October 12, 2012
About five years ago, the movie gossip site Ain’t It Cool News pulled back the curtain on a Jurassic Park we’ll never see. A scrapped script for the franchise’s fourth film told a tale of dinosaurs that had not only been brought back from extinction but had also been further modified to make them humanoid soldiers. Sadly, the plot had nothing to do with Axe Cop’s Dinosaur Soldier.
Thanks to a little Internet sleuthing, we now know what those dinosaurian troops would have looked like. Earlier this week io9 posted concept art from the discarded version of Jurassic Park 4. It turns out that, for once, Hollywood hype was right. If this movie was actually made, Jurassic Park 4 would have been one of the strangest blockbuster-budget features ever made. I guess Spielberg really wasn’t kidding when he hinted that the story would have taken the franchise in a totally new direction.
Even though I’ll watch just about anything with dinosaurs in it–hell, it’s part of my job–I think this version of Jurassic Park 4 is best left to the annals of movie history. The dinosaurs have thrice imperiled people on islands and have torn a path of devastation over the mainland once. The fact that Jurassic Park 3 brought some of the original characters back to one of the islands showed the the franchise ran out of ideas very early, and inventing dinosaur soldiers was a crazy attempt to add novelty to an already faltering series. Not to mention the fact that creating dinosauroids to wipe out already-created raptors and tyrannosaurs sounds like the cure might end up being worse than the initial problem.
Which brings up the question of whether there should even be another Jurassic Park sequel. The franchise left off on a bad note, not to mention the atrocious comics and lackluster video games that have lately cropped up. Maybe it’s best to simply let the dinosaurs rest.
Michael Crichton’s original story was brilliant, and the movie adaptation will always be a cultural milestone for being the first film to convincingly bring dinosaurs back to life. But it seems that Universal hasn’t had a clue what to do with the dinosaurs since they got them. Finding ever-more conceits for people to run for their lives from Mesozoic monsters is difficult, and maybe there simply isn’t a way to recreate the awe audiences felt when they saw the first film. You would think the studio would have learned their lesson after running the JAWS franchise into the ground, but, given that Hollywood is so low on ideas that Hungry, Hungry Hippos is really going to be a movie, I guess I can’t blame them for going back to Jurassic Park‘s primeval wellspring one more time.
September 27, 2012
Seeing a hadrosaur alive would be a fantastic sight. Or any non-avian dinosaur, for that matter. As lovely as today’s avian dinosaurs are, it’s their distant, extinct cousins that fire my imagination. Sadly, despite the speculations of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, I don’t think my dinosaur dreams are going to come true.
In a Big Think video posted last week, Kaku rhapsodized about the possibility of resurrecting extinct species through genetic techniques. I’m not as optimistic as he is, especially since Kaku glosses over some essential steps in his confused editorial.
Kaku spends most of the video talking about Neanderthals and woolly mammoths. These species went extinct so recently that, in some cases, researchers can extract DNA from their remains and go about reconstructing their genomes. Pretty cool science. Whether I’ll ever be able to cuddle a fuzzy baby woolly mammoth is another matter. (I’ve heard promises ever since I was a child. I’m still waiting.) But non-avian dinosaurs obviously present a different problem. They went extinct about 66 million years ago, and, given the circumstances required for genetic preservation, there’s no hope of ever obtaining Mesozoic dinosaur DNA.
But, Kaku says, “we have soft tissue from the dinosaurs.” He makes it sound as if dinosaur skeletons are saturated with bits of prehistoric flesh. “If you take a hadrosaur and crack open the thigh bones, bingo,” he says, “You find soft tissue right there in the bone marrow.”
Kaku’s going far afield from what science has actually revealed. Since 2007, paleontologists and molecular biologists have been tussling over the possibility that some non-avian dinosaur fossils might preserved the degraded remnants of soft tissue structures such as blood vessels. A Tyrannosaurus femur kicked off the debate, which has since extended to the hadrosaur Brachylophosaurus, as well.
