Jurassic Park is awesome and a milestone for paleontology…

…deal with it.

What follows was partially written several months ago and never finished. I dug it up again due to the resurgence of JP interest with Steven Spielberg’s announcement.

I was six years old when Jurassic Park came out. I was crazy about dinosaurs, but my parents had been told that the movie was way too scary for a kid my age. Since Aliens was already on my short list of favorite films at that point, this seems a moot point, but by the time my parents warmed up to taking me to see JP, it was at a second run theater. I don’t remember seeing it at the theater, but I do remember my endless viewings of my VHS copy, and the tattered box remembers too.

I still enjoy Jurassic Park immensely. It means a lot to me, but surprisingly, that feeling is not shared by the entirety of the paleontological community (as a student/intern, I put myself in a very broad definition of that collective). As an example, take a look at Dr. David Hone’s admittedly 3-year old post about the film. While Dr. Hone is generally positive, he expresses annoyance about the inaccurate portrayals of dinosaurs and paleontologists that have so firmly entrenched themselves in the public¬†consciousness as a result of Jurassic Park. Similar complaints turn up from time to time on the Dinosaur Mailing List as well.

I, for one, have to disagree. When I’m chatting with people about vert paleo, something I genuinely enjoy, I’m thrilled when Jurassic Park enters the conversation. It’s such a genuinely entertaining movie that people remember it well, 18 years after it’s release. What’s more, it’s a movie that made many people think about what they were watching: what dinosaurs were like, and how we know what we do about them. This is an excellent jumping-off point for any discussion about paleontology, because it is a shared frame of reference. At work, I have become well acquainted with the fact that very few people understand Deep Time, or have ever given it any thought at all. But people know Jurassic Park, and I am very grateful for it as a starting point in the education process.

What’s more, we can complain all we like about what Jurassic Park got wrong, but I’m more impressed by how much it got right. Jurassic Park was the first widely disseminated look at believable dinosaurs, and it single-handedly brought post-Dinosaur Renaissance conceptions of dinosaurs to everyone.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, Jurassic Park is 18 years old now. It took awhile, but it seems to no longer be the go-to source of dinosaur knowledge for many Americans. The seemingly endless parade of shitty “documentaries” on cable TV, as well as fare like Dinosaur Train, are crowding Jurassic Park off its perch. And that is why I’m optimistic about the announcement of Jurassic Park 4. The original film was a fantastic resource not only for paleontology education, but science education in general. If a new sequel can match or approach that level of quality, then our job as educators will be much easier.

I also have a bunch of thoughts about Jurassic Park that I feel like sharing but don’t really have a place for above. Read on at your own risk.

  • One time when I was watching Jurassic Park with friends, somebody commented that Grant’s jaw dropping and staggering about at the sight of the Brachiosaurus was really bad acting. I beg to differ…I imagine I would do much the same thing.
  • The CGI dinosaurs get all the credit, but they are on screen for less than two minutes. Stan Winston’s flawless puppets and animatronics are the real stars of the show.
  • In fact, the dinosaurs as a whole don’t get much screen time. There’s barely a dinosaur to be seen for the first hour. Credit to Spielberg for great pacing and constructing fantastic set-piece sequences that get the most out of very few dinosaur scenes.
  • Grant’s dig site at the beginning of the film cracks me up. Putting aside the completely articulated skeleton for the moment, the rag-tag assortment of people present doesn’t make much sense, and the assortment of clutter in the trailer seems rather useless too.
  • Jurassic Park can (and has) be used as a basic introduction to cloning, genetics and chaos theory. Molecular biologists and mathematicians can nit-pick the movie as much or more as paleontologists can, but at the end of the day it’s an effective way to introduce the public to ideas they might not otherwise be exposed to.
  • It’s kind of funny that the idea of cloning was science fiction in the late 1980s when Michael Crichton wrote the book.
  • What was Gennaro asking Hammond about “auto-erotica?” What could that possibly mean besides what I think it means? Seriously, I would love an explanation.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, science communication

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