On a recent flight, I was able to take in the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise: Jurassic World: Dominion.
Written by Emily Carmichael, Colin Trevorrow, and Derek Connolly, the film scored well with audiences—it has a 77% audience score at Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $376 million at the box office—but was largely panned by critics following its June 2022 release.
Adam Nayman of The Ringer called the film “overly long and soullessly engineered,” echoing the sentiments of The Wall Street Journal’s Kyle Smith, who labeled Dominion a dull “$165 million effects extravaganza…built atop a script worthy of a board game.”
Maybe I’m just a pushover for a decent action flick that features dinosaurs, but I thought the movie was pretty good—and not just because the latest installments brings together all of our favorite characters from the franchise. As in previous films, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern reprise their roles as Alan Grant, Ian Malcom and Ellie Sattler—but this time they are all in the same film and joined by likable newcomers Owen Gracy (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard).
That’s a lot of stars for a single feature film, but Trevorrow (who also directed the film) does yeoman work weaving storylines together in a plot that is engaging and relevant to today’s world.
A Familiar Villain
Like all good science fiction, Dominion forces us to think seriously about ethical questions surrounding science, choice, power, and individual agency and responsibility.
At the very beginning of the film, we see that John Hammond’s dream of harnessing genetic power to bring the creatures of the Jurassic Age back into existence has not gone as planned (as is the case with so many plans).
The world we see is vaguely like that which we see in zombie apocalypse films, except it’s dinosaurs that humans are forced to contend with, not zombies. Governments and mega-corporations continue to try to respond to the new threats that humanity has created through its hubris—much like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—and with little success.
The movie follows the story of a powerful corporation, Biosyn, which has a monopoly on the creation of dinosaur DNA. (How do you suppose they got that?) The CEO of Biosyn is Dr. Lewis Dodgson, who uses his monopoly not just to breed new dinosaur species, but to create a bunch of freaky, transgenic super-locusts that consume the crops of rival agriculture companies.
If the name Dodgson sounds familiar, it should. Dodgson was actually the villain of the first Jurassic Park, at least in a way. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, he secretly meets with Jurassic Park's disgruntled computer programmer, Dennis Nedry (played by Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame) to illegally purchase the viable embryos Nedry intends to steal from Hammond.
"Dodgson, we've got Dodgson here!" Nedry announces loudly, after Dodgson weakly tells Nedry not to use his name. “See, nobody cares.”
The Ethics of Two Little Words
Decades later, Dodgson (Campbell Scott) has grown. He has ditched his bad secret agent hat and sunglasses for a black shirt and gray sweater; wearing silver hair and rectangular metal spectacles, he exudes a nerdy aura of confidence and power. He’s what you might imagine an evil CEO to look like if you spliced the DNA of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
With his monopoly power, Dodgson has turned Biosyn into a company powerful enough to control the world’s food supply and—when things go wrong—put humans at risk of extinction.
Fortunately, the good guys are not going to allow this to happen.
After receiving a tip from her old pal Ian Malcom, who advises Biosyn, Ellie Sattler decides to drop in on her old friend Alan Grant, whom she asks to help her get DNA evidence exposing Dodgson’s plot. A tour of the facilities is arranged, and while at the facilities they come into contact with Owen and Claire, whose adopted daughter Maisie Lockwood—the daughter of deceased geneticist Charlotte Lockwood—has been kidnapped by Biosyn because her DNA holds the key to preventing the global disaster.
That’s the elevator run-down of Dominion. Of course there are a whole lot of action scenes, dinosaur chases, and narrow escapes mixed in, some of which are well shot and super creepy. It’s pretty fun stuff, and feels a lot like a blend of Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, and World War Z with prehistoric creatures running around.
To me, the most important scene comes near the end when Biosyn scientist Dr. Henry Wu emerges to beg for Maisie’s help. The locusts can’t be stopped unless he can study her genes to find out how Maisie’s mother sequenced her cells to repair her DNA. (Charlotte, one of the greatest geneticists of her time, corrected her daughter’s DNA to allow her to live a full and healthy life.)
We’ve seen Wu before. He’s the geneticist who literally brought dinosaurs to life in the first film, but he’s no longer the cocky young scientist who expressed scorn when Ian Malcom suggested “nature would find a way” to spontaneously create life at Jurassic Park, even though the dinosaurs were all designed to be female.
Wu is now a broken man. He’s old and disheveled and appears half mad. But he seems to sincerely want to help. How he wants to “study” Massie’s DNA is unclear, and after being kidnapped and held captive by Biosyn she has no reason to trust him.
Yet Massie resolves the moral dilemma of whether Biosyn can conduct tests on her to save the world, and she does so with two simple words.
"It's ok,” she says.
Massie goes on to explain that allowing Wu to study her is what her mother would have wanted.
This might be the most important scene in the movie, but the point here isn’t a genetic one or even a scientific one; it’s a moral one. Massie is giving her consent to be studied by Wu to see if he can correct the mess he’s made. (Massie’s DNA will show him how to turn the Super Locusts back to normal.)
The Ethics of Consent
Throughout Dominion, viewers encounter a lot of violence, and it’s not just dinosaurs tearing people apart. We see humans attack, intimidate, and murder one another. We see theft and kidnapping. Like the dinosaur world, it’s generally the powerful who prey on those weaker.
This is not the way it’s supposed to be. One of the things that separates humans from the animal kingdom (in theory at least), is that might does not define us. Under the basic framework of the social contract, humans can trade and give to one another, but they cannot aggress against one another. To borrow a popular libertarian phrase, we can’t hurt people or take their stuff, at least not morally.
In other words, it’s a system built on mutual consent. This is the foundation of capitalism and a moral society, FEE founder Leonard Read explained in his 1967 book Deeper Than You Think.
“No person, or any combination of persons, regardless of numbers, or any agency they may contrive…has any right of control over any other person that does not exist or inhere as a moral right in each individual. The only moral right of control by one individual over another or others is a defensive right, that is, the right to fend off aggressive or destructive actions. Governments, therefore, should go no further in controlling people than the individuals who organize it have a moral right to go…In short, limit governmental power to codifying the do-nots consonant with the defense of life and livelihood, to the protection of all citizens equally.”
Note that Read does not say here that choice and consent go out the window if politicians decide something is in your best interest, or a particular action serves a greater good.
If serving a greater good was all it took to invalidate consent, Dodgson would be morally justified in kidnapping Massie to have Wu study her genes to potentially save the lives of billions of people.
By simply saying “It’s OK,” Massie resolves this moral conflict. And her decision reminds us that a moral society will protect the right of individuals to choose, not violate their rights with force—collective or otherwise.
On the heels of an inhumane global effort to do just that—all for the greater good, of course—it’s an ethic we’d do well to remember.