November 18, 2011
We just can’t get away from Jurassic Park. Though the original film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel debuted 18 years ago and the last sequel is now a decade old, a slew of toys, comics, games, fan tributes and rumors of a fourth movie have kept the franchise alive. Now Telltale Games has issued its own entry to the list of Jurassic Park spinoffs: an adventure that goes back to the scene of the crime that set the catastrophic events of the first film in motion.
Remember that can of Barbasol from the first Jurassic Park film? The one containing all those very, very expensive dinosaur embryos? Well, that’s the MacGuffin at the heart of Jurassic Park: The Game. Within the context of the new game, the corporate spies who commissioned the nefarious Dennis Nedry to steal the precious little dinosaurs didn’t entirely trust his ability to complete the task. They sent in a back-up: a professional smuggler named Nima.
As with anything in Jurassic Park, though, the best laid plans of Microraptor and men go awry. Nima quickly gets tangled up in a race to escape the island alive. Other characters are park veterinarian Gerry Harding, Harding’s daughter Jess, a couple of mercenaries sent to evacuate the park and a park scientist who is more concerned about the dinosaurs than the safety of her companions. This all takes place in the hours during and directly following the first film, making the game a parallel storyline that fits snugly within the cinematic Jurassic Park canon.
The new game isn’t another run-and-gun dinosaur shooter. There are more than enough of those out there already—using a rocket launcher against hordes of Velociraptor isn’t a rare gaming experience anymore. Nor does the game primarily feature major characters from the films or let you play as dinosaurs, as past Jurassic Park games have done. Instead, Jurassic Park: The Game is akin to a movie that the player directs through puzzles and action sequences requiring specific actions to solve. One moment you’ll be frantically trying to hit the proper combination of keys to prevent yourself from tripping while running away from Tyrannosaurus, and the next you will have to figure out the proper door code to enter a locked area. And the story unfolds not through just a single character’s perspective—the game requires players to jump between characters to accomplish certain tasks. The storyline propels the player, but only as fast as you can successfully navigate through the puzzles.
This type of game setup is both refreshing and extremely frustrating. During many parts of the story, players must observe their surroundings and use what’s at hand to solve puzzles to keep from being chomped by various theropods, and a dialog option allows players to take certain parts of the game at their own pace. During lulls in the action, players can dig into the backstory of various characters through conversation prompts. At one points, for example, you can stop to chat with Nima about why the island means so much to her, or you can decide to just move on to the next puzzle. The action sequences are a different story. Players are required to hit certain combinations of keys in rapid succession in order to escape packs of Troodon, avoid charging Triceratops and stab attacking Velociraptor, but these events require such speed and deftness at the keyboard or gamepad that a player is almost guaranteed to fail the first few tries. An adventure game should be challenging, of course, but many of the action prompts require such a high level of responsiveness or even anticipation that sequences meant to be fun and exciting quickly became annoying.
As for the look of the game, the designers kept appearances consistent with the original film. The park buildings, fences and vehicles match those from the movie, and the dinosaurs match their big-screen counterparts. As much as I would have loved to have seen feather-covered Velociraptor, the only reasonable choice was to keep the designs consistent. Some of the prehistoric beasts new to the game could have used a little more work, though. The Herrerasaurus are a bit too tubby and have skulls that more closely approximate the look of true Velociraptor than the genetically engineered monsters given that name in the game, and the mosasaur in the final chapter was given a number of flourishes which made the marine reptile look more like a sea monster than a real animal. The game designers appear to at least minimally respect hard-core dinosaur nerds, though: Snippets of dialog and journal entries in the game retcon a few of the scientific issues with the fictional story and even include some up-to-date science.
Despite my quibbles about the new prehistoric threats and some elements of the gameplay, though, Jurassic Park: The Game is an enjoyable and well-executed spinoff that lets players venture deeper into the dinosaur-infested park. The game reminded me of the “choose your own adventure” books I read as a kid—the choices you make as the story unfolds will either open up the next scene or send you spiraling into certain doom. That approach, I think, captured the spirit of the Jurassic Park films. A return to the island may not be safe, but it is fun.
