Eat 'em up: The case against innocent bystanders (in movies)
I don’t always advocate for the eating of human beings, but in popcorn monster movies, I can’t help myself. I root hard against the innocent bystanders. We’ve started going way too easy on them.
This is probably so we can go easy on ourselves. It’s hard to watch people who’ve done nothing to deserve it get stomped, chewed, or vaporized, even when we know it’s not real, and even when we don’t actually know who the hell they are. We project ourselves onto these backdrop figures, and their suffering becomes our suffering.
But that empathy is the bystander’s value as a storytelling device. Just like we cheer when a despicable character gets his or her comeuppance, we should recoil at the harsh fate of someone who was merely in the wrong bus when Godzilla decided to go for a stroll. It makes us feel something – about the monster, about the mission of the heroes, and, however briefly, about the stranger we see in those final moments of life.
This argument may sound macabre, but I say it’s much more disturbing to strip away life-and-death consequences from scenes of widespread annihilation. It’s vaguely sociopathic to destroy a city and not see anyone being hurt except the main characters, calling to mind that classic exchange from Reservoir Dogs: Mr. Pink: You kill anybody? Mr. White: A few cops. Mr. Pink: No real people?
Audience discomfort has now tamed the savage beast. In Jurassic World, 20,000 island visitors are threatened with annihilation by giant lizards but in the midst of the big aerial assault on this scampering crowd, the camera turns our heads away like an overprotective parent… except for one graphic moment that adds dismaying gravity to the film.
(For those who haven’t seen it, sorry, we can’t talk without spoilers, so you may want to get off at this tram stop … )
Jurassic World is set at a park that’s now a fully operational tourist haven, the fulfillment of John Hammond’s dream of leapfrogging the divide between eons by resurrecting ancient beasts and inviting curiosity-seekers to “spare no expense” on tickets, merchandise, and accommodations.
After so many years, the guests are a bit inured to the wonder of dinosaurs, and park management has decided to boost sales by genetically engineering a new super predator. As you can guess, Something Goes Wrong and the Indominus Rex™ escapes its paddock, setting off an event cascade that unleashes even more deadly species on the island full of vacationers.
This differs from the previous Jurassic stories, which mostly took place in locales that were uninhabited, and the fourth film’s premise could have inspired some subtle satire: Jurassic World, where the consumer gets consumed. But that’s something modern blockbuster moviemaking cannot abide.
Unaware of the danger stomping toward them during the first half of the movie, panic first sets in for the innocent bystanders when a flock of winged dimorphodons and pteranodons swoop through Jurassic World’s outdoor mall, flapping and picking at fleeing pedestrians. Director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow must have sensed the need to demonstrate the danger in a stark and unmistakable way, but if any innocent bystanders lose their lives, it happens offscreen. Instead, he zeroes in on Jurassic World’s only fair game: park employees.
Again, spoiler warning: An assistant (Zara, played by Katie McGrath), who was assigned to keep watch over the nephews of park supervisor Bryce Dallas Howard, is snatched into the air during this attack like a squirrel gripped in hawk talons. As our stomachs sink at the horror awaiting her as she is carried into the sky, she breaks free and plummets into the park’s artificial lake. Phew! She might be okay, right? Except for whatever is lurking below the surface.
What follows is an elegantly dreadful shot of the bullet-like pteranodons piercing the sun-dappled water like dive-bombing seabirds. Zara is snatched back into the air and passed from beak to beak as the winged dinosaurs fight over their thrashing dinner. She’s still alive when the victor pulls her into the air and flaps away over the water where … it (and she) are swallowed whole by a breeching, whale-sized barracuda known as the mosasaurus.
It’s a grim, sad fate. Despite her carelessness as a babysitter, Zara did nothing to deserve this gruesome end. She had no control over what the park was doing, and was as close to being a bystander as this movie gets. The false hope the movie teases as she fights for her life makes this death all the more cruel, and some viewers have already deemed it gratuitous and unnecessary. I’d agree with the cruel sentiment, but to me this is a vital moment in the narrative.
Yes, we see others gobbled by dinosaurs before this scene, but in most cases those victims are guards or soldiers who present, in a small way, some match for the creatures that overpower them. Other times, the deaths are played for dark comic relief, such as the cowardly guard whose tubby physique makes him a blubbering, succulent dish for the Indominus Rex early in the film.
There’s nothing amusing about the demise of Zara, who’s as close to “real people” as Jurassic World gets, and it’s that unsettling quality about her death that more Hollywood disaster epics need in order to reclaim their visceral emotional prowess. That doesn’t mean we need curtains of blood or abject horror. We don’t need to bathe in pain. There’s definitely a misanthropic thirst for agony out there that we shouldn’t feel obliged to slake, the kind catered to by R-rated schlockfests likes Piranha 3-D, and I’m not saying blockbusters should become big-screen Sharknados, which have lots of morbid consequences but render each into a meaningless joke. Also, on the other side of the spectrum, yes, I fully recognize that in PG-rated family fare, it’s fine to tone it down and play it safe.
But in thrillers aimed at teenagers or older, the PG-13 crowd, what I’m arguing for is merely a sense of consequences, a dose of sadness, even if it’s fleeting, to underscore the danger. Suspense is more intense when we don’t entirely trust a movie with our emotional well-being.
