April 19, 2012
It has been almost 20 years since Jurassic Park came out. That film—a heavy-handed morality fable about leaving Nature well enough alone—remains the best dinosaur film ever made. Even the two sequels didn’t come close to the quality of the increasingly dated first installment. And all this makes me wonder: Will there ever be another great dinosaur movie?
Most dinosaur movies are awful. That much is beyond dispute. (If you disagree, watch the Carnosaur series and get back to me.) The fact that dinosaurs are made-to-order movie monsters—easily accessed through conceits of time travel, lost worlds and increasingly, genetic engineering—has made them top picks for films in need of charismatic creatures. And more often than not, the dinosaurs are only there to threaten our protagonists as the embodiment of nature’s wrath. The only thing that changes is exactly how humans and dinosaurs are brought in contact with one another. And that’s the critical element so many screenwriters and directors have skimped on.
I have no doubt that dinosaurs will always have a place in Hollywood. The more we learn about them, the stranger and more wonderful they become. And despite being discovered over a century ago, Tyrannosaurus rex remains the uncontested symbol of prehistoric ferocity. As much as I love dinosaurs, though, I can’t help but feel that the creatures are poorly served by the scripts and plotlines that invoke them. Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, was magnificent because it outlined a new route for dinosaurs to come stomping back into our world. The film gradually traced the story of how the dinosaurs came to exist and used that premise to present further mysteries about how creatures that were supposedly under human control could come back to power so quickly. The movie, like the book, wasn’t so much about dinosaurs as it was about our desire to control nature and the unexpected consequences that come out of that compulsion.
Jurassic Park worked as well as it did because of the human story. As ham-fisted as the plot was, the overarching commentary about the manipulation of nature drove the story. (The original Gojira trod similar ground before. New, powerful technology spawned horrific consequences.) The film wasn’t perfect by any means, but it’s still the best of what prehistoric cinema has to offer. Dinosaurs served the storyline. The storyline didn’t serve the dinosaurs. And that’s where so many dinosaur features have failed. Spend enough money and hire the right experts, and you can have the best dinosaurs money can buy. But without a compelling story, those monsters will aimlessly wander the screen, chomping up whoever blunders into their path. Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong featured a slew of dinosaurs, for example, but the computer-generated creatures were only there for massive set pieces. And while the virtual dinosaurs ably fulfilled their roles as ferocious antagonists, they were there only to threaten Kong and the imperiled human crew.
Well-rendered, carefully crafted dinosaurs are an important part of any movie featuring the prehistoric creatures. But a good story is just as important, if not more so. What’s the good of bringing dinosaurs to life if you’re constantly rooting for them to thin out the annoying and aimless cast? That’s the way I felt about Jurassic Park III—I kept wishing that the Velociraptor pack would enact swift vengeance on most of the film’s principal players. And during Disney’s cloyingly anthropomorphic Dinosaur, all I wanted was for the silent Carnotaurus to dispatch some of the yammering herbivores.
With the exception of movies that feature only dinosaurs, such as the aforementioned Dinosaur, dinosaur films are about the relationship between humans and creatures like Triceratops. Like any other monsters or creatures, dinosaurs are best used when exploring grander themes—often about time, evolution, extinction and how we interact with nature. Without that component, you might as well be watching a violent video game that you can’t actually play. A monster works only if it means something—if there’s some lesson to be learned from the curved claws and ragged jaws.
I certainly hope that there will be another great dinosaur film—a movie that isn’t just a hit with fans of the prehistoric but that can stand on its own merits as art. A new way to bring people and dinosaurs into contact would certainly help open new possibilities, but even among the classic subgenres, there’s still plenty of opportunity to write human-centered stories that employ dinosaurs to keep the narrative moving along at a brisk pace. I don’t think that Jurassic Park IV, if it ever comes to be, is going to do much to revitalize dinosaurs in cinema—especially since it seems the story is going to revolve around genetically engineered abberations—but we are only really limited by what we can think of. Dinosaurs don’t have to be kitsch, kid’s stuff, or ineffectual monsters. In the right hands, they can again embody our fascinations and fears. I eagerly await the day when such dramatic and deadly creatures once again stomp across the screen.
March 30, 2012
I have an Allosaurus on my arm. Heart of Gold Tattoo artist Jon McAffee put it there a few weeks ago. I think the tattoo—designed for me by friend and artist Glendon Mellow—came out beautifully. Contorted into the classic dinosaur death pose, the Jurassic apex predator is an expression of my passions and aspirations.