Even though researchers Mary Schweitzer, John Asara and colleagues have hypothesized that they’ve detected preserved proteins from remnants of dinosaur soft tissues, their results have been heavily criticized. The supposed dinosaur leftovers may be microfossils created by bacterial biofilms that broke down the creature’s bodies, and the protein analysis–which placed the supposed T. rex protein close to bird protein–might have suffered from contamination. As yet, there’s no definitive proof that non-avian dinosaur soft tissues or proteins have actually been recovered, and the debate is set to go on for years to come. Contrary to what Kaku says, you can’t simply break open a dinosaur skeleton and start scooping out marrow.
Not that preserved protein would bring us closer to resurrecting Tyrannosaurus or Brachylophosaurus, anyway. The biomolecules could tell us a bit about dinosaur biology, and possibly become another way to test evolutionary relationships, but we’d still lack dinosaur DNA. And even if we could reconstruct a dinosaur’s genome, that doesn’t mean that we could easily clone one. Much like Michael Crichton before him, Kaku skips over an essential and complicated step–the development of the embryo inside the mother. How do you go from a genetic map to a viable embryo? And how can we account for interactions between the embryo and the surrogate mother–a member of a different, living species–that could influence the experimental animal’s development?
Studying the genetics and biomolecular makeup of prehistoric organisms is a fascinating area of research. And even though the dinosaur protein issue remains contentious, the debate has the potential to refine a new way to look at dinosaurs. That’s where the real value of this science is. Non-avian dinosaurs are long gone, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever be able to bring them back to life. But the more we understand about their biology, the better we can reconstruct dinosaurs in our scientific imagination.
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.
August 6, 2012
One of the reasons Jurassic Park was so successful–as a novel and a blockbuster film–is that it presented a plausible way to bring dinosaurs back to life. The idea that viable dinosaur DNA might be retrieved from bloodsucking prehistoric insects seemed like a project that could actually succeed. Even though the actual methodology is hopelessly flawed and would never work, the premise was science-ish enough to let us suspend our disbelief and revel in the return of the dinosaurs.
Nevertheless, Jurassic Park brought up the tantalizing possibility that scientists might one day resurrect a Brachiosaurus, Velociraptor or Triceratops. And every once in a while, rumors arise about someone who might just give the project a try. According to the latest round of internet gossip, Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is hoping to clone a dinosaur for an exotic vacation retreat. Palmer has since denied the rumors, but, for a moment, let’s run with the assumption that someone is going to pour millions of dollars into a dinosaur cloning project. Would it actually work?
As Rob Desalle and David Lindley pointed out in The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, there were a lot of steps that Michael Crichton glossed over in his dinosaur cloning regime. The novelist never explained how scientists overcame issues of genetic contamination, figured out what a complete dinosaur genome should look like and, most important of all, figured out how to actually translate all that DNA into a viable dinosaur embryo. It’s not simply a matter of accumulating DNA pieces until scientists have mapped every gene. A creature’s genetics must be read and interpreted within a biological system that will create an actual living organism. There are innumerable hurdles to any speculative dinosaur cloning project, starting with the effort to actually obtain unaltered dinosaur DNA–something that has never been done, and may never be.
If Palmer, or anyone else, wants to create a dinosaur park, it would be far easier to set up a reserve for living dinosaurs. The cassowary–a flightless, helmeted bird–is sufficiently prehistoric-looking to make it a draw for visitors. True, it’s not a Velociraptor, but a cassowary is most certainly a dinosaur that does pack a mean kick. There are plenty of living dinosaurs that could use a hand through conservation programs, so perhaps it would be better to try to save some avian dinosaurs rather than bring their non-avian cousins back from the dead.
August 1, 2012
Almost 20 years since it first debuted, Jurassic Park is still the quintessential dinosaur movie. But what if the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras were flipped, with intelligent Velociraptor pondering the ferocity of our species? This YouTube parody imagines just that, and a follow-up cartoon depicts that dinosaurs’ amazement at seeing living elephants in “Quaternary Park.” I can only hope that the creators of the spoof eventually get to the famous chase sequence, with a tiger chasing after a jeep full of Velociraptor.