September 10, 2012
I have a confession to make. Before this weekend, I’d never watched even a single episode of Doctor Who. (Shock. Horror.) I’m a bad nerd, I know. But when BBC One announced that the second episode of the show’s seventh season was titled “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, I knew I had to finally check out the goofy sci-fi staple.
I’m not going to say much about the plot of the show itself. When you have dinosaurs, Queen Nefertiti and a pair of insecure sentry robots voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb on the same ship–among other things–it’s better to simply let the program speak for itself. All you need to know is that an alien ark is harboring a number of dinosaurs rescued from earth before the non-avian varieties perished around 66 million years ago. I will say this, though: the dinosaurs in this episode of Doctor Who look infinitely better than the wonky puppets in the “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” episode of the original series. (Worst. Dinosaurs. Ever.)
Let’s start with the non-dinosaurian aspect of the alien ship’s prehistoric bestiary first. At one point, the Doctor and companions are attacked by a flock of Pteranodon. (Because where you find dinosaurs, flying monsters are never far behind.) The experts behind Pterosaur.net are better qualified to comment on these flying, non-dinosaurian archosaurs than I, but, my apologies to the Doctor, “pterodactyl” isn’t the proper term for these animals. The proper general term for these flapping archosaurs is “pterosaur.” “Pterodactyl” is an outdated term derived from the genus name of the first pterosaur recognized by science, but the term isn’t used by specialists anymore. It’s time to put “pterodactyl” to rest.
The rest of the Cretaceous cast is relatively thin. A pair of ornery ankylosaurs–modeled after Euoplocephalus–make a smashing entrance early on in the show, and our heroes soon cross a snoozing Tyrannosaurus youngster. Sadly, the juvenile tyrant is neither fuzzy nor sufficiently awkward-looking. Thanks to specimens such as “Jane“, we know that young Tyrannosaurus were leggy, slim and had relatively shallow skulls. They didn’t have the bone-crushing skull profile of their parents or the graceful bulk. And, as I’ve remarked many times before, young tyrannosaurs may very well have been fluffy flesh-rippers. The Doctor Who version, unfortunately, looks like a shrunken version of an adult.
Two different dinosaur species get most of the screen time, though. A friendly–or, at least, not overly aggressive–Triceratops helps the Doctor and friends out of a few tight spots. Like the ankylosaurs, though, the ceratopsid is a little bit too tubby and doesn’t run quite right. A Triceratops is not a horse. Likewise, the dinosaur’s tail was a bit too limp. The organ, essential to balance, flopped around like a big green sausage. All the same, the big herbivore was rather cute.
The dromaeosaurids, on the other claw, were not so friendly. They mostly keep to the shadows until the final act and are ferocious enough to temporarily endanger the crew. All the same, the unidentified “raptors” suffered the curse of the bunny hands and insufficient feathery coats. Filmmakers seem reluctant to drape feathers over dromaeosaurids, but, for any effects artists who may be reading, we know that these dinosaurs had exquisite plumage covering almost their entire body. If you’re going to have raptors, they should be intricately feathery. Nevertheless, I liked the idea that dinosaurs could ruffle their feathers to communicate with each other, and potential threats. You may want to laugh at a Deinonychus all puffed up, but that will be the last sound you ever make before it starts to eat you.
[For another take on the episode's dinosaurs, see Marc Vincent's post at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.]
September 5, 2012
What do Spider-Man, a dinosaur and a banana have in common? This is not a trick question. In this old animated public service announcement–dredged from the depths of the internet by io9–Spider-Man stops the rampage of an amphibious carnosaur, and all he asks for in return is a simple banana. I can only imagine that the wall-crawler had an unfortunate realization soon after he swung away–”You fool! Think of all the bananas you could have bought with four hundred million dollars!”
August 10, 2012
Whether it’s The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, there’s one thing that unites all “found footage” films–the protagonists are idiots who blindly blunder into danger. More often than not, we meet an unsuspecting group of contented, naive teens or twenty-somethings just before something awful happens, and the addlepated idiots just make things worse. (If they made sensible choices and made it to safety, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.) According to an IGN review, the same can be said of The Dinosaur Project.