Paleontologists have uncovered scores of fascinating dinosaurs. I would have been proud to carry almost any dinosaur on my sleeve. But I knew my first science ink had to be Allosaurus. The dinosaur is not only the state fossil of Utah—I moved to the beehive state last year to get closer to dinosaurs—but the familiar predator is also an enigma.
Around 150 million years ago, when Allosaurus stalked across Jurassic Utah, the fern-covered landscape boasted an astounding diversity of huge dinosaurs. This was the time of giants such as Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Barosaurus and Stegosaurus, and these dinosaurs were prey for nightmarish carnivores such as Torvosaurus, Ceratosaurus and, of course, Allosaurus. There was scarcely a more fantastic time in the Age of Dinosaurs. But not all these dinosaurs were equally abundant. Among the big predators, Allosaurus is uncovered much more often than any of its knife-toothed competitors. At the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry outside Price, Utah, remains of more than 46 Allosaurus have been discovered so far, while only rare tidbits of other predators turned up. What was it about Allosaurus that made it the dominant carnivore of Jurassic Utah? I love mysteries like this. Allosaurus has been known to paleontologists for more than 130 years, but there are still some things about this creature that we just don’t know.
I asked Glendon to create the dinosaur in a death pose for a similar reason. (You can see Glendon’s step-by-step process at his blog.) If you ever find a near-complete, articulated dinosaur skeleton, chances are that the dinosaur is going to have its head thrown over its back and tail arched up. My Allosaurus got a little extra contortion for artistic purposes to bring the tail up to my shoulder, but you get the general picture. No one is entirely sure why this happens. Everything from a dinosaur’s final spasms before perishing to dessication after death have been implicated as possible causes, but the reason for the prevalence of the phenomenon is still hotly debated. Something so simple—the contortions of skeleton—is a thread leading back to unresolved questions about what happened to dinosaurs between death and discovery.
I can’t help but wonder about the life and death of an animal as beautiful and deadly as Allosaurus. And my tattoo is a reminder to keep chasing those mysteries. I do not talk about this very often—the memory is intensely embarrassing—but I never received my bachelor’s degree. After spending the better part of a decade working towards a degree in conservation ecology, I left Rutgers University just a handful of courses short of completing my program. Discouraged, disheartened and defeated do not even come close to describing how I felt. But paleontology gave me an outlet for my love of science, and writing about what I learned somehow came together into a career expressing my enthusiasm for creatures that flourished and vanished while our own ancestors were still scurrying through the undergrowth. Someday, I hope, I will go back to school and eventually commit myself to a graduate program in paleontology, but no matter what I do, I want to keep following the tales fossils have to tell. Though they might seem to simply be petrified bits of dead tissue, dinosaur bones are alive with stories about evolution and extinction. Even the most mundane bone fragment underscores powerful truths about the way life on earth has changed in an ever-evolving story of life. That’s what keeps me going back to the journal articles, museum collections and field sites where dinosaurs and ideas about dinosaurs thrive—puzzling over the long-lost life of Allosaurus enriches my own existence.
[My heartfelt thanks to Glendon for the wonderful design, and to Jon at Heart of Gold for his delicate hand realizing the tattoo. Stay tuned for a Science Ink sequel featuring another predator from Jurassic Utah.]
July 7, 2011
Just a quick note that Science magazine’s website is running a live chat this afternoon at 3:00 about new techniques to reveal color in fossils. Phil Manning and Roy Wogelius will take your questions about “the latest insights into what ancient birds, mammals and dinosaurs really looked like—and how their appearance may have affected their behavior and evolution.”
May 13, 2010
Every now and then I stop and ask myself “Why dinosaurs?” Why spend 400 posts (and counting) tracking them across our cultural landscape, from B-movies to new discoveries? What is it about them that keeps me coming back?
As a child, I was enthralled by dinosaurs. They were real-life monsters that were both fascinating and terrifying, and I had high hopes that my amateur excavation in my grandparents’ backyard would yield a fully-articulated Triceratops skeleton (or at least a few dinosaur eggs). Being that I was shoveling through the topsoil of suburban New Jersey, that dream never materialized, but it hardly damped my enthusiasm for the prehistoric creatures.
