Into Jurassic World Part 2: When Science and the Movies Collide

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to part 2 of my coverage of Jurassic World. This time we’re going to look at a problem that has plagued so many people. It’s something that pops in every now and then and leaves everyone wondering why it’s even being discussed. Is it just an exercise in passion? Or is it just the prattling of those who take something far more seriously then they ought to? And why does the media shove it in our face whenever it happens? Here we go looking into science and the movies.

It seems to happen whenever a movie comes out that is based on some real world phenomena. News writers seek out the words of scientists to see how much the movie “got wrong”. It’s an exercise in nitpicking more than anything. It’s as if some people can’t grasp the fact that movies are fiction and play by their own rules. Jurassic Park only served to muddy the waters. The original is hailed as a triumph of science in movies. It brought paleontology back into the public eye and introduced people to the then new concept that dinosaurs were active, fast moving animals. Or so everyone says.

So when Jurassic World’s director said that he was going to keep his dinosaurs scaly, the paleontology community (or rather, the dinosaur focused section) flipped their shit. How can the movie so blatantly ignore the fact that many dinosaurs were feathered? Why would a franchise that valued science go backwards in its portrayal of dinosaurs? What kind of moron doesn’t think feathered dinosaurs could be scary (ok, those are the words of the fanboys, and not necessarily of paleontologists in general)? This was the biggest afront to science ever!

Naturally, the media jumped on this outrage. It was basically “controversy” and as we all know, controversy sells. So when the movie finally hit theaters, articles popped up all over the place featuring paleontologist’s bemoaning of the movie’s scientific inaccuracies. It proved be another point to divide people over the movie, with those wanting the movie to essentially be a documentary and those who thought the dino guys were overreacting. The issue is of course more complex than they realize. The filmmakers do have reasons for what they did (of course the dino fanboys, being fanboys, had none of that). And the problem may also be rooted in how we perceive the original.

Perhaps the angriest screed was an opinion piece written over at CNN. It was written by Darren Naish, scientist and science blogger. His article perhaps represents the epitome of not just the dinosaur fanboys but also of the science communities reaction to the film (mind you, he penned it before he even saw the movie. He maintains that doesn’t matter, that the point still stands. While not only did his point not stand very well in the first place, but we see how he tries to support his argument with something that wasn’t even in the movie).

So showing new-look dinosaurs would have been wholly consistent with the rest of the “Jurassic Park” franchise.

 

Would it now? While minor tweeks were made to dinosaurs they still looked the same overall throughout the franchise. The T. rex in the 3rd film still looks pretty much the same as the first. While they tried to incorporate new data they still had an internal consistency to maintain.

Indeed, we’re told in Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” the book the movie was based on, that the animals are released in upgraded batches, improved over time as more genetic data is discovered.

That’s the book. While based on the book, the movie universe is still its own entity. And I thought all the dino fanboys kept saying “the more there movies move away from Crichton the better”? Or is ok for you to use Chrichton when it suits your purposes?

And given the disasters associated in the movies with InGen’s projects prior to the time of “Jurassic World,” it would make sense to use updated, new-look animals less like the chimaeras of previous outings.

How? How does updating the appearance of the animals render them, in the mind of the paying public, unable to go on a rampage? They are still dinosaurs. Would everyone just forget that after they are plastered with feathers? Lipstick on a pig and all that…

…our hopes came crashing down with the tweeting of two words from “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow: “no feathers.”

Your hopes I’m sure. I don’t think everyone was as devastated as the dino fanboys when the news came that the dinosaurs wouldn’t have feathers. After 2 subpar sequels and 12 years in development hell, I think people just wanted a serviceable Jurassic Park sequel.

Rather than feature new-look dinosaurs and present audiences with something wonderful, “Jurassic World” appeared to have made the “bold” decision to stick with the dinosaurs of yore.

Wonderful is a matter of opinion (you have to remember not everyone shares your feather lust). I also mentioned earlier that there is the continuity issue. Every movie is a risk. Especially something like Jurassic World. Some things you just have to play safe. Judging from all the rolling eyes at the announcement of a genetically modified dinosaur, they were already taking a big risk.

