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It Coulda Been a Contender: A Paleontologist Reviews Jurassic World

Jun. 23, 2015 by | Comments (35)


Ever since Jurassic World (watch trailer) came out two weeks ago (and is now the fastest movie ever to make a billion dollars), people have been asking me again and again what I thought of the movie as a vertebrate paleontologist, and someone who has written often about dinosaurs, and even done some research on them. My usual short answer is: “A big disappointment: it’s an OK monster movie, lousy science. And it could have been SO much better.” This has been the consensus opinion among nearly all the scientists and science bloggers (especially dinosaur paleontologists) who have commented on it, including John Long, Jim Kirkland and Thomas Holtz, Brian Switek, Kyle Hill, John Conway, Mark Loewen, Darren Naish, and many others.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize that it’s just another overblown summer blockbuster, a huge special-effects-driven monster movie that depends on thrills rather than thought or wit or complex characters or subtlety to win its audience. It’s clearly geared to the broadest possible audience (except little kids who might be traumatized by the gore and intensity), including many who don’t speak much English (as indicated by its huge overseas box office numbers). In that regard, it’s very similar to ridiculous monster movies like Godzilla and King Kong and Pacific Rim, or the abominably bad San Andreas which gets every bit of earthquake science completely wrong (earthquakes don’t last that long or do that much damage; California structures are built to withstand most quakes; fault lines don’t make huge chasms in the ground; the San Andreas is on land, so it won’t make a tsunami; and many other geological howlers too numerous to list). If it were only just another sci-fi fantasy movie, then I wouldn’t care one way or another.

But there’s a big difference between Jurassic World and other Hollywood blockbusters with bad science: the original Jurassic Park movie was so much more than just a monster movie. Thanks to Michael Crichton’s efforts to bring the science in the original novel up-to-date for that time (late 1980s), the original dinosaurs in the novel and the first movie reflected the latest research in dinosaurs. Instead of the sluggish, tail-dragging dumb lizards hanging out in swamps (as had been the image of dinosaurs for over a century), they were active, intelligent, with their tails held out behind them (not dragging on the ground, based on biomechanics and the lack of tail drag impressions in dinosaur trackways) and their bodies held horizontally and balanced over their hind legs in bipedal dinosaurs, not vertically and leaning on their tails like resting kangaroos. This picture of dinosaurs began to emerge in the late 1970s and 1980s, and Crichton’s book (and the first movie) made it canonical among anyone who was exposed to Jurassic Park. Now it’s almost impossible to imagine dinosaurs any other way, and older movies of dinosaurs as sluggish tail-dragging lizards (not to mention movies that used real lizards with prosthetic  horns and spikes) are comical to all of us.

This is not to say that the original movie got everything right. Actual Velociraptor was the size of a turkey. The “Velociraptor” of the movie is based on Deinonychus (whose discovery by John Ostrom in the 1960s led to the whole revolution in thinking about dinosaurs). Clearly the filmmakers opted for a name that was easier to spell and pronounce. “Raptors” could not hold their palms downward, but their palms only faced inward—in other words, they could grab a basketball, but they could not dribble it. The animal called Dilophosaurus in the movie did not have a frill and did not spit poison—the filmmakers deliberately made this up. Tyrannosaurus rex could not move as fast as a car, and probably could not even outrun a person, based on many different lines of biomechanical and anatomical evidence. T. rex almost certainly did not require motion to detect its prey, since it had excellent binocular vision and huge areas of the brain devoted to smell—it could sniff you out in total darkness. The idea of using frog DNA to fill in the gaps is ridiculous. If such science were possible, it should have been done with bird DNA, since birds are dinosaurs. The basic premise of recovering DNA from mosquitoes in amber is also completely impossible. Prehistoric DNA degrades extremely fast, so that even Ice Age mammals like freeze-dried mummified mammoths that lived only 10,000 years ago have almost no original DNA left. Mosquitoes in amber do not have any original tissues, since they have also degraded into just organic films by the time we find them. This list can go on and on. Finally, even the name is misleading. Almost all the dinosaurs in “Jurassic” Park are Cretaceous forms except for the brachiosaur and Dilophosaurus. When Crichton was asked about this, he confessed he didn’t realize that dinosaurs lived in different time periods—he just picked “Jurassic” because he liked the sound of it!

