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 25, 2012
I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink about feathered dinosaurs over the past few weeks. Despite assertions to the contrary, bristles, fluff and feathers make dinosaurs more interesting and exciting than they have ever been before. Of course, not every attempt to put plumage on dinosaurs does the animals justice. Case in point–Dino Time 3D.
I’ll watch just about anything with dinosaurs in it. This blog is all about tracking dinosaurs through science and pop culture, after all. But I am not going to subject my brain to Dino Time 3D (formerly DinoMom). Anything that “stars” Rob Schneider and two (!) Baldwin brothers is best avoided, especially since the movie’s trailer is uncomfortably close to this parody trailer of a typical Rob Schneider film.
But the film’s attempt at fluffy dinosaurs may the worst thing of all. I don’t even have a clear idea of what the feather-bearing species are supposed to be–they look like failed attempts at Carnival costumes. And it’s not like it’s impossible to create roughly accurate cartoonish dinosaurs. Many of the animated species on PBS’ Dinosaur Train hit the right balance and show off feathers without looking ridiculous. With a little attention to detail, feathery dinosaurs don’t have to look stupid.
[Hat-tip to Talcott Starr for telling me about this movie.]
September 21, 2012
Godzilla certainly puts the “fiction” in sci-fi. When you’re dealing with an amphibious dinosaur the size of a mountain that is effectively a biological nuclear reactor, it’s advisable to leave the monster as a symbol of wanton atomic destruction and not worry too much about scientific accuracy. But with the upcoming American reboot of the long-running franchise, I couldn’t help but wonder about the one aspect of Godzilla where paleontology might have something to contribute–just what sort of dinosaur Godzilla is.
Everyone knows that Godzilla is a mutated something-o-saurus. Just what sort of creature the aberration started out as varies from one canonical storyline to another. During the 1990s run of the Godzilla series, for example, the movie Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah showed that Godzilla mutated from a late-surviving theropod dinosaur. The carnivore looked like the old, dumpy restorations of Tyrannosaurus from the mid-20th century, and, no surprise, the fictional dinosaur is known as Godzillasaurus. (Not to be confused with the real dinosaur given the name “Gojirasaurus,” which is probably a synonym of Coelophysis.)
But in a light-hearted article published in 1998, paleontologist Ken Carpenter tried to divine what sort of dinosaur Godzilla is, based upon the kaiju’s anatomy. This was no simple task. Godzilla has traits that evolved multiple times among different groups of large carnivorous theropods, creating a strange dinosaurian mosaic. Not to mention all those radiation-spurred mutations.
Still, the monster’s anatomy holds enough clues to place him within a particular part of the dinosaur family tree. Godzilla’s long arms and four fingers on each hand indicate that the “Big Guy” is a basal theropod, or, in other words, belongs to one of the early branches of the group’s family tree. And even though the bony fins along Godzilla’s back are reminiscent of the herbivore Stegosaurus, Carpenter pointed out that some theropods–such as Ceratosaurus–had less-flashy bony armor along their spines. Perhaps the prominent ornaments on Godzilla were highly-modified versions of body armor that was more subtle among his ancestors.
More than anything else, though, Carpenter pointed to Godzilla’s head as the key to the mutant dinosaur’s identity. Godzilla has a short, deep skull reminiscent of a group of theropods called abelisaurids–dinosaurs such as Carnotaurus and Skorpiovenator that were cousins of Ceratosaurus. (In fact, the abelisaurids were a subgroup within the Ceratosauria.) Combined with the finger count and osteoderms, Carpenter noted, the creature’s skull suggests that Godzilla is some sort of ceratosaur–perhaps even a form that smooths the transition between more archaic ceratosaurs and the deep-skulled abelisaurids. Exactly how such a strange dinosaur survived to the modern era, and how radioactivity created such a monstrosity, are questions best left in movie mythology.
For a more detailed look at Godzilla’s improbable biology, see this post by paleontologist Darren Naish.
Carpenter, K. (1998) A dinosaur paleontologist’s view of Godzilla. In Lees, J. D. & Cerasini, M. (eds) The Official Godzilla Compendium. Random House (New York), pp. 102-106.
September 18, 2012
Speckles the Tarbosaurus just can’t catch a break. For one thing, the menacing tyrannosaur is named “Speckles”–not exactly the most intimidating name for the Late Cretaceous carnivore. But, in the Korean-made film Speckles: The Tarbosaurus 3D released last year, things get far worse for our unfortunately-named hero.
If you’re a dinosaur cinema aficionado, you’ve seen Speckles’ tale before. Proving that dinosaur cinema may be the most unoriginal sub-sub-sub genre out there, the story is a mish-mash of elements from Disney’s Dinosaur, the anime treat You are Umasou, the cutesy Pangea, the dinosaur sequence of Fantasia and even Ricardo Delagado’s comic series The Age of Reptiles. This isn’t to say that the resemblances were necessarily intentional, but how many times are we going to see one-eyed Tyrannosaurus villains, dinosaur death marches across arid plains and pterosaur-eye-view flyover shots before someone tries something different? With 150 million years of prehistory to work with, you’d think filmmakers would show some originality.
