Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Jurassic Park 4: Age of Creative, Integrital and Scientific Extinction

Gawd almighty, what is there to say about Jurassic World which hasn't already been said?  Probably not much, but it never hurts to summarise - especially if you're blogging.  Jurassic World is the subject of much scrutiny, owing mainly to speculation about how the film's designers would render their genetically recovered dinosaurs.  Jurassic Park, in 1993, was perhaps the only occasion the franchise could get away with bald raptors.  Subsequent discoveries set in stone the idea that many, many dinosaurs were feathered. Much was made of the film's reliance on advancements in palaeontlogy. Indeed, they even hired palaeo heavyweight John R. Horner to advise on their appearance (Horner answers some questions about JW here - warning: it's brief). Could dinosaurs receive the Hollywood treatment AND stay true to the ever-shifting science of dinosaurology?  'Would they?' is perhaps a more appropriate question, and one which the JP franchise would answer several times over.

Jurassic Park's Velociraptor: demonic kangaroo lizards.
(Copyright: Universal Pictures)

And so, a few years later, Spielberg served up another monster movie, and aside from throwing in some different dinosaurs and upping the on-screen death toll, nothing really changed.  And that's the snag.  Nothing really changes.  At all.  And not just in Jurassic Park's universe, but in many other films which featured dinosaurs.  Such was Jurassic Park's impact that many other filmmakers simply try to emulate it: "If it's good enough for Jurassic Park, it's good enough for us" or simply, "Well, they must know best". It was as if Jurassic Park's legacy was simply to raise the bar for accurate lighting of scaly hides. With its release, Spielberg, Crichton and Winston were elevated to the heady heights of deities and Industrial Light and Magic became the only name in CGI special effects. A flurry of CGI-heavy films followed, including Jumanji, Twister and Casper. Lots and lots of style over substance. Many, many subsequent television and film dinosaurs were similarly afflicted by this SFX approach.

A fully-feathered Velociraptor mongoliensis, produced for Oxford University Museum in 2003. Still too skinny, though, and the feather arrangement on the 'wings' is inaccurate.
(Copyright: OUMNH/Gareth Monger)

The dominance of the 'JP dinosaur' style was such that it became the preferred look. Even high profile documentaries such as the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs failed to take that step and feather their theropods, despite coming several years later, and if ever there was an opportunity to do something special, Hobbit-fancying Whovian Peter Jackson missed the mark by about a third of a parsec and delivered an ecosystem crammed with relics hellbent on going extinct by whatever means possible (but mostly just by getting squashed by wobbly sauropods or running off cliffs).  And Jurassic Park's influence here cannot be denied.  C'mon, giant tyrannosaurs and dromaeosaurs? The only thing missing was a giant Jeff Goldblum.  No, wait... the titular character had that covered.

Of course, time's a great healer, and several documentaries did get it right. Although not the first to do so, 2013's Walking With Dinosaurs film certainly put forward some of the best feathered theropods out there. It stopped short of extending this feathery integument to its Gorgosaurus, and it left its ceratopsians similarly in need of insulation. And this may very well be viewed in the future in the same way that Jurassic Park is now, i.e., they could very well have taken that leap, and future discoveries would probably have proven them right. But, unlike Jurassic Park, the Walking With Dinosaurs film did at least move things along from its initial series fifteen years earlier, so much so that its 2013 troodontids bare little resemblance to their 1999 dromaeosaur cousins.

Troodon from Walking With Dinosaurs
(Copyright: 20th Century Fox)
So, bearing that in mind, Jurassic World might appear to be an odd leap backwards. People might be forgiven for thinking that palaeontology is a rather schizophrenic science. Sure, no one expects scientists to agree all the time, but on one hand we've had ten years of increasingly-feathered dinosaur restorations in magazines and on television, and on the other Jack Horner is putting his name to the advisory role of the fourth film in a series which refuses to acknowledge a tsunami of fossil evidence. But if the mob needs someone to hang, they shouldn't turn the pitchforks towards Horner.  I saw him in a lecture, aimed mainly at children, at OUM, back in the late '90s, and he was almost despairing of the film makers' decisions to ignore so much science. He listed palaeontological fact after palaeontological fact, all cast aside in favour of, well, whatever it is that film makers prefer to good, solid palaeontology.  Maybe this was a man, failed by Spielberg and co., trying to limit the damage done by JP's skinny monsters to those kids' understanding of 'dinosaurology'. Unfortunately, come June, it seems that he'll have to do it all over again.

The outmoded image of dinosaurs as 'terrible lizards' may have been knocked over with a fossil feather, but the Jurassic Park monster is standing fast.

Jurassic World will be released in cinemas June 12th, 2015.

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