In the Jurassic Park movies, the Tyrannosaurus rex is more than a deadly predator bent on eating everyone and everything in its path. It also serves a key plot function above and beyond that of mere antagonist.
You are perhaps familiar with the concept of deus ex machina? Wikipedia calls it “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.” It’s the sudden rescue at the end, the long-lost relative who adopts you as their heir, the bacteria that kill the Martians just before all is lost.
I’d like to propose the idea of the T. rex machina—the plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of a T. rex.
We see this at the end of the first Jurassic Park movie, where Our Heroes, cornered by velociraptors,1 are suddenly and accidentally saved by the intervention of a rampaging tyrannosaur—the very same T. rex that had attacked two Ford Explorers, eaten at least one (1) lawyer and one (1) Gallimimus bullatus and caused all kinds of mayhem and misery.
T. rex: the cause of—and solution to—all of Jurassic Park’s problems.
But tyrannosaurs don’t just exist to break unbreakable knots. Hubris is a recurring theme in Michael Crichton’s work: overconfidence that one’s scientific breakthrough won’t blow up in your face (or, in the case of Jurassic Park, eat it) is punished by said breakthrough doing just that. In that vein, the T. rex can be seen as Nature’s avenging angel, punishing those who would mock Nature, or taunt it, or otherwise fail to heed its warnings. Who, after all, does the T. rex eat in the first movie? The lawyer convinced that the park would make a fortune. Everyone else is killed by other dinosaurs. And when the lesson has been thoroughly and bloodily learned, the T. rex returns to grant Nature’s mercy: Go now, and think on what you have done.
There’s a similar pattern in the second movie, The Lost World, which jacks the T. rex content up to eleven. T. rexes attack the hunters who trapped their child and, when an adult is captured and brought to San Diego, it breaks lose and goes on a rampage across the city. Yes, the people and doggos gobbled up were blameless in this affair, but the havoc unleashed is on someone’s head. Fortunately that someone, Peter Ludlow (played by Arliss Howard), faces some T. rex justice at the end of the movie, as parent teaches child how to kill.
Justice—and dinner—is served.
Casting the T. rex in the role of avenger2 seems so right and natural—something mythic in stature—that when it fails to happen in Jurassic Park III—when the T. rex is reduced to a footnote, serving only as Spinosaurus aegypticus fodder to prove how badass that new dinosaur is—it feels somehow wrong. Smaller. Less significant.
You don’t off Godzilla in the first act of a Japanese monster movie, I don’t care how good the other monsters are. It’s still freaking Godzilla.
Actually, there’s a lot wrong with Jurassic Park III. The first two movies explored the consequences of Fucking Around with Nature. The third, not so much: it was a small, simple rescue story that shuffled and mumbled around that theme and spent a great deal of time missing the point. Wasting the T. rex is a symptom of that lack of clarity. (And being rescued by the marines is a poor substitute for tyrannosaurine intervention: there’s very little of the sublime in peditatus marinus ex machina.)
Fortunately, in Jurassic World there is a return to form. I haven’t actually seen the movie,3 but I already know this scene is iconic.
Because Nature’s avenging angel isn’t just here to punish you for fucking around with nature; it’s also here to clean up the GMO-monstrosity mess you made.4
This is why the Jurassic Park movies have thoroughly messed up my thoughts about dinosaurs and plot. I freely admit this. For example, one of my works in progress involves dinosaurs being resurrected in 1897. Even though T. rex was not discovered until 1905, I strongly felt that the book required a T. rex machina. Fortunately—or not—I found a legitimate way around that problem. But until and unless the book is finished and out in the world, I’ll leave that solution as an exercise for the reader.
- By the way, Jurassic Park’s velociraptors are bullshit. AS EVERYONE KNOWS.
- There is no truth to the rumour that Devil Dinosaur will be in the next Avengers movie. There is, in fact, no such rumor. Sigh.
- Not on Netflix, you see, whereas the first three are.
- Okay, technically, the mosasaur cleaned up the mess. Or delivered the nom de grâce. But I think you’ll agree that Mosasaurus ex machina is not quite the same.