“Nasty woman!” hunter Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) says of Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) after she says something defiant to him from her makeshift prison cell in the back of his truck.
Wheatley has already shot a man with tranquilizers and left him for dead on an island with an active volcano and wild, roaming predators. He has threatened to murder a medical biologist if she doesn’t save a valuable specimen that has been shot. He is part of a business scheme that will threaten countless lives—the entire world, really—one he enters into with relish simply for the reward of money. (Wheatley’s most often repeated line is, “I want my bonus!”) He’s also a sadist, pulling teeth from sedated animals for a makeshift necklace while chuckling about how much pain they will feel when their anesthesia wears off.
The purpose of such relentlessly underlined psychopathy is no mystery to anyone who has sat through a summer action movie in the last 20 years. He’s being marked for execution, and the movie wants us to know it is okay to cheer when he finally gets what’s coming. And it works. The audience with whom I saw Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom chuckled gleefully as Wheatley entered the cage of a particularly vicious dinosaur genetically altered to be larger and more aggressive than its ancestors of past movies. When it wakes up, as we knew it would, and bites his arm off, as we knew it would, the camera lingers on his agonizing final moments.
This is nothing new. To a large extent, the summer action movie’s reason for being is to satisfy our bloodlust. The first film I reviewed for my college newspaper, James Cameron’s Aliens, features an evil corporate villain who releases an alien “face hugger” into a room with a female character and the young girl she is trying to protect. Later, he will be cocooned by the same aliens, subject to the same fate he would have imposed on others. He begs the woman who finds him immobilized for a mercy killing so that he will be spared the suffering of the gestating alien bursting from his chest. She declines. Some fates are worse than death, and we will accept nothing but the worst fate for our movie villains.
In the intervening years between my review of Aliens and my viewing of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I’ve noticed that most Christians I meet are more squeamish about and concerned over depictions of sex and nudity than those of casual, imagined violence. “I just don’t want that image in my head!” is a refrain I have heard countless times to explain a sweeping rejection of all sexual images. But if we insist that sexual images divorced from narrative context have moral weight to the extent that they invite or encourage sexual lust, does it not follow that violent images pandering to revenge fantasies are equally worthy of censure?
There used to be more of a common-sense, enculturated hesitancy to revel in images of human suffering. Proverbs (24:17) and Old Testament prophets (Obad. 1:12) warn against gloating over an enemy’s fall or a brother’s misfortune. New Testament commands include turning the other cheek and returning good for evil.
That’s why, I think, these films work so hard and consistently to convince troubled viewers that our anger is an appropriate and proportionate response to the evils of the world and that our bloodlust is actually a justifiable desire to see that evil punished. In 2012, the Jack Reacher film made this latent attitude explicit with the tagline: “If he’s coming for you, you deserve it.”
In the thematic equivalent of ratings creep, the narrative attitudes introduced in R-rated films even came to infect fare meant for younger audiences. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast features an antagonist who cannot merely be thwarted but must actually be killed. The death of the wicked in Pixar’s Up is not shown, but it is implied—and it undercuts the emotional depth of a story built around death and mourning. Edgar the Butler (The Aristocats) could be exiled to Timbuktu and Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) could survive driving a car over a cliff, but Ursula (The Little Mermaid) had to be impaled and then electrocuted for a later generation of audiences to be satisfied. Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Scar (The Lion King), and Syndrome (The Incredibles) all are subjected to particularly gruesome deaths. (In fact, a study in the British Medical Journal showed that the 45 top-grossing animated films between 1937 and 2014 consistently depicted more violent deaths than the top-grossing dramas of the same period.)
It is ironic in one way that Fallen Kingdom should be the film that prompts this reflection. Movies such as Independence Day, Terminator, Starship Troopers, and, yes, Jurassic Park, made literal the dehumanization of the antagonists that facilitated our rooting not just for their defeat but also for their annihilation. Fallen Kingdom begins with an existential threat to the dinosaurs and ends with an existential threat to humanity. Yet despite the death toll they have exacted over a half dozen movies, the dinosaurs’ right to life is defended by animal rights groups and ultimately deemed to be a moral imperative by the film’s voice of moral innocence: a child who has spent the last hour screaming in terror.
How did we get to the point where we are shedding tears over the potential deaths of dinosaurs while cheering the grisly demise of human villains? Aristotle famously claimed in the Poetics that tragedy’s engendering of fear and loathing led to “catharsis,” generally thought to be a purgation of those negative emotions in and through art before they infect the “real world.” But does the violence of contemporary films lead to the purgation of negative emotions or the exacerbation of them?
An acid test for whether art serves a cathartic or pornographic function is whether it intensifies, interrogates, dissipates, or complicates the emotions on which it depends. In general, contemporary films do not provoke fear and loathing as a step toward repudiating violence. Rather, they stoke that fear and loathing as a necessary precursor to justifying the violence that will ostensibly provide relief from it. Paradoxically, however, we become addicted to the pleasures of violent retribution, and we come to need the fear and loathing in order to justify it. We need to ask ourselves whether giving license to sinful attitudes in our imaginations is making it harder for us to restrain them in real life.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.