Tag Archives: Jurassic Park

Crichton and the “unknown unknowns” of the past

One of the most notable instances of dramatic license in Jurassic Park is the venom-spitting Dilophosaurus.  As far as we know, neither Dilos nor any other dinosaur had venom, let alone used it as a projectile weapon.

But that’s only as far as we know.  As Dino Dad Reviews noted on Twitter, there’s a lot that we don’t even realize we don’t know when it comes to dinosaurs:

I can understand if people are simply annoyed that it’s [i.e., a venomous Dilo] an overused trope in pop culture now, but the idea as originally in JP is entirely reasonable, not too different from the informed speculation of All Yesterdays.

Chrichton includes this to build upon the theme of what All Yesterdays calls “unknown unknowns” in he study of prehistory. Things that we aren’t simply unsure about, but are completely surprised by because we had no particular reason to suspect them.

A beautiful Dilo at the Royal Ontario Museum. Eduard Solà [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

This is well worth noting. In the novel, this “unknown unknown” underscores the deadly risk the park’s managers have taken in resurrecting extinct animals and keeping them captive:

Knowledge has its limits. Moreover, there are limits to what is knowable at all. It’s a recurring theme in Crichton’s work.

His protagonists tend to be scientists, researchers, academics, experts—people whose business is to know their stuff.  They find themselves confronting the subjects of their expertise in visceral and unexpected ways.  Paleontologist Alan Grant must traverse an island populated with live dinosaurs in Jurassic Park; primatologist Peter Elliot faces off against a murderous breed of apes in Congo; and medievalist and experimental archaeologist André Marek gets stranded in fourteenth-century France in Timeline.

Readers be warned: spoilers for Crichton’s Micro and Congo in the next paragraph.

Sometimes the characters’ specialized knowledge saves them.  In Micro, when a group of young scientists find themselves shrunk to insect size, they survive by weaponizing their own research projects.  And in Congo, the expedition members escape the jungle after Elliot is able to decipher the apes’ language.

Time and time again, however, Crichton’s characters confront the limits of their expertise.  It’s not that their expertise is defective.  In fact, many of his protagonists are exceptional and ambitious researchers with impeccable academic pedigrees.  But their academic training and research can’t prepare them for the unknowable unknowns.

That’s especially true of the characters who study the past.  The distant past, by its very nature, is something one can’t experience firsthand, at least not in its totality.  Both Jurassic Park‘s Grant and Timeline‘s Marek specialize in long-dead subjects.  When they encounter these subjects as living, breathing antagonists, the experience takes them across the frontiers of what is knowable in their respective disciplines.

Marek is an avid practitioner of living history.  Steeped in medieval languages and customs, he practices jousting and archery in his spare time.  When a time traveling accident leaves him and and his colleagues marooned in medieval France, he’s the only one who seems right at home.

The Battle of the Herrings, 1429. Bibliothèque nationale de France [Public domain]

When he watches his first authentic, fourteenth-century sword match, however, it’s disconcerting:

A fellow time traveler asks, “André, is everything all right?”  Marek replies that he has a lot to learn.

In Crichton’s thrillers, the problem of unknowable unknowns is the stuff of life or death. For those of us who study the past here in the real world, a world without time machines and de-extinction, the problem is less immediate.  But it’s still one worth considering.

Like Marek, we all have a lot to learn about the times and places we study.  If we could travel to the settings of our own work, what unknowns would surprise us?  And how should an awareness that these unknowns exist inform our study of what we think we can know?

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GDP: Jurassic jacket

USA Today just published an interview with Chip Kidd, longtime book cover designer for Knopf.  Asked to name his biggest career high, he replied, “‘Jurassic Park.’  That will be the first line of my obituary, and I’m extremely proud of that.”

I don’t blame him.  It’s one of the most iconic logos of all time.

And it’s based on one of history’s most influential dinosaur displays: the old T. rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History.

The AMNH dismantled the skeleton in the nineties and re-mounted it in a more anatomically correct posture.  By then, the old reconstruction had inspired so many books, paintings, movies, and toys that it stamped an indelible image in the minds of generations of dino aficionados.  Even for people who never saw the skeleton in person, that was simply what a T. rex looked like.

Kidd’s 2012 TED Talk has more info on his Jurassic Park cover.  (The whole thing’s engaging, but you can skip to 4:27 for the Jurassic bit.)

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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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The park is open

Abraham Lincoln was such a Shakespeare aficionado that the quality of a production didn’t affect his enjoyment of it.  “It matters not to me whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted; with him the thought suffices,” he reportedly said.

With Jurassic Park films, the thought generally suffices for me, too.  My attitude is that any Jurassic Park film is better than none at all.  I liked The Lost World; I even liked the much-maligned JPIII, although it didn’t “bookend” the franchise in the way that the first films complemented one another in scale and scope.  I just love the franchise and delight in seeing dinosaurs on the big screen.

The question for me going into Jurassic World, then, wasn’t whether I’d enjoy the film.  I was pretty sure I’d get a kick out of it.  The only question is whether the movie would “suffice,” or whether it would be the follow-up we’ve all wanted it to be.