October 31, 2011
If we had not discovered dinosaurs, I don’t know whether we could have dreamed them up. So many of the prehistoric creatures were so unlike anything alive today, and dinosaurs seem to keep getting weirder with almost every new discovery. But dinosaurs aren’t just animals. During the past century they have frequently served as made-to-order movie monsters, from some of the earliest silent shorts to modern special-effects extravaganzas. Tyrannosaurus alone has been a celebrated and ever-hungry villain from the original 1933 King Kong to the 2005 remake of the same film. In celebration of Halloween, here’s a short list of some of my favorite spooky moments in the long history of dinosaur cinema. (If you can handle even more horror after this, see Food & Think’s ten scariest food-related moments in film.)
5. Dinosaur SMASH!
By modern standards this pick isn’t scary at all, but what is slot #5 for if not a sentimental favorite?
The direct-to-TV, B-movie The Last Dinosaur was one of the first dinosaur flicks I ever saw. It also has to be one of the silliest. Big-game hunter Maston Thrust—one of the most unfortunately named characters in cinema—is on the trail of a Tyrannosaurus in an isolated lost world. The dinosaurs are all portrayed by people in rubber suits, but before we all got spoiled by the top-notch effects in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs were just about as good as anything I had seen. But it wasn’t the jaws of the Tyrannosaurus that scared me. In one scene, the tyrant stomps through camp and steps right on the expedition’s scientist without a second thought. That was what scared me—to seem so small and insignificant that a dinosaur might trod right on me without even noticing.
4. Nobody here but us maniraptorans
By any measure, Carnosaur is a crummy dinosaur flick. Roger Corman’s very loose adaptation of the novel by the same name is low-rent dinosaur schlock in its purest form. Still, dinosaurs films are usually more in the “adventure” vein than the “horror” one, and our introduction to the film’s puppet Deinonychus had me looking over my shoulder to make sure there weren’t any poorly designed dinosaur puppets hiding behind me. A farmer driving a truckload of chickens hears something amiss with his cargo. From the brief shots of the chicken cages, the birds would seem to be exploding. When our hapless minor character goes back to see what’s up, he is quickly dispatched by one of the closest, non-avian relatives of the dinosaur descendants he was shipping.
3. Brontosaurus attack!
Everyone knows that the huge, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs were herbivores. That’s why the carnivorous turn a “Brontosaurus” took in 1933′s King Kong creeped me out as a kid.
Early in their adventure across Skull Island’s prehistoric paradise, the film’s human protagonists start crossing a misty lake. Too bad for them a very angry sauropod lives there. The dinosaur goes on a rampage, capsizing boats and tossing crew members around, and the worst part of an amphibious dinosaur is that it can follow you as you try to escape to dry land. Being run down by a sharp-toothed predator is bad enough, but even worse is to be inefficiently torn apart by a primarily plant-eating dinosaur looking for some extra protein!
2. Triple Tyrant Trouble
Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong didn’t match the iconic status of the original—how could it, really?—but the team of special effects masters who worked on the film brought the deadly fauna of Skull Island to life in wonderful detail. No scene better demonstrates just how perilous life on the island could be than Ann Darrow’s attempted escape through the jungle. Darrow, played by Naomi Watts, encounters enormous terrestrial crocodiles and gargantuan centipedes in quick succession before meeting the living descendants of Tyrannosaurus itself (given the name Vastatosaurus in the beautifully illustrated companion guide to the film). While the ensuing battle scene between King Kong and the three dinosaurs is an over-the-top brawl, the initial chase is frightening—especially when a well-camouflaged dinosaur almost gets the drop on Ann. Always mind your surroundings in dinosaur country.
1. Heeeeeeere’s Rexie!
Jurassic Park is full of scary moments. In fact, the original film probably lays claim to all the scariest dinosaur moments in film history. Out of all the film’s scenes, though, the debut of the Tyrannosaurus was what had me gripping my theater armrest in 1993. What should have been one of the happiest moments in the life of a dinosaur fan—seeing the quintessential dinosaur in the living flesh!—turns into a muddy, blood-spattered nightmare of twisted metal. It didn’t matter that Steven Spielberg was obviously going to keep all the principal characters alive through the encounter. Seeing what was arguably one of the scariest apex predators of all time brought back to life—even virtually—was scary enough. Our fascination with dinosaurs has always been safe because the objects of our fascination have been dead for more than 65 million years, but in this short scene the ornery Tyrannosaurus ably demonstrates why some childhood dreams about meeting living dinosaurs may be best left unfulfilled.
