The Joys and Frustrations of Jurassic Park

I love dinosaurs. I have for as long as I can remember. My mother tells me that I had brief infatuations with trucks and elephants first, but, despite my enduring adoration of pachyderms, my heart really belongs to dinosaurs.

Visiting “Brontosaurus” at the American Museum of Natural History was a critical moment that crystallized this prehistoric passion of mine, and seeing Jurassic Park for the first time gave life to old bones so magnificently that when I left the theater I knew I just had to find some way to chase down dinosaurs where they rested in rock. There was nothing greater for a 10 year old dinosaur nerd than to see Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops seemingly alive again, and I hoped that I might get a chance to dig after bones just like the film’s fictional paleontologists did.

All of which is to say that I’m thrilled Jurassic Park is back in theaters to celebrate the classic film’s 20th anniversary. The movie is still the best dinosaur film ever made, and, for better or worse, established THE image of what dinosaurs were like for an entire generation. And to celebrate the cinematic return of the most realistic dinosaurs ever to stomp across the screen, today I’m proud to present five different articles that encapsulate the joys and frustrations of Jurassic Park.

Part of the reason why Jurassic Park was so special is because the film combined science, special effects, and an imaginative tale in a way that is rarely seen among blockbusters. We’re never going to be able to clone dinosaurs, as I explain over at Mental Floss, but Michael Crichton came up with an ingenious and plausible-sounding way of reinventing dinosaurs for the story on which the film was based. And with that story in place, special effects masters were able to combine puppets with computer-generated imagery to create the closest thing to living dinosaurs. As I explain in a countdown of the best and worst cinema dinosaurs for, Jurassic Park‘s Tyrannosaurus rex is the greatest Mesozoic celebrity ever resurrected on screen. Even as researchers are discovering more about how T. rex actually lived, which I review in a National Geographic item, paleontologists think that the movie’s tyrant still holds up pretty well by today’s scientific standards.

That doesn’t mean that Jurassic Park is a flawless depiction of dinosaurs or paleontology. When science and special effects come together, the movie is wonderful, but there are some real *headdesk* moments throughout. The part that always makes paleontologists I know snort and chuckle in disbelief is the early camp scene, where excavating a dinosaur is shown as little more than dusting off rock until a lovely articulated skeleton comes into view. As I describe over at Slate, this scene is also the one instance I know of where someone is caught picking a dinosaur’s nose in a major motion picture.

And as much as I cherish Jurassic Park, the film’s legacy is a mixed one. I explore my conflicted feelings about this in a post at io9. The first film was actually quite progressive about insisting that birds are dinosaurs, as well as using then up-to-date science to revive dinosaurs (even if the filmmakers didn’t always pay heed to paleontological particulars). This sparked a new wave of dinomania that helped inspire the generation of paleontologists who are overjoyed that the movie is back. All day, I’ve seen paleontologist friends and colleagues say how excited they are to watch Jurassic Park in theaters again.

But Jurassic Park is also a time capsule of dinosaurs circa 1993 which misguided, diehard fans regard as immutable canon. The film’s dinosaurs have become so entrenched in the public imagination that there is much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth at the suggestion that maybe the fourth film in the series – set to debut sometime next year – should again mix the best of science and imagination by featuring feathery, bird-like dinosaurs.

Fictional paleontologist Alan Grant had a relentless enthusiasm for bird-like dinosaurs in the first film, but now it seems that devotees of the series, including Jurassic Park 4‘s director Colin Tevorrow, are more concerned about maintaining loyalty to outdated imagery than doing justice to dinosaurs. That’s a shame, but underscores just how powerful Jurassic Park was in shaping our perception of what dinosaurs were. Whether in the continuing Jurassic Park saga, or some other film, I hope filmmakers take the original installment’s lesson and combine true tales from the fossil record with the ferocious, amazing creatures that stalk our imaginations.

Bonus Reel:

A few weeks ago, I recorded a lighthearted review of Jurassic Park with the incomparable Lali DeRosier and Danielle Lee. I had a blast, especially considering what a dinosaur mix-and-matched from various strands of recovered DNA might look like. Poor “Puzzles.”

And if you haven’t had enough of my paleo pedantry yet, check out this vintage post from Dinosaur Tracking about why Jurassic Park‘s raptors don’t actually look like the real Velociraptor.  Even though the movie made “raptor” a household word, the fact is that the film’s most rapacious killer is actually another dinosaur named Deinonychus who was renamed for the movies.

5 thoughts on “The Joys and Frustrations of Jurassic Park

  1. Again, as I have said before, feathers aren’t going to be the be all, end all of Jurassic Park 4, and I must admit I’m not entirely sure why it warranted two seperate articles on the matter. There is a lot of good science that can still be conveyed in the film without portraying feathers. We’ve discovered a LOT in the last several years that can be incorporated, for example, The Lost World featured a lot of the more up to date behavioral aspects of the dinosaurs that were missed in the first film. And even more could come into play this time around.

  2. Utahraptor was discovered during the production of the film. Dr. Robert Bakker relays a story of being contacted by the visual effects department about whether a larger raptor was even possibly (because Spielberg wanted them bigger to be scarier). He responded that yes it was but did not know if any had been found, shortly after, he received word of a larger raptor which was named the Utahraptor (because it was found there), and was able to confirm this to the visual effects team. The raptor was discovered first in 1975 (though received little press) and again in 1991. The raptors on screen in JP are actually a bit smaller than a Utahraptor and are, I believe, still larger than a deinonychus so they can’t even be said to be a deinonychus either.

  3. Well the actual look of the dinosaurs could be explained by the whole frog DNA incorporation, which, in the books and movies, is why they can even exist in the first place. Though, as implausible as it already is, they could just say the dinosaurs are “shedding” their frog DNA and their original bird-like genes are becoming more dominant. Doubt it would ever really come into play, but as long as the plot isn’t nearly as hilarious as it was going to be, then there will be some happy JP fans…

  4. There is actually a very logical and elegant explanation for why the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies do not resemble those that actually existed. It’s because, in Jurassic Park, the scientists who cloned the dinosaurs were intentionally modifying them to match the perception of dinosaurs that the general public had at the time. This was confirmed in the novel, and based on various lines of evidence, the same was probably going on in the films, as well.

    I can easily imagine the Jurassic Park scientists cloning a Deinonychus and saying “What? This isn’t what people want to see! It’s just an overgrown chicken!” They would then genetically-modify the dinosaur and remove its feathers and other bird-like characteristics, in an attempt to make its appearance match the perception that the general public had about dinosaurs in the 1980s and early 1990s.

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