June 11, 2012
Paleontologists Lee Hall and Ashley Fragomeni have just set their engagement in the sweetest, geekiest way I have ever seen.
On June 2, Lee took Ashley out to the fictional “Snakewater, Montana” field camp from the beginning of Jurassic Park. Since both are fans of the film, Ashley didn’t suspect that Lee had a grander motive for bringing her out to the movie spot. I won’t spoil Lee’s technique here—watch the video—but to me it looked like the perfect paleo engagement. Congratulations, Lee and Ashley!
June 8, 2012
Prior to the summer of 1993, “raptor” was synonymous with “bird of prey.” If you said “raptor,” whoever you were talking to knew you were talking about some kind of hawk, owl, eagle or other sharp-taloned aerial predator. Then Jurassic Park came along. Thanks to some taxonomic muddling and abbreviation, the cunning, sickle-clawed villains of the film’s third act immediately came to be known as “raptors.” Velociraptor, Deinonychus and kin had stolen the term for themselves.
Among non-avian dinosaurs, raptor might refer to the entire group of feathery coelurosaurs with grasping hands and hyperextendable toe claws—the deinonychosaurs—or to a specific subset of that group, called dromaeosaurids. It depends on where you care to draw the line. Just like its use among avian dinosaurs, the word “raptor” is informal and is a quick way to draw a conceptual outline of any dinosaur similar to Velociraptor.
But not everyone is happy with how “raptor” has been co-opted. A few months ago, paleontologist and Tetrapod Zoology author Darren Naish wrote:
Oh, and can everybody please stop using the word ‘raptor’ as a popular term for deinonychosaur, or dromaeosaurid? Admittedly, this rarely causes confusion, but it looks dumb and naive given that THE WORD RAPTOR IS ALREADY IN USE FOR ANOTHER GROUP OF ANIMALS. It would be like deciding to call sauropods ‘elephants’ or something.
And earlier this week, a reader sent me an email questioning the Los Angeles Times‘ use of the word raptor to describe a new genus of dromaeosaurid found in the Early Cretaceous rock of Utah. If birds of prey had claim to “raptor” first, and the term is just a bit of pop culture fluff, should we drop the word and push for deinonychosaur instead?
I don’t think so. Even though some informal dinosaur terms make me cringe—such as “parasaur” for Parasaurlophus and “Trike” for Triceratops—I think “raptor” provides a useful hook. To borrow a bit from another Steven Spielberg monster flick, you say “deinonychosaur,” and people say “Huh? What?” You say “raptor,” and your audience immediately has a general image of what sort of dinosaur you’re talking about. Rather than lament the reapplication of the word raptor as misappropriation or dumbing down, we might as well take advantage of the instant recognition the word triggers when trying to communicate with people who are not up on the latest theropod phylogeny. Almost twenty years after Jurassic Park debuted, it’s a little late to put “raptor” back in the cage.
More than that, I think “raptor” is a perfectly wonderful term for dromaeosaurids, if not deinonychosaurs as a whole. Not only has the “raptor” suffix been used in numerous dromaeosaurid names—Velociraptor, Utahraptor, Bambiraptor, Pyroraptor, Microraptor and so on—but these feathery dinosaurs were close cousins of the lineage which spawned the first birds. Some dromaeosaurids may have even hunted like avian raptors, using their huge tow claws to pin down prey rather than slash at it. Since “raptor” was always an informal term that applied to various lineages of avian dinosaurs anyway, I think it’s perfectly legit to use the word for the more ancient, non-avian precursors of today’s formidable falcons and eagles. Avian and non-avian raptors were dinosaurs of a feather.
May 2, 2012
Are we about to experience another burst of Dinomania? Maybe. Dinosaurs already have a ubiquitous cultural presence, but nothing drives interest in the beloved prehistoric creatures like Hollywood films. A stampede of dinosaur flicks is set to debut over the next two years.
A few dinosaur features fall somewhere on the educational spectrum. The Werner Herzog-narrated Dinotasia—a re-blended version of the miniseries Dinosaur Revolution—is set to traumatize children who have no idea who Werner Herzog is. And the long-running Walking With Dinosaurs series is scheduled to launch a 3-D sequel sometime next year. The plot for the new installment, set in Cretaceous Alaska, sounds awfully similar to the televised special March of the Dinosaurs.
Not all the upcoming dinosaur dramas are documentaries, though. Pixar recently announced the title of its 2014 feature The Good Dinosaur. The plot plays a little loose with evolutionary theory to bring people and dinosaurs in contact with each other. But the rest of the cinematic dinosaurs are not going to be so friendly. Jurassic Park will get a 3-D conversion for the movie’s 20th (!) anniversary in 2013, and not wanting to be left out, Warner Brothers is apparently working to loose “a pack of rapidly evolving dinosaurs into the heart of contemporary Los Angeles.” The idea sounds a bit like 2001′s Evolution, which released extremely adaptable aliens into Arizona. Maybe the studio competition will turn the rumors of Jurassic Park 4 into something more tangible, but who knows? Dinosaurs vs. Aliens, one of the latest ideas to exploit the seemingly bottomless limits of the versus subgenre, may hit screens before the Jurassic Park franchise evolves.
From the looks of it, there will be a little something for everyone, from friendly manifestations of childhood dreams to rampaging, bloodthirsty tyrannosaurs. I’m hoping for beautifully rendered feathers, recently discovered dinosaurs we’ve never seen restored before, and a respect for dinosaurs that doesn’t treat them as mindless monsters or just kid’s stuff, but I guess we will have to wait and see. Non-avian dinosaurs vanished around 66 million years ago, but we love to bring them back to life on screen.
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.
April 9, 2012
In the books and films, Jurassic Park was permanently shut down. But you can still find facsimiles of the overrun theme park here and there. Reader Matt stumbled across a miniature version of the dinosaur zoo at a flea market in Nipomo, California. “Rain and sun had taken a toll on the whole thing,” Matt writes. The little dinosaurs seem to be doing OK, though. They have taken control of the visitors center and are not giving it back.
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