From everyone here at Dinosaur Tracking, have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!
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.
August 31, 2011
Remember Alan Grant’s soliloquy at the beginning of Jurassic Park about the feeding habits of Velociraptor? The one in which he terrifies the child who dared to call the Cretaceous carnivore a “six foot turkey”? Well, Tal Moskovich has created a short, alternate version of the scene using plastic dinosaurs, which, I have to admit, I also did shortly after seeing the movie. I won’t bother complaining about the lack of feathers or other inaccuracies this time, promise.
If you want to see the original, however, you might get the chance to see it in theaters. MusicRooms (among other sites) reports that Jurassic Park will be re-released for a limited theatrical run on September 23 in advance of the Blu-Ray release of the full trilogy on October 24.
August 4, 2011
To: Steven Spielberg
From: Brian Switek
Dear Steven Spielberg,
Eighteen years ago, shortly after my graduation from 5th grade, I sat in a Florida movie theater anxiously waiting for the lights to go down. I couldn’t wait for Jurassic Park to start. The reviews, the toys, the various and sundry tie-ins—all had me in a dinosaur-fueled frenzy, and I couldn’t wait to see my favorite prehistoric monsters come to life.
You didn’t disappoint. Yeah, Stephen Jay Gould was right that the plotline was dumbed down to the classic “mess with Nature (or ‘God’s domain’, or whatever you like) at your own peril” trope, but my 10-year-old self didn’t care. Jurassic Park was the closest I had ever come to seeing real, live dinosaurs. (Well, before the fact that birds are living dinosaurs really took off and made its way into the public consciousness, which, to your credit, you nodded to at the beginning of the movie.) Heck, the movie still looks good. Dinosaurs have regularly stampeded across the screen since 1993, but few look as good as the ones Stan Winston and company created for you way back when.
But something has been troubling me, Steve. I love dinosaurs—when someone says the word “dinosaur” my immediate reaction is “WHERE?!”—but I don’t quite know what to make of the news that plans to make Jurassic Park 4 are now underway. I trust this isn’t another fake-out, and that it doesn’t involve the development of a script featuring super-intelligent mercenary raptors. The less said about that, the better. I believe that things really, truly are moving forward this time, but I worry about what that might mean for us dinosaur fans.
We’ve had three Jurassic Park films so far, all anchored to the same group of characters. The franchise is getting something of a Jaws feeling to it—how many more films before hints start popping up that these characters are all spiritually or mystically drawn back to the same islands, just as the magical great white shark of Jaws IV was implied to be carrying out a revenge plot on the beleaguered Brody family? We’ve also been back to the same island twice, and I don’t really relish another trip to the original sites with the same characters.
I think you hit on something better with the last act of The Lost World. Yeah, a Tyrannosaurus rampaging through the streets of San Diego is Godzilla, American style, but what is more terrifying than a monster showing up at your door? If you’re searching for monsters and find them in the wild, that’s one thing, but it’s entirely different when you inexplicably feel like you’re being stalked in a place where you have always felt safe. The “raptors” are ideal antagonists here—imagine stealthy, feathered Velociraptor sneaking around the city, surreptitiously devouring anyone unfortunate to wander the night alone. Scary stuff.
(Which reminds me; there had better be feathers on the new raptors. Not just a few silly quills like in Jurassic Park 3. The scientific evidence is unambiguous on this point, and a feather-covered Velociraptor would be a wonderful culmination of Alan Grant’s little soliloquy at the start of the first film. The time has come for feathered dinosaurs. Don’t let us down.)
Or why not release the dinosaurs in the classic setting of the American West? Think of places like Dinosaur National Monument and Arches National Park—they look as if dinosaurs should still be roaming the hills. (Though maybe I think so because similar settings formed the backdrop for films like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and One Million Years B.C.) Even Yellowstone could make for a fun setting—who wouldn’t be thrilled to see an Allosaurus run down a bison? Instead of taking a small cadre of experts out to a remote island yet again, why not bring the dinosaurs to us?
Of course, you may have something entirely different in mind. I’m just throwing out a few thoughts here. I would just hate to see the franchise devolve into self-parody through repetition. Living dinosaurs—it’s an enthralling concept that so many of us have dreamed about, and we’re due for another great dinosaur film. If not for us, Steven, do it for the dinosaurs.
All the best,