June 5, 2012
“Brontosaurus” should have disappeared a long time ago. Paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that the famous “thunder lizard” was a synonym of Apatosaurus more than a century ago, and a 1936 monograph by Charles Gilmore strongly reinforced what Riggs had discovered. Brontosaurus was not a real dinosaur. But, thanks to museum displays and pop culture persistence, Brontosaurus hung on. Even now, we feel compelled to invoke Brontosaurus in the same breath as Apatosaurus—it seems that no one can use the name Apatosaurus without explaining to their audience that we used to call the dinosaur Brontosaurus. No surprise, then, that the word use tracker Google Ngrams charts Brontosaurus as slightly more popular than Apatosaurus. We can’t let the dinosaur go.
Thanks to a fictional conceit, Brontosaurus recently received some screen time. Everybody knows that the plot of King Kong hinges on a gargantuan gorilla, but dinosaurs—stalwart holdovers from the Mesozoic—also have a role to play. What better way to show the power of Skull Island’s monstrous gorilla than to have him pummel a Tyrannosaurus? And when director Peter Jackson revitalized the story in 2005, he included a new and varied menagerie of modern dinosaurs, including a stampeding herd of Brontosaurus.
Jackson’s Brontosaurus looked just like the sauropods I encountered as a child. These computer-generated dinosaurs were drab, blunt-headed hulks that wallowed in swamps filled with soft plants. They were a throwback to a time when paleontologists thought of sauropods as dim-witted mountains of flesh. At the time the film’s fictional Skull Island expedition took place, this is exactly how good sauropods were thought to act.
The film’s official art book, The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, added another quirk to the dinosaur’s story. The film’s fictional Brontosaurus baxteri is said to be capable of live birth. Instead of laying clutches of small eggs, gravid Brontosaurus females delivered between one and three large, live offspring at a time. This is not just an invention for the movie’s backstory, but something early 20th century paleontologists actually considered. Under the assumption that these dinosaurs spent most of their time in the water, where egg-laying would be impossible, paleontologist W.D. Matthew suggested that big sauropods may have given birth to live young. We now know this isn’t true, but at a time when huge sauropods were thought to have relied on swampy refuges, Matthew’s suggestion seemed to be a reasonable hypothesis.
Brontosaurus is here to stay. We love the dinosaur’s ghost too much to let it rest. And even though we won’t see digitally restored Brontosaurus stomping around in science documentaries, I’m glad King Kong used a bit of scientific license to bring my childhood favorite to life.
May 14, 2012
The Dinosaur Museum, tucked away a few blocks from Blanding, Utah’s main drag, is an unusual place. Intricately detailed sculptures stand next to casts of fossils, full-size paintings of skeletons and various bits of dinosauriana, mixed together to create rooms full of competing dinosaur images. But I didn’t expect to run into a minor dinosaur celebrity in the galleries. Displayed in a small glass case were the decaying remains of King Kong‘s “Brontosaurus.”
I had almost forgotten about the stop-motion dinosaur. In the original, 1933 King Kong, the sharp-toothed sauropod made a brief appearance as a terrifying, carnivorous swamp monster. Worst of all, the dinosaur was just as dangerous on land as in the water. After wrecking the expedition’s boats, the Brontosaurus shuffled after the fleeing humans and nabbed one crew member dumb enough to think you can escape a long-necked dinosaur by climbing a tree.
But that wasn’t the model’s only appearance. The same model was employed in Son of Kong, a hastily created sequel to the initial hit, released a scant nine months after the first film. And the Brontosaurus was made to do double duty. Not only did the Brontosaurus make a brief cameo at the end of the movie, but the film’s special effects creators refashioned the model into a gnarly sea monster.
Today, this piece of Hollywood memorabilia looks even more monstrous. Time has not been kind to the dinosaur. The fabricated flesh has decayed from around the model’s mouth, eyes and neck, making the dinosaur look even more angry than it ever appeared on film. The sauropod was always meant to be scary, but it looks even more intimidating as a tattered cinema zombie.
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.
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!
August 18, 2011
Back in 1918, special effects artists had to make dinosaurs the old-fashioned way. Creating sculptures out of clay and bringing them to life through stop-motion animation was the only way to go, and the pioneering artist in this medium was Willis O’Brien. He’s probably best known for his work on King Kong—the giant ape and Skull Island’s dinosaurs were his creations—but O’Brien also made a number of silent short films which featured prehistoric creatures, including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.
The plot is pretty simple. Uncle Jack tells his nephews about the time he went up to Slumber Mountain, (surprise!) fell asleep and dreamed of seeing prehistoric creatures through a magical telescope carried by a fellow named Mad Dick (who was played by O’Brien himself). The whole thing was mainly an excuse to get dinosaurs and other ancient critters on screen—the film’s tagline was: “These giant monsters of the past are seen to breathe, to live again, to move and battle as they did at the dawn of life!”
The short is just a shadow of what it was meant to be. Originally planned to be a feature film, the final product stretched only 18 minutes. Still, the movie was a financial success. According to the folks at Turner Classic Movies, it took about $3,000 to make the film but it brought in over $100,000 in profit. Not too shabby.
Although it’s usually only remembered by film buffs and dinosaur fans today, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain represents a significant milestone in the history of movies because it was the first time live actors were paired with stop-motion dinosaurs. This is the movie that got the ball rolling and gave O’Brien some of the skills he would later use on movies like The Lost World and Mighty Joe Young. Without it, we might never have seen Professor Challenger face dinosaurs on an South American plateau or seen a giant gorilla hang from the Empire State Building.