July 29, 2010
I knew it was probably going to be bad, but when I saw that the prehistoric critter documentary series Monsters Resurrected was on Netflix, I couldn’t help but hit the “play” button. As I soon found out, the series represents everything I love and hate about modern dinosaur documentaries.
First broadcast in December 2009, the point of Monsters Resurrected is to reconstruct the habits of several extinct predators—Spinosaurus (dinosaur), Titanis (“terror bird”), Tylosaurus (mosasaur), Acrocanthosaurus (dinosaur), Amphicyon (“bear-dog”), Megalania (monitor lizard)—while employing as much hyperbole as possible. Where other documentaries have held back on gore, Monsters Resurrected reveled in blood-and-guts detail, often replaying the same graphic CGI scene selections over and over and over again. Seeing a Spinosaurus rip into the giant croc cousin Sarcosuchus was fairly impressive the first time, but by the fifth replay of the scene I had become inured to the violence.
But, unlike other recent documentaries, Monsters Resurrected does not exclusively feature computer-generated predators stomping about the place and roaring their lungs out. It mixes CGI vignettes with interview clips with scientists, and each show contains a metal shop component in which some part of each animal is cast in metal and set against a variety of objects—from fruit to cars—to show how powerful the ancient predators really were. Being that this blog is called Dinosaur Tracking, I will focus in on the two episodes that feature dinosaurs: “Biggest Killer Dino” and “Great American Predator.”
It is as if each of the two dinosaur-themed episodes had split personalities. On the one side they feature numerous paleontologists —big names in the paleo community including Thomas Holtz, Phil Currie, Ken Carpenter, Ken Lacovara, Jerry Harris, James Farlow and others—ably describing the science of the dinosaurs they knew so well, and on the other the show features scene-after-scene of Jurassic Park-type dino mayhem. In fact, the creators of Monsters Resurrected effectively recreated several scenes from the JP sequel The Lost World by placing Spinosaurus and Acrocanthosaurus in the modern day.
Likewise, the metal shop portions of each show seem to be a bit pointless. Acrocanthosaurus and Spinosaurus were not made of metal, nor did they attack cars or other modern-day objects, so I don’t really see what can be learned by slamming a rigid, metal Spinosaurus arm into a car door. In fact, these scenes are so over-the-top that they remind me of a recent parody of the Discovery Channel and similar networks by the Onion in which television programmers say they can’t dumb down their “science” programming any further.
What concerned me most of all, though, was the fact that the shows portrayed what were real animals as bloodthirsty monsters. The creatures in the show are shown as constantly killing and terrorizing the landscape, roaring every few seconds to announce their arrival. No living predators act like this, and there is no reason to think dinosaurs did. I can understand why the predatory habits of these animals might be played up for the show, but by presenting these animals as monsters, Monsters Resurrected presents a ridiculously hyperbolic view of what they were like in life.
In the end, Monsters Resurrected left me feeling very conflicted. It was wonderful to see scientists describing real fossil evidence and the minutiae of paleontology—in the wake of Walking With Dinosaurs-type shows, it’s good to see scientists make a comeback. Nevertheless, the action sequences of the show make me wonder how much of the scientific content actually got through to viewers. What did they remember after watching the show—the details of Acrocanthosaurus anatomy, or a Spinosaurus ripping into everything it came across with merciless abandon?
Have you seen Monsters Resurrected? What did you think of the show?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.