Never mind all those fossils that demonstrate the presence of feathering in all bird-like dinosaurs, or the bony feather attachment knobs present on the arm of Velociraptor. Judging from the trailers, “Jurassic World” has opted to stick with scaly-skinned raptors, scientific advancement be damned.

I don’t remember him denying the existence of feathered dinosaurs. He simply made an aesthetic choice. Again, if you had waited to see the movie you would have learned that these are not real dinosaurs. They have been spliced with other animals and were designed to cater to people’s popular notion of dinosaurs.

And the raptors aren’t the only animals in the film to be weirdly anachronistic — “Jurassic World’s” pterosaurs are not the attractive, furry beasts they should be, but shiny-skinned horrors with grotesque, gnarly faces. The herbivores Stegosaurus and Triceratops, meanwhile, seem to be depicted with tails that droop or even drag on the ground. And the movie’s super-sized mosasaur (a paddle-limbed, sea-going lizard, not a dinosaur) is not the sleek, shark-tailed reptile of 21st century understanding, but a lumpy-skinned behemoth with a frill running down its back.

Again, attractive is a matter of opinion. And how do we know mosasaurs didn’t have frills or weren’t lumpy? I only know of one exceptional specimen and obviously it can’t speak for the whole group. I’d love to know how you know so much about the appearance of things known just from bones.

Even the movie’s big new reveal — a genetic mash-up called Indominus rex — appears from early glimpses to be a chunky, fat-headed beast that looks as if it was plucked from the pages of a book published three decades ago. Everything, it seems, is decidedly old school.

Even without seeing the movie… did you not hear the director explain that the Indominus was designed (in universe) to cater to people’s expectations of dinosaurs? In the movie Clair even mentions focus groups. Indominus rex didn’t evolve, it wasn’t resurrected; it was the product of corporate marketing. It is even more fake than the other dinosaurs. And I think it served its function as a rampaging monster just fine. Of anything in the film, it is the least worthy target of your frothing demand for strict scientific adherence.

And to those of us that are particularly interested in these animals (and involved in outreach and public education too), it’s a huge leap backwards and a bitter disappointment.

Dinosaurs dominate the public conscience concerning paleontology. You are getting yet another love letter to your beloved “terrible lizards” and you people bray like asses because they took some creative liberties. How about you ask us Cenozoic folks or Paleozoic people how we feel about how the stuff we are interested in is depicted in movies. Oh right, you can’t. Because there is practically none to speak of. Sorry if I don’t feel your pain.

Yes, yes, we know that it’s just a movie. We know it’s not a documentary, and that it exists to entertain.

Ah, the good ol’ “yes, but” gambit. Totally not a cop-out phrase used by someone who wants to give the appearance of understanding the other side of the argument. Despite the fact they vehemently reject it.

But the reason this irks so much is that the “Jurassic Park” franchise has a gargantuan influence on the public’s perception of ancient animals.

Dinosaurs. It influences people’s perceptions of dinosaurs. As well as a couple pterosaurs and a mosasaur. When there are actually things outside of the Mesozoic in movies, then we can talk.

Indeed, “Jurassic Park” did more to update public understanding of dinosaurs than any other single event.

Did it? You sure it wasn’t just a happy accident? While ground breaking, I don’t think the original Jurassic Park is quite the paragon of science people have made it out to be.

Maybe that’s why “Jurassic World” can only be regarded as a disappointment. Previous installments in the franchise went to some trouble to get things right, with the look of the animals being guided by consultants. So why does “Jurassic World” seem determined to disregard this record? Why ignore the progress of knowledge and stick to safe and boring?

Once again, boring is a matter of opinion. I already talked about how movies are always risky and do have to play it safe to a certain extent (especially with an established and beloved franchise, you can only deviate so much). And as usual, there are still gross inaccuracies in the other movies. The Velociraptor were still too big, too smart, and had the wrong head. And even in the bonus dvd material there are glaring errors. I actually got into an argument once with a guy who actually believed Horner when he said (in a featurette on the Jurassic Park 3 dvd) that Spinosaurus was known from several skeletons and the largest one had a skull 9 feet long.

