, dealing with repeated betrayals, in the final moments before a nuclear strike makes the zombie threat irrelevant–or, you know, it would have become irrelevant if not for their fucked-up heist attempt and resultant infected survivor. The characters have no larger goals to fight for. Found family tropes are used sparingly, presumably in an attempt to make you care about the doomed team’s fates, and you could argue that this is a movie about a father reconnecting with his daughter–but if so, that fails too. The father and daughter don’t reconnect. The father dies saving the daughter, who was only at risk, at the end of the day, because her father got her involved in the first place. I refuse to accept that the daughter’s grief over losing her father–and having to put his zombified form down–represents a healing of the relationship. There is no relationship. The father failed to fix that relationship, only managed to even understand how he had screwed up their relationship toward the very end, barely managed to save the daughter but saddled her with a lot more trauma, and doomed everyone else on the team.

That’s a much darker, more depressing version of the apocalypse than a movie in which the tropes of apocalypse are used to metaphorically represent the fracturing and healing of family bonds as children mature and leave the home. And that movie about family, hell, it has an actual theme, an actual message, something to think on afterward. Something more than we can all be assholes or the desire for wealth makes us make bad choices or people can die at any time as life is unfair or some other tired trope requiring no deeper examination.

I don’t need happy endings or family-friendly ratings to appease me, though. The first two Alien movies rank high among my favorite sci-fi movies, despite their thematic (and literal) darkness, violence, and gore. Yes, they’re well-crafted movies with great special effects, distinctive settings, and actors that manage to sell the sheer horror and despair of the situation. But they’re also about scrappy, normal humans fighting for something bigger than themselves. In the first film, the team of blue-collar workers tries to clear out the xenomorph to keep each other alive. Sure, only Ripley makes it out, but not for lack of trying–and she even makes a point of returning for the cat! Then, in Aliens, she’s willing to join an expedition back to the planet that doomed her crew because she wants to ensure that any remaining threat is eliminated. And even despite her trauma and loss, she fights to save who she can. The suggestion of a found family in Newt, Hicks, and Bishop gives the movie some heart even amongst all the death. On the flip side, it’s one of two reasons that I’ve never been a fan of Alien 3. First, Ripley once again loses everyone she cares about in the opening moments of the movie. Second, she dies not fighting for someone but only against the threat of the xenomorph queen in her that would have killed her anyway (not to mention that even this sacrifice is undone in yet another sequel with Alien Resurrection).

Look, I get it. There are evil people who do evil things in the world. And many more people often make selfish, self-serving, amoral choices. And good does not always triumph over evil; evil often wins. Evil still wins day to day, in oppressive and corrupt systems of governance and in small-minded bigotry and in interpersonal hostility and in petty crime. But I try to act on my principles, and I like to look to people who made a difference by acting on their principles, and while I make many mistakes I still have something I strive for. I get that the world can be a dark place, and I don’t think it’s wrong that there is art, dumb and smart, that is dark and nihilistic. But nihilism repulses me, and even in darkness I look for light, I look for principles and guiding purpose, I look for what people are fighting for and not just the odds they’re fighting against. I’m uncomfortable with settling for meaninglessness. Maybe some people, maybe many people, think that reflects a naivete on my part. Maybe that’s what it really does mean. But I will still always favor stories that have heart, that have purpose, that aren’t just showcases of loss and suffering.

To be clear, I’m not trying to snipe at the horror genre as a whole. But Army of the Dead–which really isn’t a horror film, despite the use of zombies–uniquely highlighted the unsettling hollowness I find when pop art portrays atrocities for their own sake. Most fiction has some level of escapism baked in, anyhow. Please don’t begrudge me how I choose to escape.

Review: Making Contact

Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence by Alan Steinfeld

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


I was provided an advanced copy of Making Contact, apparently because of my interest in the much better UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean. Making Contact is a book for true believers only, those already caught up in the mythology of conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and interdimensional communication. Only the especially credulous, already well-versed in the layers of contradictory alien contact lore, could truly enjoy this book. As such, this is a case where the book is just a bad fit for me.

But I unfortunately have to discourage anyone else from reading. We live in an age in which misinformation spreads rapidly and easily, and this book represents exactly the sort of dangerous misinformation we should be avoiding. People without strong critical thinking skills might be persuaded, for instance, by the chapter in this book written by social scientists misexplaining and misapplying complex hard science fields like quantum physics to justify disjointed narratives of alien/UFO superpowers.

I’d also suggest that this book is the sort of thing that undermines any real interest in engaging seriously with the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects. I’m sure there’s an explanation for those 5% of sightings that can’t be explained currently even with sufficient data about the sighting, and that explanation may not be very interesting but it would still be worthwhile to know. I’d love to see serious research into that phenomenon. But why would any serious scientist want to touch the subject if the people shouting most loudly about it also insist that the mere existence of UFOs indicates interstellar or interdimensional beings visiting us not-so-surreptitiously on Earth? What legitimate researcher would bother to think there’s anything there if they’re always hearing about the phenomenon in the context of stories about alien abductions, mystical energy fields, telepathic contactees, and elaborate but entirely unsupported conspiracy theories?

Furthermore, the book feels a bit rushed, perhaps because of the need to put something out in advance of the release to the public of the DOD report on UFOs that should be made available by the end of June. Of course, since this book’s publication, it’s become pretty clear that the report, as per usual, cannot definitively state what the phenomenon is. That’s to be expected and not reflective of a conspiracy but just the reality that it’s hard to verify every case of something strange seen in the sky after the fact. But of course, the essays included in the book seem to believe that this is all part of a rolling buildup to full Disclosure, the almost Rapture-level event anticipated in the far-out ufology community in which the government will come clean and reveal the full depths of contact with extraterrestrials, complete with revelations about its sordid history of involvement with benevolent and malevolent ETs and their remarkable technologies.

It’s a shame, too, because not all of the essays are bad. Nick Pope’s essay, while increasingly speculative toward the end, is actually a very level take on the UFO phenomenon and rather clearly and logically explains why it’s very unlikely that there’s any big government conspiracy at all. A transcript of a talk by the late psychiatrist and alien abduction researcher John Mack offered a nuanced accounting of his work and speculation about what it could mean–and while it’s certainly not a convincing argument for legitimate alien abduction occurrences, it’s an interesting reminder that these experiences are very real to the people reporting them. Finally, the book excerpt by famous abductee/writer Whitley Strieber and the fascinatingly fragmented and abstract essay by abductee/performer Henrietta Weekes were interesting insights into the perspectives of those actually reporting an “alien abduction” experience. I think it’s notable that the essays I’ve cited downplay the significance of the actual UFO phenomenon and put more weight into subjective experience related to a separate phenomenon, that of the reported alien abduction, experiences that seem very real to the alleged abductees. However, I think it would be far more interesting to read about the experience as a psychosocial phenomenon, rather than as further support for those desperately looking for proof of alien contact, no matter how incompatible the various sources of evidence.

I’d suggest looking for writings by Pope, Mack, Strieber, or Weekes outside of this anthology, where they can be engaged with (even if not accepted/believed) on their own terms.

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Finally, if you’re interested in reading something worthwhile on the history of investigation into the UFO phenomenon, I’d strongly recommend the April 30th essay “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on The New Yorker.