I got my answer Thursday night.  “Awesome” is a word that suffers from overuse, but in this case it’s warranted.  It’s Hammond’s dream realized on a massive scale, followed by a well-oiled thrill ride that bounces along from one high-adrenaline scene to the next, and it comes as close to capturing the original movie’s sense of wonder as any film I’ve seen in the last fifteen or twenty years.  It’s got enough of that sense of nostalgia to gratify longtime fans of the franchise, but it’s not so captive to its own history that it fails to carve out a place of its own.

Indeed, where it harmonizes with the other installments in the series is not in self-conscious references with a wink and a nudge at the audience—although there are a few of those moments, and they work—but in a more general congruence of structure and theme.  The franchise has always been about two things: the paradox of mankind’s powerlessness to cope with the consequences of his own power, and families, whether the creation of surrogate families (as in the first film) or the strengthening and reconstitution of biological ones (as in the second and third installments).  Jurassic World plays on both themes in a way that’s consistent with the other three films, but with enough innovation to put a new spin on things.

Of course, it isn’t the thematic issues that draw most people to these films.  Ask most moviegoers what Jurassic Park is all about, and they’ll tell you that it comes down to the dinosaurs.  Ironically, it’s with regard to the animals that most of my fellow dinosaur buffs have criticized Jurassic World.  Whereas the original film made headlines for tapping into the spirit of the “dinosaur renaissance” that reinterpreted the terrible lizards as active, warm-blooded, and birdlike, the fourth installment is a little behind the times.  We now know that many theropod dinosaurs—including Velociraptor—were feathered, which only underscores how correct many of the interpretations reflected in the first movies really were.  Jurassic World, however, adheres to the franchise’s internal canon rather than the scientific one.  Indeed, with regard to Velociraptor, it represents a step backward, since one of the raptors in JPIII sported a set of quills on its head in a nod to recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs.

Normally I’m a stickler for accuracy in movies, and I would’ve preferred a little fluff on the raptors just for science’s sake.  In fact, the original novel provided the perfect rationale for such an adjustment; Wu points out that his lab produces the dinosaurs in “versions” along the line of new software releases to correct for defects in the cloning process.  Still, I’m not nearly as bothered by Jurassic World‘s leathery raptors as I probably should be.  For one thing, the franchise’s raptors were never accurate to begin with.  Velociraptor was a tiny animal; if you ran into a live one, its head would barely reach your thighs, although those teeth could still deliver a nasty bite.  (The raptors in the movies are closer in size to a close relative named Utahraptor, the largest member of the dromaeosaur family.)  And while I agree that feathery raptors in a major motion picture would’ve made for a good public education opportunity, I suspect that the hubbub over the film’s non-feathered dinos has gotten the word out to many of the people who would’ve been surprised had Jurassic World stuck to the science.

But the main reason I’m willing to give Colin Trevorrow and the other filmmakers a pass is simply because I can overlook a great many historical and scientific inaccuracies if a story is told well, and Jurassic World is a great ride.  It’s not a flawless film; it doesn’t have the same flair for deftly handling the scientific and moral aspects of the story with the same wit as the original.  But it’s a return to the franchise’s glory days—a big, bold, breathless adventure story that made me feel like the kid I was back in 1993.  My absolute favorite moment in the film came near the very end, a moment that rectified what I thought would be my biggest complaint about something that had been lacking, a scene perfectly engineered to have fans of the series leaping out of their seats and shouting for joy.  Up until that moment the film had been a home run, but that scene absolutely knocked it out of the park.  That’s as specific as I can get without giving the whole thing away, so suffice to say that Jurassic World saves the best for last, and when the credits rolled, all I wanted to do was go back and take the whole ride over again.

 

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The new Jurassic World trailer is AWESOME, you guys!

Raptors running around and mass pandemonium and ankylosaurs bashing things with their tail clubs and a mosasaur chomping and carnivores grabbing people left and right and explosions and machine guns and pterosaurs snatching tourists right off the ground and whole herds of sauropods and stegosaurs and I think that was the T. rex munching on a goat and HOLY COW I FEEL LIKE I’M TWELVE AGAIN AND IT’S JUST FANTASTIC AND I CAN’T WAIT!

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Just in time for Thanksgiving, it’s the Jurassic World trailer

Aaannnnd here it is…

First impressions?  What excites me most is the scale.  A fully operational park full of crowds means interesting opportunities for some serious mayhem on a wide canvas, very different from the more intimate, tightly focused approach of the third installment.

Looks like an interesting balance of new stuff (mosasaurs, nifty ride systems, new characters) alongside old stuff that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (wonder, terror, kids in peril, raptors, and scientists making reeeaaaallllly bad decisions).

Would’ve been nice to see some T. rex, but there’s still plenty in that two-and-a-half minutes to take in.

I wish next summer would hurry up and get here already.

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Richard Attenborough, 1923-2014

Two films top my list of all-time favorites.  Richard Attenborough gave an unforgettable performance in the first, and he directed the second.  In both cases, his work was flawless.  Absolutely flawless.

I knew his health had declined over the past few years, but that didn’t soften the blow when I heard that he passed away today.  He made us all believe in the incredible and the inspiring, and he’ll be missed.

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