Exploring the Great Empathy Machine – Grief and the Healing Powers of Cinema

The date is 10th June 2018 and I’m watching as my family say goodbye to the lifeless body of my Grandfather in a hospital ward. I’m fixated on his feet. Yellow, bloodless. His mouth slightly open, the sheet not quite fully covering whatever shell is left of him. I’m running on 4 hours of sleep, no food, a week of stress and anxiety, and now I’m seeing my first dead body up close. It’s like there’s so much to process, both personally and with regard to my broken down loved ones, that I barely take the time to say goodbye. As a small but close-knit family we leave, we share a tear-filled meal, and that’s it. 80 years gone.

Two days earlier, I rushed from an 11 hour retail shift to my town centre cinema in the hope I could be let in 15 minutes late to an opening weekend showing of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I distinctly remember the picturehouse staff giving me a disapproving look as I rushed in all windswept from cycling as quickly as my tyres would turn, my hoody half removed from trying to take it off whilst running through the doors. Being that late to the cinema back then meant missing not only the ads, but some of the opening credits, and they requested I enter as quietly as possible and sit on the very edge of the nearest aisle seat I could find.

I was born in 1991 and as such I was a huge Jurassic Park fan. Before I ever had dreams of making it as this or that, all I wanted to do is whatever that job is where they dig up all the dinosaur bones (being under 5 in the pre-internet era meant that the word “Palaeontologist” had no meaning to me). I was obsessed to the point that I’d copy dinosaur and wildlife information out of library books onto sheet after sheet of paper, and I would of course ask for the VHS’s of the original and its follow-up The Lost World (which as a child I must have watched more than almost any other film). I specifically remember finding out about Jurassic Park III at the dentist’s, the middle-aged woman offering me a point of interest to distract from my clear anxiety at having her instruments poking around my toothless mouth. I can still picture everything about that encounter, not because of any unhappiness as relates to the dentist’s appointment, but because there was a new Jurassic Park film coming out, and; what could be better than that?

Despite all this love, nostalgia and fandom, and the fact that I largely enjoyed Jurassic World, I wasn’t actually that excited for Fallen Kingdom. I hadn’t pre-booked a ticket, gone to a midnight screening or even planned on sneaking in after work, but my Grandad was in hospital, I’d just been paid after a week of being almost penniless, and my self-esteem had been at rock bottom for a while, so sitting in a dark room with CG dinosaurs for a few hours seemed like just the escapism I needed.

Five minutes later, tears were streaming down my face and I had no idea how to stop them.

I had of course entered my screening late, and as such I had barely had time to sit down when the iconic Brachiosaurus of Jurassic Park was swallowed by a cloud of volcanic ash. It’s a beautifully told moment in every which way you can expect, but just as my Grandad was fading into a cloud of his own in a hospital bed not 2 miles away, another signal of my childhood was doing so on the screen in front of me. I simply could not hold it together.

By this point my Grandad had been in and out of hospital a few times, and during this stint he’d been in longer than usual. It wasn’t looking good, and “expect the worst” had become the advice from doctors and subsequently my other family members. I hadn’t really taken time to process it. I worked a busy job which by its very nature had no respect for personal issues, and truthfully I’ve never been one to confront real trauma or grief in any kind of outward way, so I still feel like at times I may have come across as disinterested or unbothered by the events of the time, and most people in my professional and personal lives didn’t even know that any of this was happening, so no-one’s to blame for the added stress I placed upon myself.

Even so, this escapist’s fantasy of dinosaurs come to life was releasing all of these repressed feelings from the off, and by the end of a film in which a small child’s beloved grandfather dies, I was destroyed. It was like Fallen Kingdom was released just for me. Like it had been made to encapsulate all of that youthful optimism, joy and imagination whilst at the same time helping me to process the trauma and grief we all experience in adulthood.

Two days later I stood stoic and strong for family members who could barely keep it together, not because I didn’t care, or because I was numb from being too tired and overwhelmed, but because I’d said goodbye to my grandfather in that dark room two nights before, tears streaming down my face.

I contemplated then how my life would change, and what that meant for me and my family, and it was like so much flashed before my eyes. Fallen Kingdom helped to release that, as did being able to escape the stresses and anxieties of real life by entering a pitch black room with surround sound. In that moment, in that space where I would so often take comfort in being nobody and feeling like I no longer existed in our tough and antagonistic world, I let go of all that was keeping me together or making me numb and I cried, and I remembered, and I grieved.

Cinema has, for me, offered so much over my lifetime. It has been an inspiration, a teacher, an escape and perspective widener, but on 8th June 2018 it was a sanctuary, a rehabilitation centre and a church all at once. The following week, Fallen Kingdom’s director J.A. Bayona would read and share my review of his film, as if my Grandad had put in a good word with the universe as an acknowledgement of what I’d been through on that evening. Life would then move on, just as it always does, and the consensus would tell of a film that underwhelmed in many respects and stepped too far beyond the confines of a believable dinosaur movie in others, but as if through the magic of whatever force bonds us all, the hard work, passion and heart of each of those thousands who worked on Fallen Kingdom connected with me on the deepest level, offering me catharsis at a time I needed it most, and thus taking a special place in my memory.

In 2020, I sat down to watch Fallen Kingdom with my young sister, her joy overwhelming any sense of dread I had at revisiting something I had experienced so intimately and profoundly the first time, my experience filled with much more happiness and wonderment per her presence. She shocked me in how she recognised the sadness of the child’s journey and how she related it to her own – after all, she had lost a grandfather too. That’s the power of cinema: to mean something new each and every time, and to connect with everyone in some kind of universal but simultaneously personal way, to release all that you hold deep within, to satisfy and bring joy or unravel that which needs unravelling.

Fallen Kingdom wasn’t a masterpiece, but its meaning to me will always feel just as profound.

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