October 25, 2011
I can’t escape Jurassic Park. No, I’m not actually trapped on a tropical isle overrun by hungry dinosaurs, but, as a paleo-focused science writer, sometimes I feel like I might as well be. Not only is the 1993 film the unquestionable standard for all subsequent dinosaur films and television shows, from Walking With Dinosaurs to Terra Nova, but the movie also left a massive imprint on the public’s understanding of what dinosaurs were. Even now, nearly two decades after the movie’s debut, almost any dinosaur discovery involving tyrannosaurs or sickle-clawed dromaeosaurs—often called “raptors” thanks to the same film—can be readily tied back to Jurassic Park. I have even used that trick. What I am wondering, though, is why an 18-year-old dinosaur epic continues to have such a major influence on our perception of dinosaurs.
What focused my attention on Jurassic Park this morning were the various media tidbits surrounding the blu-ray release of the dinosaur-filled trilogy. Actress Ariana Richards, who played “Lex” in the first film, said that the film had an enduring influence because “there’s a quality of this world that Steven [Spielberg] created—and he’s not the only one who as a young person longed to experience the world in a different way, almost to go back in time into prehistory and experience exotic creatures like dinosaurs in your midst.” The fact that the movie is still visually impressive certainly helps. In another interview, special effects artist Dennis Muren said, “I always thought when we did [Jurassic Park] that within five or 10 years it was going to look old-fashioned and obsolete, but it doesn’t.”
Both Richards and Muren touched on significant aspects of why Jurassic Park has been so influential, but I think there might be an even simpler reason. The film was the first time that filmgoers were able to see what living dinosaurs might actually look like. Audiences were experiencing almost the same kind of awe as the characters in the movie—nothing quite like those dinosaurs had ever been seen before.
Dinosaurs had been stomping and roaring across the screen for decades, but they were often portrayed by stop-motion creatures that were clearly artificial. The advent of computer-generated dinosaurs came at just the right time to deliver something that was visually unprecedented. On top of that, images of dinosaurs as slow, stupid, swamp-bound creatures still persisted into the early 1990s. Jurassic Park eliminated these paleo-stereotypes and rapidly ushered in a newer vision of dinosaurs that scientists knew well but that had not yet been fully embraced by the public. Jurassic Park instantly created a new baseline for what dinosaurs were and how they acted.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why the two Jurassic Park sequels are not as beloved as their predecessor, or why it’s easy to pick on the poor writing behind Terra Nova. Dinosaurs had only one shot to make a stunning, computer-generated debut. They certainly did that in Spielberg’s film, but the spread of new technologies allowed digital dinosaurs to become commonplace. Along with the help of documentary trendsetter Walking With Dinosaurs, lifelike dinosaurs rapidly lost their novelty and, sadly for them, are easy prey for critics when they don’t measure up to the standards set by the 1993 film. When the awe is gone, deficiencies in a film, television series or documentary become more apparent. Jurassic Park was so successful because the film combined spectacular visual imagery with an unfamiliar, exciting perspective of dinosaurs. We probably won’t see a combination of such conditions again.
There may never be another dinosaur movie as important as Jurassic Park. Special effects will continue to be fine-tuned, but I can’t imagine them becoming drastically better that what we have already seen. At this point, good dinosaur movies are going to have to rely on solid storytelling. We have brought the dinosaurs back—we have the technology—but now that the novelty is gone filmmakers have to write compelling stories that draw viewers into the worlds they want to create. Without that, we just end up wanting the dinosaurs to devour all the characters we’re supposed to relate to (a feeling I have lately been having in regard to Terra Nova).
The test of this little hypothesis of mine may come in the form of Jurassic Park IV. Rumors about the film have been circulating for a while, but when I met him by chance last month at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, paleontologist and Jurassic Park scientific adviser Jack Horner mentioned that Spielberg has a good story in mind for the next film. Horner even dropped a significant clue as to what the movie is going to be about. “They’ve already brought dinosaurs back…,” he said, “so how could they make the dinosaurs scarier?” The answer is further genetic tampering. Horner also hinted that his 2009 book How to Build a Dinosaur was originally meant to come out at the same time as the fourth Jurassic Park as a kind of scientific companion volume. For those who haven’t read it, the book details Horner’s scientific efforts to take a living dinosaur—a chicken—and turn the bird into something that more closely resembles a non-avian, theropod dinosaur. This isn’t mad science. By reverse engineering “dinosaurian” traits in a bird, scientists might be able to detect how genes and development interacted with anatomy in the evolutionary transformation from non-avian dinosaur to avian dinosaur. The resulting “Chickenosaurus” would be a flashy bonus to our increased understanding of how evolution works.
Even if the next Jurassic Park doesn’t turn out to be immediately as influential as the first in the series, perhaps the sequel can usher in some updated ideas about dinosaurs. For one thing, we definitely need more feathers on the Velociraptor (or whatever sort of creature the raptors are going to be modified into). That is the benefit of having paleontologists work directly with filmmakers on these projects. Yes, there will always be some silly things—such as the fictional frill and venom-spitting abilities of Dilophosaurus—but seeing well-crafted and exceptionally lifelike dinosaurs is a win for paleontology. Not only do we catch a glimpse of what an extinct species might have looked like, but the films also send the audience home with an updated view of what dinosaurs were and might just inspire them to check out the actual bones in a nearby museum. Whatever happens to dinosaur cinema in the future, though, Jurassic Park will always be a classic film, and I know I’ll never forget the first time I saw science and Hollywood work together to bring dinosaurs back to life.
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