I mentioned the dinosaur-ridden pseudo-docudrama a few weeks back. The film’s trailer didn’t inspire much confidence. Between the tired format and the poorly-rendered prehistoric creatures, The Dinosaur Project looked best suited to a late-night drinking game. Every time you see a malformed dinosaur, take a shot! Even worse, IGN reports, the film’s acting is absolutely atrocious. “It’s probably bad to want the protagonist to die throughout a movie,” the review says, “but such is the grating nature of the main character in The Dinosaur Project, that it’s impossible to not wish ill upon him.” Even in fiction, where anything is possible, expeditions to find mythical dinosaurs in Africa end up being terrible disappointments.
August 7, 2012
It’s finally happening. After years of rumors, including speculation and consternation about Black Ops raptors, it seems that Jurassic Park 4 is actually going to happen. According to the latest news, writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa are working on the script, and producer Frank Marshall has said that he’d like to see the film hit screens by the summer of 2014. That’s awfully soon, so I can only imagine that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the fourth film in the dinosaur-filled franchise soon. The only thing we know for sure? Despite rumors that have been circulating for years, the sequel will not feature “weaponized dinosaurs.”
I’m of two minds about the news. I saw the first Jurassic Park film when I was ten, and it only concentrated my love of dinosaurs. I had never seen anything like it before, and I was shocked by how realistic the dinosaurs looked (especially compared to the stop-motion creatures that perpetually stampeded across basic cable monster movie marathons). I was young enough to enjoy the adventurous spirit of the second movie without thinking too much, and, like many others, I was let down by the third installment. Given the franchise left us on a sour note, and it has been almost a decade since Jurassic Park III came out, I have to wonder if we really should go back to those dinosaur-infested islands. Or, to paraphrase Ian Malcolm’s admonition from the first movie, perhaps the filmmakers should stop thinking about whether they could make another Jurassic Park and start thinking about whether they should.
Don’t get me wrong. If and when Jurassic Park 4 hits theaters, I’ll see it. I can’t stay away from silver screen dinosaurs. The question is whether the sequel is going to revive the franchise, or whether I’ll be sitting there in the dim auditorium, facepalming the whole time. The difference isn’t going to be in how much screentime the dinosaurs get, or how well-rendered they are, but how the filmmakers employ the dinosaurs.
Monsters only work if they mean something. There has to be something more to them than just their ability to eat you. Godzilla is iconic because he embodied the nuclear atrocities unleashed on Japan by the United States; Frankenstein was a tragic creature that reflected our fear of the unknown and the power of science; and the dinosaurs of the original Jurassic Park made us question whether the world is really ours, or was just ceded to us by a stroke a cosmic luck that wiped out Tyrannosaurus and friends. The second and third Jurassic Park films faltered because they forgot the symbolic power monsters hold–the dinosaurs simply became sharp-toothed aberrations that had to be escaped, and that’s all. The dinosaurs didn’t lead us to question or reexamine anything about how we interact with the world. If Jurassic Park 4 is going to outshine the other installments, its creators have to think of what dinosaurs mean, not just the devastation dinosaurs can cause.
Unless the writers, director and producers of the next installment have something truly original planned, maybe we should just let sleeping Velociraptor lie. The watered-down “don’t mess with nature” storyline of the first movie was standard moralistic claptrap, but that didn’t matter because audiences had never seen dinosaurs like that before. I was blown away when I saw the movie during opening weekend–Stan Winston and the assembled team of special effects artists had made the closest thing to living Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor that I had ever seen. You can only pull that trick once. The franchise tried to spice things up with a second island, a scientific expedition, dueling egos and more imperiled children–Steven Spielberg’s favorite kind–in the following two movies, but, by the end, the series just felt tired. Despite all the effort put into envisioning and recreating the dinosaurs, the filmmakers seemingly had no idea what to do with them, and so we reverted to a big-budget version of the yarns I used to create with dinosaur toys in my sandbox as a child. If the dinosaurs don’t have a purpose–some lesson that they can teach us–then perhaps we should just leave them alone on their island.
