National Geographic

Get Ready for Dinomania Next Year

I was ten years old when Jurassic Park smashed into theaters. I had never anticipated a movie more. Michael Crichton’s original novel – as a movie tie-in paperback, of course – was the first “grown-up book” I was allowed to read, TIME and National Geographic ran dinosaur cover stories that year which I pored over again and again, and representations of brightly-colored, actively-posed dinosaurs seemed to be everywhere. Dinomania hit a fever pitch that made me absolutely certain that I wanted to spend my life chasing the extinct monsters. Now, over twenty years later, I wonder if the same fossil pandemonium could be sparked again.

Walking With Dinosaurs 3D has already migrated through theaters, and, given the kaiju’s origins, Godzilla technically counts as a dinosaur, but next year’s releases are what may send fossil fans into a tizzy. Not only is the animation studio Pixar set to envision an alternate prehistory in The Good Dinosaur, but the Jurassic Park franchise is due to at long last continue the story of genetically-engineered monsters in Jurassic World. 2015 could be the Year of the Dinosaur. The question is how Hollywood versions of the long-extinct creatures will affect the public’s understanding of prehistoric life and how paleontologists study lost worlds.

How The Good Dinosaur will intersect with science, if at all, is a mystery. That’s because almost nothing has been revealed about the film other than the general story that humans and sauropods mingle in a universe wherein the deadly asteroid that devastated Cretaceous life never hit the planet. Seeing a feral prehistoric child palling around with non-avian dinosaurs does have something of a creationist tinge to it, but with a clear premise that the movie is meant as imaginative fiction I doubt that Pixar is going to give religious fundamentalists much solace.

Other than the fact that we won’t be seeing special-ops raptors, even less is known about Jurassic World. Yet the movie has already drawn the ire of dinosaur diehards – myself included – for reportedly refusing to adorn saurian stars like Velociraptor with the feathers the dinosaurs had in life. While the first Jurassic Park certainly took some liberties with dinosaurs – Dilophosaurus neck ruffles, anyone? – the movie nevertheless paired bleeding edge special effects with up-to-date science that brought dinosaurs to life as they had never been seen before. That Jurassic World might prefer scariness over updated dinosaurs is a disappointing possibility. What other film is going to have the chance to so powerfully revitalize dinosaurs for a new generation?

Would I like to see an enfluffed Tyrannosaurus chasing after hapless humans? Absolutely. I’d be thrilled to view such scientifically-informed nightmare fuel. But even if Jurassic World is populated by unabashedly scabrous and scaly dinosaurs, not to mention any other possible inaccuracies, I don’t see much reason to despair. As slavering monsters or friendly companions, the dinosaurs in next year’s films offer museums, writers, and science communicators with a rare opportunity to enjoy the free boost in dinomania.

Just like The Lost World, The Valley of Gwangi, and all the greater and lesser dinosaur films that have gone before, The Good Dinosaur and Jurassic World are works of fiction. They can do as they please with dinosaurs. Even with scientific advising, which I’m glad to see Jurassic World still has, the dinosaurs will still be deployed in the service of story. But if that helps spark the public’s interest in prehistory and inspires increased museum attendance, that’s a great benefit to everyone.

Consider the original Jurassic Park. Even for the era, the dinosaurs weren’t flawless. But the film did more to popularize paleontology and interest in dinosaur than any other recent event that I can think of, and I have to wonder how many upcoming paleontologists owe at least part of their interest in fossils to that movie.

Inaccurate and distorted dinosaurs can still offer useful ways to reach out to and excite the public. I can only speak for myself here, but when I repeatedly raided my local and school libraries for dinosaur books I mostly found already-outdated animals that were still dragging their tails and wallowing in swamps. Yet those lumposaurs still stoked my imagination, and by comparing them to more accurate depictions I gained a better understanding of how science is an ongoing process that will continue to alter what we understand about nature. We can and should push for accuracy where appropriate, but even animals that are less dinosaur and more dinosaurish can still assist efforts to plug the public into the wonder of science.

Next year’s big-budget dinosaur films may spur some new myths. (Over two decades after Jurassic Park debuted, I’m still earnestly asked whether or not Tyrannosaurus had vision based on movement.) That risk is a perpetual side effect of the fact that dinosaurs belong to imagination as much as they do science. Rather than grumble, though, paleontologists and educators should start thinking about how to use the films as springboards to talk about the true stories of discovery that continue to teach us about evolution, extinction, and the ongoing story of life on Earth. Plan an exhibit. Start a video series. Coordinate workshops, events, and screenings. Write articles for popular audiences. Don’t wait until the tide of prehistoric popularity has passed. Next summer, audiences will stomp to theaters and roar at the sight of dinosaurs brought back to life. We should be ready with stories of our own – true, amazing tales that tie us together in a shared and evolving history.

There are 5 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Walter
    February 24, 2014

    I was just thinking about this the other day, at least in terms of dinosaur-related merchandise that usually gets released to cash-in on the release of these types of films. The first Jurassic Park film resulted in a slew dinosaur-themed books and magazines hitting newsstands. By the time the third one rolled around, publishers seemed to have lost interest. But with the rise of digital publishing, I’m betting we’ll see some older titles get re-released – and perhaps a few new ones. Also, I’m sure there will be at least one cheap, made-for-video movie trying to cash in on the craze. Hopefully we’ll see some new dinosaur documentaries as well.

  2. Ethan Cowgill
    February 24, 2014

    I don’t think that viewers are quite as gullible as many assume. Like in Jurassic park when they brought up T-rex’s unfortunate eye condition. I’ve had more people ask me “how do they know T-rex’s vision was based on movement” more so than “was it really based on movement.” What this tells me is that people are more fascinated with the science of it and how scientists arrive at conclusions. The most common question I’ve ever been asked is “How do they know how old dinosaurs are.” And I’m always glad to explain. This tells me that on some level the methodology is the most mysterious part of science in the mind of the layperson. I think that when people go to movies they expect monsters. And when people go to museums they expect nature.

  3. Jess Brisbane
    February 24, 2014

    This has nothing to do with palaeontology, but I use Jurassic Park as a case study when teaching Systems Analysis and Design. The students have to identify and correct as many design flaws as possible., It’s a good exercise, but it makes for a very short and rather boring movie when Nedry doesn’t have administrator access to the live computer, the locks have manual overrides, and there’s direct access to the generator building from the emergency shelter. Among others.

  4. Jim Kirkland
    February 25, 2014

    So wouldn’t someone finding us a heavy lift copter to collect our 7 ton block preserving a family of adult, juv., and baby Utahraptors trapped in quicksand with their prey, so we can expose it for the public make the year in “Dinomania” on so much better!

  5. Jeff Lewis
    February 25, 2014

    “…The Good Dinosaur and Jurassic World are works of fiction. They can do as they please with dinosaurs.”

    I disagree. There’s already a genre for people who want to let their imaginations run wild – fantasy. I don’t care a lick if you want your dragons to be feathered, or have 4 limbs, or 6 limbs, or capable of speech, or whatever. But when it comes to science fiction, creators should try much harder to be accurate. Sure, there’s still room for some artistic license, but it should be much more constrained.

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