Despite all those problems, most paleontologists loved the original Jurassic Park because it got the big issues right: it showed intelligent, active dinosaurs running with tails sticking out, not dumb tail-dragging lizards. Then came the sequels, and (as in the case of most sequels) the franchise went downhill both in scientific accuracy, and also in originality. Both “JP2” and “JP3” were basically rehashes of the same basic plot line: dinosaurs on an island chasing and killing people until the surviving humans escape with their lives. Meanwhile, the science of dinosaur paleontology went through another revolution in the late 1990s after the first three movies were made or in production: we discovered that dinosaurs had feathers! Not only do feathers occur in birds, but they are present in all the predatory dinosaurs for sure, especially smaller-bodied dinosaurs like Velociraptor, as well as tyrannosaurs, based on the Chinese Yutyrannus. Now there are fossils that suggest that all dinosaurs (even the ornithischians, including duckbills and horned dinosaurs like Triceratops) had feathers as well—or at least some kind of downy covering, especially when they were young. Pterosaurs had feathers or some kind of downy body covering as well. This is even more revolutionary than the changes in dinosaur posture and physiology discovered in the 1970s. Feathers not only further reinforce the importance of birds being survivors of the raptor lineage, but it is also a good example of how evolution often uses features already present and co-opts them for another function. Feathers evolved early in the history of dinosaur evolution as a body covering for thermoregulation, and only later did one lineage turn them into structures for flight.

So when the early word on Jurassic World came out two years ago, paleontologists were horrified when Steven Spielberg and Colin Trevorrow decided not to update their science, but fell back on the old model of dinosaurs that is demonstrably wrong. Some of the interviews suggest that the filmmakers once again made a decision that scaly dinosaurs are scary, feathered ones are not. But what better way to refresh a stale franchise that to give the dinosaurs a new look? I would submit that brightly feathered, eagle-eyed dinosaurs could be very scary. Heck, if Alfred Hitchcock could make ordinary crows and seagulls terrifying in his classic The Birds, why couldn’t modern filmmakers do the same with CG dinosaurs? Once paleontologists saw the movie, the list of other scientific gaffes was even more annoying. It’s all about making choices, and in most cases, the filmmakers made scientifically bad choices, when they could have gotten it right and not lost any of the excitement or suspense. No mosasaur got as big as the one in the movie. They reached a maximum length of 14 m (45 feet), but as they got larger they just got heavier with denser bone; there no reason to think that they exceeded this size. (Mosasaurs would have had a forked tongue because they are marine monitor lizards, which the movie showed incorrectly as well). But again, the filmmakers were lazy (or didn’t get good paleontological advice): they could have shown a huge plesiosaur like Kronosaurus or some of the larger pliosaurs, which did reach sizes like that of the creature in the movie. (Another plot hole: how did a mosquito bite a marine animal?). No pterosaur could have picked up people, as shown in the movie, because their feet were not strong enough to do so. I could list many more gaffes and scientific howlers, many of which the other paleontologists’ reviews (linked above) have already mentioned. In short, whenever the filmmakers had a chance to get the same effect with good science or bad science, they chose bad science, and either ignored (or were not told) what the good science was.

(I won’t even go into the issues with the women characters that other bloggers have noted. Suffice to say that Bryce Dallas Howard plays a throwback “weak defenseless woman who is bad for not wanting kids” character that is nowhere near as strong or modern as the ones played by Laura Dern or Julianne Moore in the first two movies. The character played by Tea Leoni in JP3 is just there to scream and be defenseless and stupid).

So what, you say? It’s just a movie! It’s making big money, which is all that movies are supposed to do. It’s not a documentary but a work of fiction. No one will care, and no damage will be done. But as an educator who has taught college geology and paleontology for 37 years, I know that is not true. Every lecture I give about earthquakes or volcanoes or tsunamis and waves must waste a lot of time debunking Hollywood myths. Every time I teach about dinosaurs, I spend a lot of time undoing the damage of previous Hollywood movies—and now the lazy bad science of Jurassic World means I’ll have a lot of new myths to debunk. Even though most movies are fictional, most people do get their perceptions about science and nature from movies, because they sure don’t get much in school and most don’t watch documentaries, either. After all, look at the myth of Chupacabra. As Ben Radford showed, it was largely due to a Puerto Rican woman who didn’t realize that the movie Species was fiction!

But I disagree in another more important way. Great movies also teach us something, enlighten us, or make us see the world in a different way. If Jurassic World were just another movie from a no-name director who makes cheesy monster flicks (like Sharknado), no one would take it seriously. But thanks to the first novel and movie, the Jurassic Park franchise set the bar a lot higher, and was an important factor in driving the acceptance of the modern view of dinosaurs in the 1990s. They had the chance to do that again. Feathered dinosaurs and pterosaurs would have really surprised and challenged the audience, and maybe refreshed the tired old plot line with a new angle. We know that Spielberg can make historically accurate movies when he wants to—look at Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. That’s why I and so many other paleontologists came out of the movie with a profound sense of disappointment. The filmmakers had the opportunity to be revolutionary and groundbreaking once again—but they chose to be safe and conservative and gave us a tired retread of a tired franchise. To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (a great movie that opened people’s eyes), it “coulda been a contender.”

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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