Let’s be optimistic, though. I truly hope that the scribes behind the new story have something novel in mind. And I’m sure Universal knows all too well what can happen if sequels aren’t carefully planned. Look what happened to another blockbuster monster franchise spawned by Spielberg–JAWS. The first film is a classic, the second is acceptable popcorn fun, the third is a moronic gimmick film that’s still worth riffing on after a drink or two and the fourth is an abomination that will forever stain the career of Michael Caine. Spielberg was wise to duck out early. What else can you really do with a giant, human-chomping shark who relies on the stupidity of people to feed? I feel we’re approaching the same point with the Jurassic Park series, if we’re not there already. I adore dinosaurs–there’s no question of that–but I’d hate to see them brought back to life simply to be mindless Hollywood contrivances whose only role is to virtually menace our protagonists.
Provided that Marshall’s ambitious timeline is on the mark, we’ll see Jurassic Park 4 in a few years. All the same, I’d hate to see one franchise with a relatively narrowed set of storytelling options monopolize silver screen dinosaurs. The time is ripe for new ideas, or a more nuanced take on classic plots like the ever-useful “lost world” storyline. Why not give Ray Bradbury’s classic “A Sound of Thunder” another try (with some real effort this time, please) or, even better, expand S.N. Dyer’s “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi”, about what happens when 19th-century paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh race to capture the world’s last-surviving sauropod. There’s a vast literature out there, ready to be mined, not to mention whatever original ideas screenwriters might concoct. The point is this–rather than holding our breaths for another Jurassic Park, perhaps filmmakers should start exploring dinosaur tales that reflect our collective hopes and fears.
Dinosaurs will continue to roar and stomp across the screen for many years to come. Whether it’s in a Jurassic Park sequel, a comic book adaptation, a remake or something else, dinosaurs are too popular and bizarre to rest for long. They’re perfect monsters. What we should remember, though, is that the most wonderful and terrible monsters are the ones that help us put our world in context. In one way or another, they change the way we perceive our relationship with the world around us. Teeth and claws are their weapons, but, to be truly effective, those weapons have to be given a reason to inflict the awful damage they evolved to do.
July 23, 2012
All the non-avian dinosaurs are gone. The last of them died out 66 million years ago. All the same, living dinosaurs – birds – aren’t exactly a substitute for Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Stegosaurus. We miss the truly spectacular, bizarre dinosaurs that lived and died so long ago. At least we can catch brief glimpses of our favorite prehistoric creatures in the ever-increasing list of dinosaur movies, and among the upcoming titles is a film that uses actual legends for its launching point.
When I was young, one of the first dinosaur movies I ever saw was Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Drawing from myths and unsubstantiated rumors, the film imagined what would happen if scientists discovered living sauropods in the Congo Basin. Indeed, this part of Africa has been the frequent focus of cryptozoologists and creationists who believe that some sort of swamp-dwelling brontosaur is hiding in the swamps and lakes of the region. There’s not even a single shred of evidence that there are sauropods or other dinosaurs in those wetlands, but that hasn’t stopped naive and self-styled explorers from trying to bring a prehistoric beast back alive.
We can still have a little fun with the idea of living sauropods in the realm of fiction, though. Now, almost 30 years after Baby debuted, The Dinosaur Project is taking a darker spin on the same legend.
According to Empire, The Dinosaur Project is another found-footage horror flick that follows a television crew who ultimately stumble upon dinosaurs that were thought to have disappeared millions of years ago. The movie’s official website doesn’t reveal much – it’s just a fake landing page for the “British Cryptozoological Society” with a plea for any information about the missing expedition – although the film’s trailer offers a few glimpses at the various prehistoric creatures that will thin out the cast. Sadly, though, the dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts look like stiff plastic toys come to life. This isn’t the awesome dinosaur movie we’ve been waiting for, but another piece of stinky movie cheese.
The Dinosaur Project debuts next month in the UK.