We know intuitively that the two boys Zara was watching will make it to the closing credits with only a few bumps and scrapes, but we’re less confident about their fate if the movie ventures outside our comfort zone. I didn’t need to see dinosaurs chewing on a suburban dad like corn on the cob to understand the stakes, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few more wriggling shapes disappear over the horizon in the clutches of those flying lizards. Forget 3-D – that’s how you reach out into the audience and grab them by the collar.
Moviegoers can intuit when mass casualties are happening, so there’s no need for movies to play it coy. In disaster sagas like San Andreas the focus is also on landmarks and locations getting pulverized. In Man of Steel, audiences were aghast at the fight between Superman and General Zod that reduced much of midtown Metropolis to dust. We didn’t see it, but clearly tens of thousands must have died horribly in that brawl. Maybe a Superman movie is the wrong place for tragedy, but the fact that the movie allowed that destruction and apparent death to happen without even acknowledging it is the unforgiveable insult.
Even in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the heroes were more consciencious than Superman in trying to rescue a population of Sokovians as the metallic villain elevated their city into the heavens to serve as a makeshift mass-extinction device. We assume some must have perished, but director Joss Whedon avoids any discomfort by entirely shying away from any evidence of that certainty.
One of the most chilling moments comes as Captain America grabs hold of the bumper of a car that’s slipping over the edge and it breaks off in his hand. The woman at the wheel shrieks helplessly as we watch her red convertible slip into the abyss. “You can’t save them all,” Ultron taunts the red, white, and blue hero.
Sorry, lady, but I wish you had bought the farm. Instead, Thor flies over to save the day, hurling her into the sky while Cap hangs off the edge and catches her. (Nevermind that being whipped like a ragdoll would probably kill her, too.) If we don’t allow Ultron to be right, if we don’t accept – and see – that not everybody can be saved, it blunts the edges of the peril. It’s the cinematic equivalent of those foam corners the parents of toddlers put on everything. When did filmmakers and moviegoers lose their nerve?
This is something that has evolved only in recent years, so I’m not going to blame it on 9/11, which has become the lazy go-to for all pop culture analysis. In the years following that real-life horror, we actually saw it evoked onscreen. Think of the heartbreaking annihilation in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds in 2005, which introduced its aliens by reducing fleeing bystanders to bursts of ash. This was a movie that chilled the audience’s blood by making it explicitly clear that many, many people were not surviving. Even in moments when the story stops to take a breath, Spielberg would sneak up on us with a reminder to not get too comfortable — remember the scene with tiny Dakota Fanning standing at the riverside and seeing a single body drift by … then another, and another, until the whole river was clogged with them?
Even Independence Day had more nerve 20 years ago than studio blockbusters have now. We all remember the White House, the Empire State Building and L.A.’s Library Tower shattering beneath alien blasts, but that 1996 movie also crafted colorful and likable side characters whose deaths added poignance to the attack scenes. Think of Kiersten Warren’s stripper Tiffany raising her homemade (and naive) “WELCOME” sign atop the L.A. skyscraper just before being obliterated, or Jeff Goldblum’s panicky buddy Marty (played by Harvey Fierstein), a comic-relief character who burns alive in traffic after muttering what are probably true-to-life last words: “Oh, crap.”
I don’t want to overstate that these are particularly rich characters, but they’re not ants on a log either. Independence Day was a cheesy alien invasion movie, after all – but director Roland Emmerich took the time to introduce these background characters so viewers would feel something when they are ripped away. Beyond the destruction of property and landmarks, someone you’ve met has fallen victim to the carnage. Independence Day even goes in for close-ups of random strangers during this attack. We don’t know them, but we look into their eyes as they are destroyed. When I think of this scene, I always think of that wall of fire, expanding through the Los Angeles skyline, swallowing another building as we see a lone man on an upper floor. He’s opening a filing cabinet. We haven’t met him before, and we certainly don’t meet him again – he looks up just as the inferno rips through the office windows. He’s incinerated instantly.
Oh, Independence Day workaholic, what kind of office task was so important that you had to spend your final breath doing it? Whenever I stay late into the night toiling on an assignment, I think of him.
Maybe something in our culture has shifted. We want the spectacle of disaster, but not the reminder of loss. Certainly terror attacks and economic desperation are legitimate reasons for wanting escapism, but it’s hard not to see a parallel between this phenomenon and the way we absorb real-life news.
Our cable networks loop video of the Kathmandu temples collapsing but the 8,800-plus human beings who died in the Nepal earthquake swarm remain anonymous abstractions. For years, we’ve also sanitized our imagery of war. People may be dying on both sides, but it’s considered poor taste to show it, or even to talk about it too much. For a time, keep in mind, we even allowed a ban on photographing the caskets of fallen soldiers, as if commemoration itself was disrespectful. We have a tricky relationship when it comes to facing the pain of those we don’t know personally.
Maybe it all comes down to powerlessness. We can’t change those harsh realities – or feel we can’t – so we don’t even want to see them. And when you feel helpless in a general, day-to-day way, the escapism that’s supposed to soothe may not be welcome if it reinforces that uncertainty, even in small ways.
The stories we tell are a reflection of us, and we also learn from them. The original Jurassic Park was about accepting chaos as a part of existence, avoiding making more when possible, and facing the fact that nature – that life – can be harsh and unrelenting. Bad people die in the original Jurassic Park, good people do, too.
Pop culture doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or preachy to teach, it can speak to us on a subconscious level. Maybe as long as everyone feels small and threatened, the invincibility of the innocent bystander is just another fantasy we crave.
But I like a story with teeth, even if that means we have to feel the bite.