Mass Extinction

takes a look at the subtly sociopathic language of on-screen death

Image: Universal Pictures

Image: Universal Pictures

Movies kill a lot of people. Whether it’s John Hurt in Alien, Janet Leigh in Psycho, or the entire cast of Final Destination 4, if you’re going to get into film you’d better have a serious taste for the macabre. Sometimes they die completely by accident; sometimes they’re brutally axe-murdered while listening to Huey Lewis & The News; sometimes they don’t even realise that they’re dead. It happens all the time. Just ask Sean Bean.

Few mid-August moviegoers swing by their local Odeon to stare down the barrel of their own mortality.

Perhaps it’s fortunate then, that there’s a sadistic voyeur tucked away inside each of us that enjoys the spectacle of watching our fellow man meet his maker. It creates excitement and jeopardy, we’re relieved that it’s happening to someone else, plus it appeases that ‘sex and death’ obsession that you doubtless explored during your English GCSE. The catch is that within the framework of popcorn filmmaking – that is, big-budget entertainment not intended to shock or challenge – too much untimely slaughter rather dampens the mood. Few mid-August moviegoers swing by their local Odeon to stare down the barrel of their own mortality. This is the line that blockbusters must toe; a sense of genuine danger, but nothing that interferes with our free and easy enjoyment of the film.

What this means is that on-screen death must be handled carefully. Independence Day wouldn’t have enraptured nearly so many 12-year-olds if the famous White House scene had come complete with roasted children, blood-curdling death throes, and mutilated family pets. Every time a mainstream movie kills off one of its characters it writes a moral contract with its audience – the death is made excusable, and in return we stay away from thoughts like ‘he had a family’ and continue to be entertained.It’s a crucial duty for any blockbuster director, to keep us morally onside.

They achieve this in a number of ways, and as the Citizen Kane of summer blockbusters, Jurassic Park showcases just a few of them. First there are the villains: characters that everyone wants to see suffer, these guys allow the twisted minds of lonely screenwriters to live out their deepest, darkest fantasies. In Jurassic Park our hapless bogeyman Dennis Nedry gets the full treatment: a faceful of dino goo, a tumble in the mud and a wide shot of a shaking car. Secondly, there’s the ‘poetic’ or ‘redemptive’ demise. Muldoon is case in point: familiar with raptor hunting patterns and never seen without a shotgun, it’s a surprise to no one when the rugged dino trainer is outwitted and savaged by his own animals. Thirdly, we have ‘symbols of the struggle’, such as the unfortunate computer programmer Arnold. Put simply, his death is there to ensure that the good guys don’t win too easily.

The point is that good characters can have deaths that are meaningful, but in a family-friendly schlockfest they cannot be enjoyable. For us to get our cadaverous kicks the director must find other ways of morally excusing the carnage. Let’s take the character of Gennaro, whose death couldn’t have been more inevitable if he were draped in goat meat and t-rex pheromone. Firstly (whisper it quietly), he’s a lawyer. From the moment you find this out Gennaro is in danger – lawyers rank behind only politicians and serial killers in the list of least empathetic Hollywood occupations. Secondly, he’s obsessed with money. The boos are getting louder now: sporting a suit as grey as his personality, this consummate exercise in corporate facelessness discusses park finances with the enthusiasm of a hungover sloth. Finally, by leaving the children in the car and fleeing in terror, he displays that most deadly of Hollywood sins – cowardice. Three strikes, and Gennaro has earned himself a one-way ticket to chomptown. Good riddance you money-grubbing, child-hating lawyer bastard.

The point is that Gennaro has been specifically tailored to be a death the audience can righteously enjoy. Obviously he doesn’t deserve his demise – his only crimes are to do his job and be afraid of a 50-foot tyrannosaur – but Spielberg and co. successfully trick us into believing that he does. We get to enjoy the predatory magnificence of a giant dino, without the uncomfortable distraction of morally incongruous violence. Confident in our collaboration, the film even throws in some comedy; quite literally devoured on the toilet, it’s as humourous as it is pathetic. This is what happens to cowards kids, they get turned into dino poop.

We’re invited to revel in every scream and flail; to light-heartedly enjoy a scene of visercal brutality

This process is perhaps at its most obvious when it goes wrong: in more recent prehistoric picture Jurassic World, Zara, a minor character, gets a death to make Eli Roth wince. Snatched up by a pteradon, twice nearly drowned, flung around in the air, and then eventually chomped by a Mosasaurus, the almost-minute long sequence delights in showcasing every inch of Zara’s torment. The direction is classic for the voyeurism of blockbuster excitement – quick cuts with close-ups, POV shots and multiple angles – while the upbeat, Scooby Doo score nudges us towards a wide-eyed grin. We’re invited to revel in every scream and flail; to light-heartedly enjoy a scene of visceral brutality. A quick Google reveals whole articles and online forums dedicated to the ‘unusual cruelty’ of Zara’s end, with many debating just what she’d done to warrant such an horrendous fate. Personally, I left the cinema feeling slightly ill, and if the internet is anything to go by, I wasn’t alone.

This method of ‘sin exaggeration’ isn’t the only sleight of hand in the directorial arsenal – there’s also visiting the sins of the commander upon the commanded. In 2009’s Avatar, soldier-gone-native Jake Sully fights a war of independence to save the peace-loving Na’vi from the unerringly nasty Colonel Miles Quaritch. While triumphalist music plays, we’re invited to cheer as these giant blue naturists slaughter their human counterparts; we watch smugly from the comfort of our moral high ground as our plucky protagonist mercilessly mows down his former comrades. South African thriller District 9 is next on the butchering-former-friends bandwagon, as person-turned-bug-monster Martin Van der Beek eviscerates an entire squad of his peers for moral shortcomings that only their captain displayed. In both cases, if the human commander were just a little bit less of a dick, then the piles of human dead would take on a rather different moral complexion.

Blockbusters have never particularly frightened me – CGI dinos and giant alien plasma rays have rarely elicited more than a raised eyebrow and a stifled yawn. What scares me a little more is how easy it is for Spielberg, Cameron and cronies to manipulate my moral compass to fit with their ‘artistic’ demands. The language of cinematic tone is subtle and complex, but most of all it relies on the relentlessly cruel and judgemental subconscious of its audience. So next time you trot down to your local multiplex, consider whether that young, oversexed, slightly right-wing litterbug who just used the phrase ‘what could possibly go wrong’, really deserved to be impaled by that giant ice cream cone, or whether it’s just convenient for the director to make you think that he did.

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