June 8, 2011
Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have spent plenty of time in IMAX theaters lately. Dinosaurs Alive, Sea Rex, Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia and more—the giant screens seem like the perfect venue for resurrecting enormous, Mesozoic monsters. The Tyrannosaurus affectionately known as Sue, arguably the most famous fossil celebrity, even has her own big-screen, 3D spectacle, and I had a chance to catch it during a visit to Utah’s Museum of Ancient Life last week. (A 2D version of the film is now playing at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.)
Called Waking the T. Rex, the short Sue biography is a combination docudrama and behind-the-scenes peek at paleontology. Visions of Sue brought back to life are interspersed with appearances by Chicago Field Museum paleontologists Lindsay Zanno, Bill Simpson and Peter Makovicky, all of whom share some insight into the science behind the impressive tyrannosaur. While Zanno explains the basics of field work, for instance, Makovicky interprets microscopic sections of Sue’s bones and points out some of the injuries that left their mark on the dinosaur’s skeleton. This combined approach—matching paleo-vignettes of Sue’s world with comments from scientists—informs as well as entertains, and I was glad to see that the film showcased some of the new techniques paleontologists are using to investigate the details of dinosaur lives. High-powered microscopes and CT scanners are allowing scientists to view fossils in ways never before possible.
As for the computer-generated dinosaurs, they trundle across the screen in the stereotyped manner of all big screen dinosaurs. In other words, they don’t act very much like real animals. Sue announces her attacks by roaring; the Triceratops is ornery but relatively easily subdued, and a group of threatened Edmontosaurus discourage the attacking Tyrannosaurus by bellowing and waving their arms about. That aside, I was pleased to see that the filmmakers did not make a young version of Sue look like a miniature adult. Young Sue is long-legged, shallow-snouted, covered in a fuzzy coat of feathers and, appropriately, looks like an awkward teenager. A gaggle of feather-covered dromaeosaurs also makes a cameo in the film, and, in this respect, the movie was up-to-date. We have all seen enough naked dinosaurs.
Die-hard paleo-buffs might not see anything new in Waking the T. Rex, but I thought the film was a solid, accessible introduction that used Sue to introduce viewers to the elements of paleontology. Sometimes it’s good to go back to basics and explain the ways in which scientists investigate prehistoric life. In that regard, Waking the T. Rex is a good film for enthusiastic dinosaur fans who want to know more about how dinosaur bones go from the their rocky graves to museum halls.
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