The trailer for the latest big screen outing of the Jurassic Park franchise is causing delight and consternation in equal measure over the appearance of the extinct stars. Here, paleoartist John Conway tackles the ongoing arguments about keeping the dinosaurs up-to-date.
The 1970s and 1980s were a good time to be interested in dinosaurs. A scientific revolution was happening, and the sluggish dumb evolutionary dead-ends of old were being replaced with fast, social and intelligent beasts. At least, that was understood by dinosaur enthusiasts. The general public, on the other hand, was still mostly familiar with the old lumps in swamps.
That was until the original Jurassic Park blew them out of the water. Jurassic Park surprised most people with its radical new dinosaurs. In fact, one of the central plot points is just that: dinosaurs are not what we think they are. The filmmakers worked with scientists to get a lot of stuff about dinosaurs right, and the most memorable scenes in the film reflect that. Enormous sauropods move about on land with the grace of giant elephants, Gallimimus running in flocks at terrifying speeds, T. rex as a lithe narrow-hipped running hunter, these things were new to most people, and reflected the new scientific thinking on dinosaurs.
Oh sure, it got things wrong in places, and we dino-enthusiasts could rattle off a list of them, but Jurassic Park used science as the basis for its aesthetic power to surprise (and terrify) us. For this reason, it inspired a whole generation: meet a paleontologist of the right age, and there’s a decent chance that Jurassic Park is where they got their start. They were curious as to where this radical new vision of dinosaurs had come from.
Since 1993, there has been another revolution in our understanding of dinosaur appearance. The naked, scaly dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park ilk have been replaced by feather, spine, quill and things-we-don’t-even-have-names-for covered beasts that look every bit as strange as the original Jurassic Park dinosaurs did to their original audience. This information has been slow to get into the public perception, as books, many museums, and documentaries have been slow to embrace this new look.
So when we heard that a new Jurassic Park film was being made, paleontologists and those with a serious interest in dinosaur science were somewhat hopeful that it would do what the first one did: take our current understanding, and write it large and shocking. We wanted to see some dinosaurs!
When the trailer for Jurassic World was released, it was obvious to us that this was not the film we were looking for. The dinosaurs are actually a retrograde step from the original Jurassic Park. Far from showing us the current understanding of dinosaur appearance, Jurassic World has decided to stick to what people expect – always a bold artistic move.
Understandably, many paleontologists and other dinosaur enthusiasts expressed this disappointment on Twitter, Facebook and their own blogs. This led to some ridicule in the media of the “Boffins Blubbering about Jurassic World” variety. What a silly bunch of nerds, caring about something that we don’t care about! Don’t they realise it’s just a film?
Of course we realise it’s a film – but we also recognise the power it will have to shape people’s ideas about prehistoric animals. And in Jurassic World’s case, it looks like we’re getting a very dull monsters trope. The original Jurassic Park stimulated a huge new interest in dinosaurs and paleontology and even spawned the Jurassic Foundation that invested money back into the research that had helped give them such exciting ideas and information for their film. The trend in the new trailer suggests strongly that the series is stepping away from that interchange between science and spectacle and that is naturally disappointing.
Why does this matter? Thinking of the prehistory world as a landscape filled with predictable monsters is to profoundly misunderstand what this world is, and our place in it. Complaints that paleontologists are harping on details is to miss the point. These details might seem esoteric and irrelevant, but our picture of the prehistoric world is composed of details. Millions and millions of them. And they speak of a variety and strangeness that is constantly surprising and fascinating. Knowing something of the endless surprises fossil animals hold is no less important than knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun, or where China is.
Our new dinosaurs remind us that there are new things to be found in old places. Tired old dinosaurs can be shocking again. Old plots can be reinvigorated.
We were hoping to see some of that in a new film about dinosaurs. Instead we got a tired retread which isn’t even cool, let alone revolutionary.
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