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A big-budget film about dinosaurs will always make the headlines, particularly if it is the follow-up of Steven Spielberg’s wildly successful Jurassic Park, from 1991. Dinosaurs, at least those visible to us on cinema and TV screens, were never the same after that. But not all is well in the land of blockbuster dinosaurs. Paleontologists, science bloggers and JP fans have been riled by the filmmakers’ decision to leave the dinosaurs in the upcoming sequel – Jurassic World (2015) – without feathers.
The problem largely revolved around the idea of dinosaurs adorned with insulating ‘proto-feathers’. Whereas in 1991 a ‘bald’ Velociraptor mongoliensis or Tyrannosaurus rex was nothing out of the ordinary, fossil finds in the years since indicate that most ‘smaller’ dinosaurs (by which I mean: not huge) were covered in feathers. This led to complaints, many vocal, by those who rue how the iconic beasts they came to love through Steven Spielberg’s work were replaced by ‘oversized chickens’. Jurassic World’s makers apparently gave in to this pressure, citing the necessity to maintain consistency in their depiction of extinct (or rather, not-so extinct) animals across all films in the franchise.
Apart from the feather issue, there are some minor gripes that the movie’s makers also seem unwilling to address – most of all correcting the hands of the movie’s ostensible villains, the ‘Velociraptors’. Theropods, or carnivorous dinosaurs, were unable to turn their wrists: the palms of their hands therefore always pointed inwards, as though they were to burst out in applause. All Jurassic Park films have sacrificed this anatomical feature, and Jurassic World will as well.
Of course, the movie’s premise offers a way out of these problems, by claiming that dinosaur DNA was mixed with frog DNA. Therefore, or so the argument goes, JP isn’t really about dinosaurs to begin with; rather, it is about the hybrid monsters created by the park’s owner, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough in the first three films).
But that is a cop-out. First of all, there have already been unexplained changes in the series’ dinosaurs; most noticeably in the portrayal of the Velociraptors. But more importantly, the first movie was marketed as being about real dinosaurs from the outset, and its makers proudly mentioned their collaboration with renowned paleontologist Jack Horner to emphasize the picture’s scientific merits. Jurassic Park promised to revolutionize the public’s view of dinosaurs; and in all fairness, it did. Even scientists lamenting individual nitpicks had to admit that the picture seemed to remain, at least generally, faithful to how dinosaurs were regarded by most of them at the time.
But in the intermittent twenty-four years, a lot has changed. When Jurassic Park hit movie theaters in 1991, it was lauded by professionals because it was so much better, more realistic and faithful to scientific knowledge than anything that had been visible on cinema screens before. Nowadays, however, hardly a day passes on Discovery Channel or National Geographic without computer-rendered dinosaurs making things unpleasant for life around them. Particularly the Walking with-series that the BBC produced around the year 2000 was an absolute milestone.
Around the same time these faux-documentaries aired, the sequels Jurassic Park II (officially called The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and III began to erode the solid impression their predecessor had left on scientists, who began to draw unfavorable comparisons with the highly-regarded Walking. Where Jurassic Park III featured such unlikely creatures as mind-reading Deinonychuses (called Velociraptors, of course) and tooth-bearing Pteranodons, the BBC series had gotten out of its way to present dinosaurs as convincing, living animals in their own ecosystem. Where JP1 had tried to strike a balance between scientific believability and monster movie silliness, its successors clearly fell in the monster movie category.
Haggle over Dinosaurs
From what we’ve seen and heard of Jurassic World, it is likely that it will make further strides in that direction. Why, then, the controversy among and between scientists, dinosaur aficionados, and bloggers?
One reason is that for many people who are interested or even active in vertebrate paleontology, Jurassic Park was their first confrontation with a more modern and arguably more exciting view of dinosaurs – one that almost overnight transformed the swamp-dwellers of old into warm-blooded, active killing machines. Numbers II and III were quickly forgotten, but the first film of the franchise really left a mark, both on scientists and laypeople.
But out of that first movie, different things grew for different people. For scientists, the current controversy is about the up-to-date portrayal of animals that they study and that are real to them; for their detractors, the issue is about aesthetics and (unfortunately) nostalgia. To many in the public, Jurassic Park replaced an old, boring view of dinosaurs with a new, exciting one, but also one which then set a new standard – one cemented in the public imagination through subsequent movies and documentaries, including Walking with Dinosaurs.
To those more interested in the scientific side, on the other hand, it merely marked the beginning of better things, a step forward in the study of these animals but certainly not something akin to a conclusion. By its very nature, science doesn’t ‘do’ closure. The sequels could be forgiven for their excesses because the overall picture of dinosaurs remained pretty close to that of their predecessor. But scientists are dismayed to see that 1991’s revolution has now become 2015’s reactionary dogmatism. Monster movie or not, whatever Jurassic World broadcasts to the public will become a truth with which they have to work.
Overall, the controversy around the new movie just shows how much paleontology as a science has progressed in the past quarter-century, and how far it has moved away from what large parts of the movie’s audience are comfortable with. It will require another Jurassic Park to offer a new, more compelling image of these fascinating animals that once more pulls it towards what is scientifically acceptable.
Unfortunately, Jurassic World won’t be it.
For a more contemporary look at dinosaurs, take a look at John Conway’s fabulous art (johnconway.co)
– Jurassic World trailer
– Deinonychus antirrhopus by John Conway (johnconway.co)