Broad Cinema: Women Inherit The Earth
From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week, we're honoring Kathleen Kennedy. Live in an Alamo market? Get your tickets to the Jurassic Park Movie Party here!
You should know Kathleen Kennedy’s name by now. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that over the course of her 35-year career as a producer, Kennedy has made at least one movie you hold dear. How about E.T., Jurassic Park, The Goonies, Gremlins, or Back to the Future? If not those, then maybe Poltergeist, Arachnophobia, or Schindler’s List? She’s also produced every Indiana Jones movie, and if you don’t love a single one of them, I just don’t know what to say.
You should also know her name because right now, Kathleen Kennedy is the president of Lucasfilm and the brand manager for Star Wars, handpicked by George Lucas to succeed him in 2012. That’s a lot of pressure, and Kennedy delivers. Her first crack at the Lucasfilm job was The Force Awakens, followed swiftly by Rogue One. They’re both sharp, character-driven stories that received ample praise. But they also represent a notable break with tradition for the franchise: the women of Kennedy’s Star Wars movies aren’t supporting cast members, they’re the heroes themselves.
Kennedy doesn’t just tackle scripts and casting differently, she runs the company differently as well. She’s stated openly that she wants a female director on future Star Wars films. As Lucasfilm’s president, more than half of her direct reports are women—a figure that’s grossly disproportionate when compared to the industry at large. It’s clear that Kennedy is using her considerable influence to change those dynamics on her own movie sets. Given how she runs her shop, the producer has naturally been asked if she would have made Carrie Fisher wear the infamous slave Leia costume had Kennedy made Return of the Jedi. On that, she is clear: “With a chain around her neck? I don’t think that would happen.”
That kind of frank, feminist talk is pretty unusual for Kennedy. She likes to take a backseat to her work, so while her movies often have a clear stance on female equality, Kennedy herself isn’t inclined to give you a soundbite about her opinions. “I’m not great at talking about myself,” she says. “I don’t analyze things all the time, I just do them.”
Her low-key public image is all right by Kennedy. In fact, she likes that you don't know who she is. Unlike her more famous colleagues, Kennedy’s face isn’t instantly recognized all over the world, and that suits her just fine. “I have loved being pretty anonymous, you know,” she says. “There’s nothing I like more than to have one of our movies run, and then I go to the ladies’ room and listen to everybody talk about it. No one has any idea who I am.”
I wish she had overheard what I had to say in a movie theater bathroom somewhere in Southern California in June of 1993. I was 8 years old and had just seen Jurassic Park for the first time. I might even have been crying. I’d never seen anything like it in my whole life, and it’s still one of my favorites. I didn’t know Kathleen Kennedy’s name at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t have recognized her face, but Spielberg couldn’t have made Jurassic Park without her.
The fact that dinosaurs walk the earth is not the most surprising thing about Jurassic Park. Moviegoers are used to suspending their disbelief when it comes to monsters, magic, and science fiction. But back in 1993, they weren’t as used to watching female characters lead the action, save the day, and utterly steal the spotlight from the predominantly male cast of an action adventure movie.
There’s only one adult woman in Jurassic Park, Dr. Ellie Sattler. She’s a paleobotanist at the top of her field, that field being the study of prehistoric plant fossils, from which we learn the evolutionary history of plants. Compared to her professional and romantic partner Dr. Alan Grant’s work, which is studying dinosaur fossils, that’s pretty boring. Regardless, John Hammond invites Sattler to Jurassic Park because she is an accomplished scientist in her own right, presented as Grant’s peer in every way.
In fact, out of the three scientists invited to Jurassic Park, Sattler, Grant, and Dr. Ian Malcom, Sattler is easily the most proactive and level-headed character. She’s unencumbered by the ego that leaves her male peers socially isolated and prone to ill-considered decision making. Unlike Grant, she manages to be a renowned scientist and capable of basic human politeness, a busy professional and someone who wants kids one day, a traditional fossil-finder and flexible enough to recognize that technology can help her do the job better. Unlike chaos theoretician Dr. Malcolm, whose love of chaos leads him to relish in his history as a serial divorcee, Sattler doesn’t treat her romantic relationships like self-serving science experiments. Compared to her idiosyncratic peers, Dr. Sattler is so normal that she seems, well, pretty boring.
After all, how good is having a paleobotanist on your side when you’re faced with an island full of loose, man-eating dinosaurs? A hell of a lot of good, as it turns out. During the scientists’ first tour of the park, Sattler finds a leaf that she knows went extinct in the Cretaceous period. Right then and there, she becomes the first to realize the true nature of Jurassic Park, all because of boring plants. When the three scientists butt heads with John Hammond over the moral implications of Jurassic Park, Dr. Sattler makes the soundest, clearest case by grounding it in paleobotany: “The question is how can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem? And therefore, how could you ever assume that you can control it? You have plants in this building that are poisonous. You picked them because they’re pretty.” She’s right, of course.
