The latest incarnation (I chose that word advisedly!) of the Jurassic Park franchise has been breaking box-office records and garnering mixed reviews from the critics. On the positive side the film is regarded as scary, entertaining, and a bit comedic at times (isn’t that what most movies are supposed to be?). On the negative side the plot is described as rather ‘thin’, the human characters two-dimensional, and the scientific content (prehistoric animals) unreliable, inaccurate, or lacking entirely in credibility.
Within the paleontological community, there have been a few voices criticising the appearance of some of the CGI dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. For example, the velociraptor is too large, and they do not show the raptors with feathers or at least a ‘shaggy’ filamentous covering. Their hands and claws are also not articulated correctly. The mosasaur is too big (not strictly true, as some mosasaur fossils are very large!), and the pterosaurs are seen eating the wrong sorts of organisms altogether! Quite a few of these technical criticisms reflect the fact that paleontological research has made advances in the two decades and more since the first Jurassic Park movie appeared on our screens.
So, why are the ‘dinosaurs’ so inaccurate? I listened with considerable interest to an interview in the run-up to the launch of the movie, by a friend and colleague Jack Horner (a genuine dinosaur palaeontologist from the Museum of the Rockies in Montana who acted as an advisor to the Jurassic World production team). In the face of these criticisms his basic point was that Jurassic World was entertainment and in the final analysis it was “… just a movie”. It was never intended to be a documentary about the scientific basis of our understanding of prehistoric life. Of course he was able to advise the animators on the most likely posture and style of movement displayed by the CGI movie stars so that they look as life-like as possible. Jack was naturally concerned about the absence of filaments and/or feathers on some of the dinosaurs, but from an editorial perspective there was an over-riding need to maintain some continuity in appearance of the animals seen by audiences in previous movies: the raptors had to look like the raptors of the original Jurassic Park. And that simple and essentially pragmatic acceptance (the need for continuity) underplates the awful dilemma faced by any ‘expert/consultant’ hired by the production team of a multimillion dollar enterprise such as Jurassic World.
The priorities of the movie makers with regard to narrative and appearance will always outweigh the science-based accuracy desired by the advisor. In such circumstances, commercial ‘reality’ always trumps scientific realism. All any advisor can hope for is that the film makers don’t take too many liberties with the animals and how they are portrayed (thereby avoiding some of the scorn of peers) and that there might be some financial benefit from any success at the box-office that can result in genuine paleontological research as a very desirable spin-off. Even small amounts of money (by movie-industry standards) can be enormously beneficial for real scientific research programmes. So are there any other benefits that accrue from movies about dinosaurs?
There is little doubt that the first Jurassic Park had a beneficial impact on the public interest in dinosaurs. I went to see that film and still remember the thrill of that first glimpse of the incredibly realistic CGI brachiosaur browsing on a tree. I was mightily impressed (even if I didn’t like the way it reared up on this hind legs!). Children and students were inspired by such visions and wanted to know more, museums were inundated with visitors and the challenge was to use the interest to tell visitors more about the scientific study of such ancient creatures. Michael Crichton’s original plot-line of Jurassic Park linked the then comparatively new biotechnological developments (DNA amplification using PCR) with the neat twist of being able to extract dinosaur blood cells (and of course DNA) preserved in the stomachs of blood-sucking insects. Believe it or not, the publicity surrounding that film actually facilitated a number of lines of research into biomolecule preservation in ancient fossil animals. This research was not motivated by the prospect of bringing dinosaurs back to life, but as a chance to investigate the evidence of some biomolecules (or fragments thereof) being preserved in fossils that were 10s of millions of years old (if the conditions of preservation were just right). Counter to the scientific expectation of the time (biomolecules could not possibly survive for millions of years) some remnants have indeed been found.
But where are we now, I wonder? Jurassic World seems to me to represent a progressive and I believe unavoidable drift toward entertainment at the expense of scientific credibility. We are now in the realm of the imaginary dinosaur (prehistoric monster) funfair disaster movie and lightweight morality tale. At best it perhaps conjures up that old aphorism about our tampering with ecology (our biosphere) at our peril. Beyond that, palaeontologists should either stay at home or do like everyone else: switch off brain, sit back with a bag of popcorn, and enjoy the show. As Jack Horner said: “it’s just a movie”!
Featured image credit: “Velociraptor” by sgtfury. Public domain via Pixabay.