But dinosaurs are not just kids’ stuff. Though often viewed as kitsch which has no real importance or relevance to the “real world,” dinosaurs have long played important roles in how we understand the world around us. Even before dinosaurs had a name, their bones fueled legends of dragons and monsters in cultures across the world, and when they were finally recognized by science in the early 19th century, they challenged the long-believed notion that the world was created “as is”—they were monsters bristling with spikes and teeth which spoke of a lost world separated from us by the gulf of time. Though they would not become symbolic of evolutionary change until a few decades later (as in T.H. Huxley’s idea that birds had evolved from a dinosaur-like creature), they powerfully drove home the point that life had dramatically changed over time, and they became new cultural icons for the modern age.
Dinosaurs continue to cast long shadows over the cultural landscape. Families flock to museums to gaze at their remains, and despite being known for over 100 years, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity few Hollywood stars can match in notoriety. Dinosaurs are everywhere, but they are much more than beloved monsters. Once scientists recognized that the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out in one of the worst mass extinctions in earth history 65 million years ago, it became apparent that we owed our existence to their demise—had the tyrannosaurs, hadrosaurs, horned dinosaurs and other Cretaceous lineages survived, mammals may never have been allowed to proliferate in the empty habitats the dinosaurs left behind. (Though, interestingly enough, the evolution of dinosaurs may not have happened had it not been for an earlier, even worse extinction which almost entirely wiped out the lineage of vertebrates to which we belong.) Perhaps even more fantastically, we now know that one lineage of dinosaurs survived in the form of birds. Many of the traits we consider unique to birds, from feathers to a unique series of air sacs that allow them to breathe efficiently as they flutter about, evolved in dinosaurs first, and we can quite confidently say that birds are living dinosaurs. These are not just bits of trivia—they are lessons from Deep Time which can drastically change the way we understand nature.
The skeleton of a dinosaur is not just a natural curiosity to be gawked at. It is a vestige of another time which simultaneously embodies the natural phenomena of evolution and extinction—the ever-changing nature of life. That is why I just can’t tear myself away from dinosaurs. Their story provides context for our own, and I will keep tracking dinosaurs for years to come.
July 7, 2009
If you want to enjoy Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, you are going to have to suspend your belief for a bit. There is no use nitpicking over a children’s movie featuring talking extinct species of mammals from different places and time periods (to say nothing of saber-toothed squirrels). The latest installment of the franchise is different, however, in that it introduces the unlikely herd of mammalian heroes to an underground world populated by dinosaurs.
It all starts to go wrong when Sid the ground sloth stumbles across some enormous eggs. Feeling left out by the fact that the mammoths Manny and Ellie are expecting a baby and are about to start a new family, Sid appoints himself the mother of the eggs. (Diego, the saber-toothed cat, is having his own worries about losing his predatory edge.) These soon hatch into baby dinosaurs, but the well-intentioned Sid has no idea how to properly care for them. Needless to say the real mother of the babies is none too happy when they go missing, and being that she is a rather large Tyrannosaurus, that is bad news for the mammals. In gathering up her young ones she picks up Sid, too, and his friends set off to rescue him.
The mammals quickly find that they are out of their depth, but they get some help from a crazed survivalist weasel named Buck. Buck has only one eye due to a past encounter with a large, whitish menace he calls “Rudy.” From that point on the film settles into its search-and-rescue theme, even as Sid somehow becomes accepted by the Tyrannosaurus mother. The visuals are spectacular and the direction is great, but the dinosaurs are sometimes annoyingly over-stylized. While most of the creatures in the film are embellished in one way or another, the dinosaur designs are a bit over the top (such as small, Monolophosaurus-like predators that have quills that shiver when the dinosaurs roar).
There are even some dinosaurs that never existed. When “Rudy” finally appeared on the screen, for example, my wife leaned over and asked, “what kind of dinosaur is that?” “It’s a nothing-o-saurus,” I replied, as the monster was more of a bipedal crocodile than a dinosaur. “Rudy” is a scary villain, especially in 3D, but with so many giant predatory dinosaurs now known I would have liked to have seen an attempt at one like Giganotosaurus.
If you liked the previous two Ice Age films then you will probably like the third one. It is a “safe” movie that is not especially exciting but still is funny enough to be enjoyable (unlike this summer’s other dino film). And if you are offended at dinosaur running around with Pleistocene mammals, just remember it could be worse: humans could be riding them.