Tag Archives: Jurassic Park

Here Comes Jurassic World

Gyrosphere scene. Source

A bucolic scene at the dinosaur zoo. Source

I was planning to be bitter and jaded about “Jurassic World”, but my excitement has gotten the better of me. I like much of what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film next week. Moreover, the cultural endurance of the original “Jurassic Park”, now 22 years old, is incredible. When leading tours, I am regularly asked about the (largely fanciful) ground-penetrating radar shown in the movie. The word “dromaeosaur” results in blank faces, but if I call it a “raptor-type dinosaur, like in Jurassic Park,” I get knowing nods. These movies are the frame of reference for the public’s understanding of paleontology – not just how dinosaurs looked and behaved, but how scientists learn about them.

An important digression: we can’t give sole credit for Jurassic Park’s outsized role in popular culture to its dinosaurs and visual effects. I doubt the film would have the same lasting power without its memorable story and characters. Jurassic Park turned the classic lost world fantasy on its head, mixing it with a modern, tech-infused setting and a believable – albeit impossible – method for bringing dinosaurs back to life. The film raises concerns about the corporate commodification of GMOs that (whether reasonable or not) are at least as relevant today as they were in 1993. The entertaining and relatable way in which Jurassic Park broaches complex topics has not gone unnoticed by teachers. More than two decades later, the film is still being used to introduce subjects ranging from bioethics to complex mathematics.

Meanwhile, Jurassic Park features some of the most true-to-life scientist characters I’ve ever seen in a popular film (a very low bar, to be fair). Alan Grant has a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that reminds me of a number of colleagues and acquaintances. He usually thinks before he speaks or acts, but he also has a playful side that demonstrates the absolute joy he takes in discovering things about the world around him. Ian Malcolm, on the other hand, is what is known as an academic asshole. Like certain celebrity scientists, he’s a self-righteous jerk who may have some wisdom to impart, but chooses to do so in an insufferably arrogant and aggressive way. Scientists are as complex as anyone else, and it’s nice to be able to point to a movie that goes beyond the usual nerds in lab coats. Some more diversity among the principal cast would be better, but Jurassic Park is a move in the right direction.

A very reasonable reaction to encountering a living Triceratops.

A very reasonable reaction upon encountering a living Triceratops. Source

Back to my main point, the Jurassic Park films have had a meaningful and substantial impact on popular impressions of dinosaur science, and in this respect they should be taken seriously. A substantial amount of ink and pixels has been spilled regarding the accuracy (or lack thereof) of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs for precisely this reason. Since the first Jurassic World trailer was released last fall, much of this conversation has revolved around the retrograde appearance of the new film’s saurian stars – rather than taking advantage of two decades of new science, the filmmakers stuck with the early 1990s designs. Experts have called this choice “lazy,” “a missed opportunity,” and “unbearably stupid in every conceivable way.” In response, die-hard Jurassic Park fans are rushing to the film’s defense. Many have explained away any deviations from real dinosaurs by pointing out that the cloned animals are genetic aberrations to some degree. Maddeningly, others have taken to questioning what experts truly know about extinct animals.

Misguided appeals to ignorance can be dismissed out of hand, but the “cloned aberrations” argument deserves attention, if only because it completely misses the point. The Jurassic Park series has always been viewed (and marketed) as credible science fiction. The filmmakers hired Jack Horner, probably the world’s best-known paleontologist, to vouch for the dinosaur designs of all four films. By the time the third movie came out, special effects genius Stan Winston (rest in peace) was claiming that they had “blurred the theatricality of movies with museum-type education,” and that “there’s something to be learned from watching these movies” (quotes from DVD featurette “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III”). Given statements like these, it’s important that anyone with a vested interest in natural history education be aware of the films’ content, and be prepared to call out inaccuracies as necessary.