The story follows the tragic life of Speckles, a young male Tarbosaurus who, of course, quickly gets into all sorts of trouble while exploring the jungles and cliffs of his prehistoric homeland. Best to leave browsing Therizinosaurus alone. Without tragedy, though, the story has nowhere to go, and our protagonist quickly finds himself alone. Speckles loses his entire family in a stampede of herbivorous dinosaurs caused by “One Eye,” a gnarled Tyrannosaurus that personally dispatches Speckles’ mom. From that point on, Speckles is consumed by thoughts of revenge, but not so much so that he passes the chance to court a blue-eyed Tarbosaurus who ultimately becomes his mate.
Things get a whole lot worse for Speckles before they get better. I’m not going to spoil the details here, but it’s really no surprise that the story winds up almost exactly where it began. And unless you’re an especially dinosaur-crazed kid, there’s not much to justify sitting through the hour and twenty minutes it takes to get to that point. The stylistic difference of the similar animated fable You are Umasou let the filmmakers explore issues of identity and family, but Speckles is a slow plod toward an obvious and inexorable end-point without depth or nuance. Speckles is good, One Eye is bad, and it takes far too long for them to finally settle their vendetta.
Fortunately, the dinosaurs don’t talk in this one. At least not in the manner of Disney’s overly-anthropomorphic Dinosaur. Instead, we only hear Speckles internal monologue, even as he misidentifies and mispronounces the names of various prehistoric creatures. (In an early scene, the crested hadrosaur Parasaurolophus is called a “Tyrannosaurus.” D’oh!) Although my favorite howler comes when our hero prematurely believes that he has defeated One Eye at long last. “I defeated him! I’m Speckles!” our narrator taunts.
And now it’s time to pick from Mesozoic nits. The typical problems plague the movie’s computer-generated dinosaurs. The coelurosaurs aren’t sufficiently feathered, the Velociraptor have bunny hands and the way the dinosaurs run and fall down defy physics. And it’s worth pointing out that the entire dinosaurian assemblage is an unnatural amalgamation brought together just for the movie. Tyrannosaurus rex and Tarbosaurus bataar were not neighbors–these two closely-related tyrannosaurs lived in North America and Asia, respectively. Likewise, the supporting dinosaur cast of Torosaurus, Parasaurlophus and company from North America never met Velociraptor, Microraptor and other dinosaurs from Cretaceous Asia. Worse still, despite the fact that none of these dinosaurs lived in prehistoric Korea, the movie is presented as being a look at the Korean Peninsula circa 80 million years ago. Dinosaurs actually found in Korea–such as Koreaceratops and Koreanosaurus–don’t even get a cameo.
As much as I love dinosaurs, I have to wonder if it’s even possible to make a compelling feature-length film from a dinosaur’s perspective. Several films have tried, and several more have been scrapped before they even reached production. Based upon Speckles, and similar films, dinosaur movies seem doomed by standard tropes that make dinosaur cinema frustratingly repetitive. Perhaps it’s best to take a tip from Phil Tippett, creator of “Prehistoric Beast“, and keep dinosaur tales short and savage. Cinematic dinosaurs are awesome to behold, but filmmakers have not yet found a way to make us really care about their individual lives.
September 17, 2012
Ugly tyrannosaurs are a cinema tradition. With the exception of the burly stop-motion version in the 1933 King Kong and the hot-blooded monsters of the Jurassic Park franchise, the majority of tyrant dinosaurs to stomp their way across the screen have been ugly, tottering brutes that only bear the most superficial resemblance to the actual animal. The Land Unknown‘s man-in-suit version looked incapable of threatening a rotting carcass, much less live prey, and I lost all respect for the titular villain of The Last Dinosaur when a boulder caved in the puppet’s noggin, only to roll away and leave the theropod unscathed. (And let’s not talk about Tammy and the T-Rex or Theodore Rex.) But, atrocious as they are, these dinosaurs don’t even come close to the worst cinematic Tyrannosaurus of all time.
Oddly enough, the film that assaults viewers with the awful tyrannosaur has nothing at all to do with lost worlds or time travel. Nor does it have the word “dinosaur” in the title. Instead, 1990′s Metamorphosis is bottom-of-the-barrel schlock about mad scientist Dr. Peter Houseman who is trying to understand our prehistoric genetic legacy through weird, uncomfortable-looking eye injections. Because, you know, SCIENCE, I guess. The most outlandish part of this is that the college where the doctor works has not supervised his work or asked for any results in about two years–they left the guy to putter away, doing who knows what with piles of grant money. Science fiction, indeed.
But when the authorities threaten to cease the crazed scientist’s experiments, he–of course–injects himself to prove all those tweed-coated bureaucrats wrong. The experiment doesn’t go as planned, unintended side effects, ripping off The Fly ensues, etc. Ultimately, thanks to a woeful misunderstanding of development and evolution, the doctor reverts into a stiff, ugly Tyrannosaurus apparently made out of rain tarps and duct tape. (As wonderful as it would be to have dinosaurs in our ancestry, our mammalian forebears were on a very different side of the evolutionary tree. Most spent the Mesozoic under the feet of dinosaurs.) Worst of all, the scientist-turned-dinosaur is gunned down immediately upon making his big entrance. Much like the movie itself, the assailants had no respect for the king of the tyrant dinosaurs.