Some have suggested that it’s a practical choice, that fuzz or feathering are too difficult or expensive to render. But other movies have depicted fuzzy or feathery skin just fine — just look at the latest “Planet of the Apes” film. And the continuity argument? Well, as I said, an in-universe feature of the franchise concerns the continual tweaking of dinosaur genomes.

It was an aesthetic choice because these are movie monsters. They need to be scary blood thirsty beasts. And what feature is that? I have watched those movies all my life and I don’t remember the “continual tweaking of dinosaur genomes” in anything but the first. Yeah it was a major plot point in the first. But in the second and third there is nothing resembling laboratory science. In the second movie people go to watch and capture “wild” dinosaurs living on the second island (which the workers and scientists had completely abandoned). They get stuck and have to figure out how to get rescued. Then they bring a T. rex to the mainland and it gets loose. The overall lesson being that like any other animals these dinosaurs need to be left alone to their own devices. Where in any of that did you get “continual tweaking of dinosaur genomes”? In the third movie, a kid gets trapped on the second island (which has been quarantined by the Costa Rican government, so obviously no one has gotten in there to do any gene tampering). His parents hire a couple paleontologists and some mercenaries to find him. They get stranded and have to figure out how to escape. All the while they are stalked by raptors and chased by a Spinosaurus. Again, where in any of that did we see “continual tweaking of dinosaur genomes”? I will concede this may happen in the expanded universe (books, games, comics, etc) but most people only know the movies, so that’s what we are discussing here. But with that utterance, I am starting to think that in your fury you are starting to make shit up.

Furthermore, “Jurassic World” even describes how the dinosaurs now have their DNA repaired with data from birds (you know, those feathery animals), not with that of frogs as described in the first film. So, the only explanation for the retro look could be that the animals have been genetically designed to look like old-school reconstructions.

Yeah the website says that. It also says they use crocodile DNA, so why don’t any of the dinosaurs have alligator scutes? And how do you know the genes for feathers are getting spliced in? And nowhere is bird DNA even mentioned in the movie. Dr Wu explains to the executive that nothing in Jurassic World is real. “Bigger, scarier, um… “cooler”, I believe, was the word you used in your memo.” He continues: “But we are doing what we have done from the beginning! We have always filled the gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. In fact if their genetic code was pure many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality you asked for more teeth!” (see, this is why it’s usually a good idea to see the movie before writing an editorial about it).  Dr. Wu mentioned cuttlefish and tree frog DNA. But no bird. Dr. Wu succinctly explained that the dinosaurs look the way they are from a combination of gene gaps and tampering to make them look the way they want them to look. But I’m arguing with a guy who had a burning, irrational hatred for a movie before the damn thing even came out. (“Look, I don’t give a crap- it’s a dumb movie. But if you ask me about the animals I will keep saying the same thing: it’s a dumb movie, with crap looking animals, and it shows that the makers don’t give a crap about science, or in-universe back story”. This was a few weeks before the premier)

So yes, “Jurassic World” is just a movie. And it may get plenty of other things right. But this reboot was also an incredible chance to do something special — to bring new-look dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mosasaurs to modern audiences. And that chance looks like it might have been lost.

The purpose is to entertain. And it wasn’t just a reboot, it was also a sequel, which means certain aspects had to be maintained. The dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park franchise have a certain look to them. Pick a dinosaur from any movie and you can tell it’s from the Jurassic Park movies. And you seem to be operating under the delusion that scientific accuracy was the “something wonderful” the filmmakers wanted to create. They wanted to create a thrill ride. They wanted to create a fun monster movie (which is all the films have really been). Science is cool and it would be nice to see more of it in movies. But their objective is to entertain, not educate. We have books and museums and documentaries to do that. But take this line from another article (from my friend Alton Dooley, which makes this rather painful):

I don’t think it did anything to advance science at all

But was that ever the aim of any of the movies? Of any movie? Why expect something that is not on their checklist of goals? Shouldn’t it be the job of you know… science… to advance science? I know science has real trouble with outreach and a summer blockbuster as successful as Jurassic World would be a tremendous help (and it seems to be stirring interest in science, but we’ll get to that later). Everyone keeps citing the original Jurassic Park as doing so much to advance science. But as I said, how do you know that wasn’t a happy accident? Could this over heaping of praise (mixed with nostalgia) have set these people up for disappointment over Jurassic World?