When push comes to shove, Sattler not only subverts our expectations of a paleobotanist, but of a female character in a dangerous movie. Her love interest and two kids went missing? She’ll go find them, then. Grant is struggling to shut a door against a 300-lb. Velociraptor? She’ll drop what she’s doing and come help without being asked. Someone needs to sneak into a Raptor-infested building and reboot the power grid so the phones and electric fences work again? No problem, Dr. Sattler will do that, too. Even John Hammond is surprised by that one, stammering: “But it ought to be me, really, going. You’re a… And I’m a…” Dr. Sattler rolls her eyes and tells it to him straight, “Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”
Dr. Sattler doesn’t do it alone, of course. That would be boring. She has help from Hammond’s granddaughter, Lex Murphy.
A love of dinosaurs knows no gender, so when I was a kiddo I was out of my mind with excitement that Jurassic Park featured not only a little boy character, but his 12-year-old sister, too. I was hoping she’d be a raging animal lover like me, but Lex isn’t outdoorsy. She’s into staying inside on the computer, because she’s a self-proclaimed hacker, a hobby that was both the epitome of cool and a deeply embarrassing way to spend your time back in 1993.
Lex has no love for dinosaurs, either. Dinosaurs are her annoying kid brother Tim’s thing, and he never shuts up about it. And because she’s not fascinated by dinosaurs, Lex spends a lot of her time at Jurassic Park screaming. She screams at the Velociraptors, she screams when Tim gets shocked by an electric fence, and she especially screams at the T. Rex. When she’s not screaming, Lex is mostly hiding or running scared.
But just like Sattler, at first Lex doesn’t look like she’ll be much help against a park full of hungry dinosaurs. That’s especially true when you compare her with her brother Tim, who, despite the fact that he’s younger, possesses a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. But again, Lex subverts our expectations. When Tim and Lex are trapped in the kitchen with three Velociraptors, it’s Lex who guides her brother to safety. When Tim and Grant waste precious minutes comparing real-time field notes on dangerous dinosaurs, Lex consistently reminds them that they need to run, too. Most crucially, after spending the entire movie catching flack for being a nerd who prefers the company of computers to people, Lex is the one who figures out how to bring Jurassic Park’s security and comm systems back online. Lex can succeed at this task, where even adult men have failed, precisely because she’s a nerd. And because Dr. Sattler rebooted that power for her already. That’s not boring at all.
Between Lex and Dr. Sattler, the two overcome every major challenge that their band of humans encounter on Isla Nublar. Still, these two badass ladies aren’t the most important female characters in Jurassic Park. They’re not even in the top three. Because of course, all the monsters in this movie are girls, too.
Every dinosaur at Jurassic Park is engineered to be female. It’s a no-brainer from a scientific perspective, we learn from Dr. Henry Wu, head geneticist at the park. All embryos start off female, and it makes good sense to keep them that way, thereby preventing any unauthorized dinosaur breeding. It’s a dead-simple premise, but the end result is startling: a female is responsible for nearly every act of violence, every serious problem, and every second of tension in this film.
That’s an easy fact to swallow for Dr. Sattler and game warden Robert Muldoon, who both always correctly gender the dinosaurs. They never slip up and refer to them as male, no matter how scary or aggressive the dinosaurs become. Not so for computer programmer Dennis Nedry, who tells the Dilophosaurus that she’s not as scary as her “big brothers.” He’s eaten by that same dinosaur a minute later. Dr. Grant, too, cannot bring himself to use the correct pronoun for the entire movie. Especially when it comes to the film’s most ferocious antagonist, the man-eating T. Rex. Outside the T. Rex enclosure, waiting for the dinosaur to appear and take the feeder goat provided at meal time, Grant eyes the scene with skepticism before proclaiming: “T. Rex doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to hunt.” She certainly does, Dr. Grant.
Not to say that the dinosaurs should be offended when someone assumes their gender. None of them express their gender in any way, really. They’re not recognizably feminized. All the dinosaurs are more or less dinosaur-looking. But like Lex and Sattler, the dinosaurs are clearly not preoccupied with their own gender, or what other people think it should mean for them. They’re hostile, they can’t be controlled, and they’ll even turn into males if they need to in order to boost their population. Life finds a way.
The dinosaurs subvert expectations, too, and not only by spontaneously switching gender and laying eggs. The T. Rex is especially adept at it. The first time we see the T. Rex paddock in the movie, the characters all wait in breathless anticipation for her to come and claim her goat, and she refuses, to everyone’s disappointment. In fact, we don’t even see the T. Rex in her full glory until the power goes down, and all the illusion of control that men had over her falls away. The T. Rex is the star of the film, the biggest threat on the island, and the lady that spurs everyone into action—running away from her. At the end of the film, when the humans find themselves surrounded on all sides by Velociraptors, the T. Rex barrels onto the scene. Not to attack the humans, but the Velociraptors. She handily defeats them, celebrating her dominance with and earth-shaking roar. As the humans slip away and even park founder John Hammond rushes to evacuate the island, it’s clear the T. Rex, a female, has inherited the park.
And she deserves it, too. You simply can’t have Jurassic Park without a T. Rex. Just like you wouldn’t have Jurassic Park without Kathleen Kennedy.