GDP: “They want to see their expectation”

In case you haven’t seen it, a few seconds of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom footage has hit the Interwebs, and it’s got us dino aficionados in quite a titter.  It shows Owen Grady communing with a baby raptor, perhaps the offspring of Blue from the first JW.

Among dinosaur buffs, reaction to “Baby Blue” has been mixed.  Some fans think it’s adorable, while others are still bummed that the series’ raptors are missing their feathers.  (Click here to see a more accurate depiction of a baby Velociraptor.)  It’s been the subject of heated debate ever since Colin Trevorrow tweeted the news that JW‘s dinosaurs would take their bows sans plumage.

Me?  I’d prefer to see the raptors get a scientific upgrade.  It took me a while to get used to seeing fluffy dromaeosaurs, but now it’s the featherless reconstructions that look odd to me.  They seem unnaturally denuded, sort of like Persian cats with buzz cuts.

Of course, the films’ super-sized raptors have never exactly embodied scientific accuracy anyway.  But there’s already some precedent for a makeover in the movies’ fictional universe.  The makers of JPIII added bold new colors to that installment’s raptors and topped off the pack’s leader with a crown of filaments.  Some of the JP comic books have been even more progressive.  The raptors in the spin-off miniseries Dangerous Games are decked out with wicked plumes and long, pennaceous feathers on their forearms.  I’d love to see future installments use a design along the lines of the wonderful Beasts of the Mesozoic figures.

Jurassic Park: Dangerous Games #2, cover by Jeff Zornow. Image via comicbookrealm.com

What I find ironic about the JW feather brouhaha is that the filmmakers have put themselves in the same position as the people behind the park in Crichton’s original novel.  In one scene, geneticist Henry Wu tries to persuade park founder John Hammond to let him tweak the animals’ genetic code so that the dinos will conform more to visitor expectations.

“The dinosaurs we have now are real,” Wu said, pointing to the screens around the room, “but in certain ways they are unsatisfactory.  Unconvincing.  I could make them better.”

“Better in what way?”

“For one thing, they move too fast,” Henry Wu said.  “People aren’t accustomed to seeing large animals that are so quick.  I’m afraid visitors will think the dinosaurs look speeded up, like film running too fast.”

“But, Henry, these are real dinosaurs.  You said so yourself.”

“I know,” Wu said.  “But we could easily breed slower, more domesticated dinosaurs.”

Domesticated dinosaurs?”  Hammond snorted.  “Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, They want the real thing.”

“But that’s my point,” Wu said.  “I don’t think they do.  They want to see their expectation, which is quite different.”

Hammond was frowning.

“You said yourself, John, this park is entertainment,” Wu said.  “And entertainment has nothing to do with reality.  Entertainment is antithetical to reality.”

Wu understands that InGen is in the entertainment business, just as filmmakers are.  And entertainers always run a risk when they don’t give the audience what they’re expecting to see.

When Jurassic Park came out, Velociraptor wasn’t yet a superstar dino along the lines of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus.  Thus the movie spends a considerable amount of time setting up the raptors as formidable villains, from Grant’s impromptu lecture at the dig site to the feeding scene before the tour.  And the film’s raptors made such an impression that Velociraptor became a bona fide celebrity.

The movie also popularized a more modern view of dinosaurs as birdlike, bringing pop culture more in line with the state of paleontology at the time.  In the two decades after its release, however, the science has kept moving.  We’ve witnessed a new dinosaur renaissance, as dramatic in some ways as the one that resulted in the image of dinos as warm-blooded and birdlike that the original movie helped propagate.  Much of what scientists have found has been surprising and unexpected.  It turns out that raptors and their dromaeosaur kin were even more birdlike than anyone suspected.  As a paleontology buff, I’d love to see the film series disseminate some of these new discoveries, just as the first installment changed people’s image of dinosaurs.  I’d like to see a movie that catches people off-guard with all the weirdness and wonder of what scientists have uncovered.

But as Wu says, people want their expectations met.  And when it comes to raptors, their expectations conform to the indelible image the first movie burned into the popular consciousness back in 1993.  So when Universal decided to revisit Jurassic Park, Trevorrow and company basically adopted the same plan Wu proposes to Hammond in the novel.  They gave people dinosaurs that are “better than real,” and it seems they’re going to do the same thing in Fallen Kingdom.

In other words, the people making the sequels are more or less captive to a set of popular expectations about what dinosaurs should be like—expectations created by the original film itself.  And their dilemma is summed up perfectly by a character in the novel that started the whole franchise.  How meta is that?

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