I think it did. Jurassic Park really brought dinosaurs back into the public conscience. But another result was people putting it up on a pedestal as a paragon of science meets cinema. It portrayed dinosaurs as active, dynamic animals, using the most up to date knowledge on appearance and behavior. But riddle me this (sorry, been watching lots of Arkham Knight lately): if Jurassic Park was so scientific, why did I have to grow up constantly telling people how dinosaurs weren’t like they were in Jurassic Park? The science of these movies was dubious from the start. I actually gave a speech in 7th grade going over the inaccuracies. Let’s go over them here:

  • How did dinosaur DNA survive even in that fragmented state for millions of years?
  • How is it that the prehistoric mosquitoes only bit the most charismatic and marketable of dinosaurs?
  • The brachiosaurs looked too big to me, especially their heads.
  • Dilophosaurus was too small
  • Dilophosaurus had a frill
  • Dilophosaurus spat venom
  • The adult Triceratops had upturned horns and full epiossifications on its frill (juvenile traits)
  • rex’s eyesight was based on movement like a lizard
  • rex, a 6 ton biped, was able to keep up with a jeep in 3rd gear
  • Scientists found a Velociraptor in North America when they are only known from Asia
  • The Velociraptor were able to maul and devour a cow in 10 seconds
  • The Velociraptor were cited by Muldoon to be able to run 60-70 miles per hour
  • The Velociraptor were too big
  • The Velociraptor heads were wrong; they were big and boxy instead of low and sleek
  • The Velociraptor were shown to be extremely intelligent (given how difficult it is to gauge the intelligence of an extinct animal)
  • And the grand daddy of it all: how were they able to splice dinosaur and frog DNA together and not end up with some grotesque, malformed, half dino/half frog abomination? The very mechanic need to get the whole plot going is utter bullshit!

Yes, we were truly treated to the most up to date information science had to offer. So now riddle me this (sorry!): Why does Jurassic Park get a free pass on all these inaccuracies while Jurassic World gets utterly savaged? Because it did some things right you just gloss over the rest? Why is Jurassic Park, with that great big litany of problems, hailed as the perfect storm of science and cinema while Jurassic World is mercilessly torn to pieces and labeled anti-science? Oh right because Jurassic World doesn’t have 20 years of nostalgia shielding it from criticism.

Speaking of anti-science, yes, this movie has been called such:

Welcome to misogynistic, anti-science world!

Uh no. Not even close. They made creative choices for the sake of plot, suspense, and action (you know, like the first one did). They simply didn’t employ certain scientific principles and they explained in the movie why the dinosaurs are the way they are. The movie and its makers aren’t denying the existence of feathered dinosaurs or anything else in paleontology. I have been following the depressing world of politics and religion for years. The shit that I have seen and continue to see… That is anti-science. I don’t see Jurassic World telling people that vaccinations lead to cancer and AIDS. I don’t see Jurassic World killing the planet because it tells people (including the politicians who make the laws) global warming is a hoax. I don’t see Jurassic World pushing conspiracy theories (like the Atlantean “theory” or that Shakespeare was a fraud) ala Roland Emerich. I don’t see Jurassic World telling people that the earth is 6,000 years old, that all dinosaurs were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden, and that all dinosaurs were killed and buried in Noah’s Flood. I don’t see Jurassic World shutting down museums or turning them into glorified day care centers because the people running them think science shouldn’t be the goal of a museum. Where is all your outrage over that? Why aren’t you in a bitching apoplectic frenzy over that? Why does a movie, who simply doesn’t incorporate the latest science, garner such hate? When all the real world stuff that actually threatens science doesn’t? No, Jurassic World is not anti-science. The anti-science shit is anti-science.