Something is awry. Source

Pictured: inaccuracy. Source

Nevertheless, I’d also like to direct some finger-wagging at those who seem excessively eager to tear down the Jurassic Park films in the name of education. Many otherwise reasonable adults care a great deal about these movies, and “classic” dinosaur depictions in general. Perhaps this is due to an association with childhood, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of “awesomebro” culture. Either way, my job and my passion is to communicate the amazing discoveries scientists are making about our world, but I also know that telling people the things they like are stupid and wrong isn’t a great way to win over hearts and minds. Rather than alienating and antagonizing potential learners, I’d prefer to make use of what the audience is bringing to the conversation. Jurassic Park is a wide-reaching frame of reference and a helpful starting point for conversations about what we know about past life and how we know it. As I’ve argued before, the ideal approach is to acknowledge the relevance of pop-cultural dinosaurs, while working to separate them in our audience’s minds from the real dinosaurs that we learn about by studying fossils.

As an educator, what I want out of Jurassic World is a good movie, full stop. A good movie is a memorable movie, one that inspires people to visit parks and museums and to read up on paleontology. In more substantive terms, the original Jurassic Park also brought forth a great deal of funding for new research and museum exhibits, simply by creating awareness that dinosaur science has popular appeal. So to director Colin Trevorrow and Jurassic World, I say bring it on. We’re ready for your inaccuracies, and we’re ready to turn them into great discussions.

PS: Please consider participating in the Jurassic World Challenge – match your movie ticket price with a donation to help fund paleontology research and outreach. 

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Another JP4 Feathers Post

Okay, I’ll bite.

A week ago, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Treverrow tweeted two words and a hashtag that set the corners of the internet I hang out in aflame for days afterward. The dinosaurs in the upcoming third sequel will not have feathers, in defiance of the twenty years of irrefutable fossil evidence that has come to light since the original film’s 1993 release. Reactions to this news demonstrate a clear divide among dinosaur enthusiasts: there are those who hate the idea of scientifically inaccurate dinosaurs appearing in mass media, and those who are enamored with the “classic” dinosaurs of their youth, and vocally resist any change. And in this case, I don’t really agree with either.

The problem is that dinosaurs straddle two different roles in our culture. There is the scientific reality of their existence, informed by careful scrutiny of hard evidence. Brilliant researchers collect and interpret fossils, broadening our understanding of not only the lives of dinosaurs, but how life on earth evolves and adapts to change in general. As a science educator, this is the perspective on dinosaurs I am usually invested in.

But dinosaurs also have what John Conway calls “awesomebro” appeal. From this angle, dinosaurs are appealing because they are monsters with big teeth and are generally super cool. This is coupled with an innate association of dinosaurs with early childhood that people are remarkably protective of. For example, on Brian Switek’s 10 Dinosaur Myths that Need to Go Extinct article for Tor Publishing, commenter Alan B. declares “I don’t care what anyone says, the dinos we learned about when I was in grade school were awesome! And given a choice between factual and awesome, I will choose awesome every time!” Clearly there is a a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play here, but comments like this appear virtually anywhere feathered dinosaurs are discussed. Many people genuinely care about their “classic” dinosaurs, and react negatively to new discoveries that threaten the dinosaur paradigm they associate with childhood bliss.

As Conway points out, the typical reaction of anyone with a vested interest actual scientific paleontology is to reject and belittle pop-culture dinosaurs whenever possible. Unfortunately, this we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong approach veers into deficit model territory, and doesn’t seem to accomplish much other than make the rift among dinosaur enthusiasts more antagonistic. It makes our audience of potential learners defensive, even angry, that scientists are “ruining” dinosaurs. And focusing conversations on the fact that popular conceptions of dinosaurs are wrong removes focus from the real benefits of researching past life.

I think it would be more helpful to recognize the validity and significance of pop-culture dinosaurs, but to work towards separating them in the public consciousness from real dinosaurs. A potential conversation: You think the Jurassic Park Raptors are cool? Great, so do I, but I think they’re cool in the way other movie monsters like the Predator or the T-1000 are cool. But perhaps you’d be interested in learning about the real animal Velociraptor mongoliensis that the movie Raptors were inspired by? My point is, the widespread appreciation/nostalgia for pop-culture dinosaurs (or fantasy dinosaurs, or classic dinosaurs, or awesomebro dinosaurs, whatever you want to call them) is potentially valuable, but I think it often gets dismissed too gruffly. If would-be educators are outright dismissing what their audience is bringing to the conversation, that audience has little incentive to learn more.

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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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