Alright back on track. Look, movies are movies. They need to stand on their own merits. Scientific accuracy should be an afterthought. Jurassic Park made all kinds of changes for the sake of the movie. I have a feeling a truly scientific accurate Jurassic Park (the same level of accuracy being demanded of Jurassic World) wouldn’t have been the roaring success it is today. Without the crap about T. rex’s vision being based on movement, we wouldn’t have that tense moment when it’s staring down Alan and Lex. If T. rex ran at its scientifically predicted speed, that thrilling chase would have been over before it even began. If the Dilophosaurus were true to the real animal, it would have simply mauled Nedry (as opposed to the game of cat and mouse, and the revelation that the cute little dinosaur was really a horrifying, venom spewing monster). If the Brachiosaurus’ head was life size, it wouldn’t have been as imposing and Lex realizing not all dinosaurs are bad would have been a non-event. And if the Velociraptors were 100% scientifically accurate, the climax would have been like this:

Ow my ass! But at least it’s scientifically accurate! OW!

But again, it’s ok when the first movie has inaccuracies but not the new one. But it seems that science in movies can be selective for no reason. Back when I was in high school Hollywood released two films: King Kong and Superman Returns. National Geographic News released two articles about the movie. One was about how King Kong was “pure fantasy” and brought people in to talk about how implausible the movie was. The other was about the “science of Superman”. It talked about all the scientific explanations for Superman’s powers. Make of that what you will…

I understand scientific accuracy may make or break a movie for some of you, but not everyone is like you. You really think people love The Thing because it accurately portrays what a shape-shifting alien that assimilates its victims would be like? No, they love for its suspense and impressive practical effects. You think people loved Braveheart because of its accurate portrayal of history? No, they loved it for its excellent acting, beautiful score, and cool battle scenes. You think Peter Jackson’s King Kong did so well because the dinosaurs, giant ape, and their home strictly adhered to scientific principles? No, people loved it because the dinosaurs were savage prehistoric monsters, Kong was a badass but also emotionally resonant, and because Skull Island was literally hell on earth where all kinds of adventure could be had . You think Pacific Rim was the fun thrill it was because the Kaiju and Jaegers were scientifically sound? No, it’s fun because we get to see giant monsters and mechs beat the crap out of each other. You think people hate the Wrong Turn series because it doesn’t accurately portray inbreeding? No, they hate it because of its annoying unlikable characters, boring plots, and implying that the side effects of inbreeding are super strength, immunity to pain, and immortality. You think people hated 2012 because it was scientifically dubious? Possibly, but they mainly hated it for its stereotypes, implausible scenarios, and just being an empty orgy of CGI destruction porn. Science may be vital to our world, but it shouldn’t be the sole judge of a movie. And if you’re worried about movies coloring people’s perceptions… then maybe we should focus on telling people that movies are not a good source of information. Just saying.

So that’s it for part 2. I think science and movies represent completely different realms of the human psyche. Movies are meant to entertain, to help people escape into another world for a couple hours. Science helps us understand the world and help guide us where we go through time and space. They can coexist, they can even blend. But to hate a movie so much because it sacrifices some science for aesthetic and plot related reasons? Well not only does that make you look bad, it makes science look bad. It makes scientists look like curmudgeonly sour sticks in the mud, turning their noses up and despising anything that doesn’t get every little detail right. And if you want people to listen to you, maybe toning down your attitude will help. How about turning this into an opportunity. The movie seems to have stirred interest in paleontology. How about just calmly explaining the differences between Hollywood and the real world. Kathleen Springer seems to think San Andreas, for all its faults (sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me!) can serve to at least make people aware of earthquakes. Even Alton Dooley had this to say:

After that movie (Jurassic Park), I had to explain maybe 500 times that the Dilophosaurus was not poisonous… But then, that means I talked to 500 people about dinosaurs that I would not have otherwise.

When life gives you lemons… you can either bite the lemon, leaving a sour taste in your mouth. Or you can make lemonade. I’m resorting to tired old clichés so maybe I should stop now.

But, unfortunately, we are not done here. There is a darker side to this story, a story of hate and irrationality over a simple movie. Brace yourselves. We are about to slog into the disturbing fever swamp… of dinosaur fanboys.

Till next time.

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