Chances are that if you are reading this blog you might just be a fan of the Jurassic Park series of films. It had a huge impact on me personally and I still own all of the toys from my youth (I was around seven years old when it came out). I was already obsessed with dinosaurs, but Jurassic Park made them more real and introduced me to dinosaurs I did not know too well, particularly the vicious Velociraptor. I might have to dig out some of my old dinosaur drawings, which were very obviously copied from the films. I still watch the film several times per year and love the sequel, though I watch JP3 mostly for the name. I’ve been following the news about Jurassic Park 4 for several years, even when the ridiculous hybrid dinosaur ideas were floating around, I find the idea of a new film exciting, but I worry. I don’t want to see another Jurassic Park 3, they have a lot to correct. The series needs an adrenaline boost, but there has been some news which I see as a setback, some news which is dividing fans of the franchise. The chosen director, Colin Trevorrow, recently tweeted that there will be no feathers in the new film:
In other words, they are rejecting established science in the name of continuity. Some fans are happy, some are outraged. File me under the latter category, here’s why:
I’m not one of those dinosaur fans who will pedantically pounce on every tiny little detail, I know that I have a better grasp of many of the details than laymen (though I am by no means close to being an expert), but I do want accuracy in the portrayal of dinosaurs and I know that this desire is not confined to palaeontologists. It is becoming more widely known that dinosaurs such as Velociraptor did indeed have feathers, a lot of them, and any depiction without them is wildly inaccurate. The creators of the films knew this as a possibility when they made the first one but chose not to show them that way, for what I think are good reasons. Animating feathers was fraught with difficulty, which is no longer a problem, and the evidence for feathered raptors just wasn’t as strong back then. We know better now and the public is not terribly far behind (unless I am overly optimistic).
Feathery tyrannosaurs are a different matter, as the evidence for those has emerged much more recently (for a good overview in relation to this film, see Brian Switek’s post), and it seems that is what people dislike the most. See for example this post about the news and take in the comments too. Apparently feathered tyrannosaurs would not look good or be scary, which to me is baffling. Check out Mark Witton’s relatively recent T. rex picture, how cool does it look? Notice that it does have some plumage. Living birds scare people all the time, even the small ones (just watch The Birds for example). Golden eagles even hunt wolves, so imagine what something as huge as T. rex could do (check this article). What they need to do is hire some good palaeoartists to get the right look, combined with a good director they could make feathered dinosaurs scary. They could even play on the seemingly pervasive idea that feathers would make them less scary by having a character underestimate them.
Feathered dinosaurs would add a new dimension to the Jurassic Park franchise and would be in line with some of the things which made the first film so great. It presented dinosaurs in a new light, showing herding behaviours, linking them with birds, displaying problem solving intelligence, pack hunting, as warm blooded beasts, and the list goes on. The public could easily have said “no, these are not the dinosaurs of my childhood” but instead they realised that they were being given something better. When people think of dinosaurs they think of Jurassic Park; it would be nice to see that responsibility embraced. Michael Crichton liked his science fiction to be scientifically informed, so it is such a shame that he cannot have his say on the way the films are going. Believability is of the utmost importance for science fiction when it is set in the world with which we are familiar. With a film like Jurassic Park you are sitting on the edge of reality, you cannot explain things by invoking magic, or an alternate universe, it is science fiction in a purer sense – based on science but pushing the boundaries of reality.
Some questions have commonly been popping up in response to criticism. What about continuity? Why criticise this point but not other unbelievable points? Continuity has always been loose in Jurassic Park. Remember how they just stuck a Spinosaurus in there and nobody batted an eyelid? Remember how they had an error in the first film, using the idea that a tyrannosaur’s vision was based on movement and ignoring their incredible olfactory abilities? In Jurassic Park 3 they appeared to poke fun at that, with the T. rex clearly seeing them despite their lack of movement. Even if that were not so, some good writing could work in more accurate dinosaurs. When the crazy hybrid dinosaurs were doing the internet rounds part of the storyline involved a different company (Dodgson’s?) cloning dinosaurs. If this aspect of the story remains then the change would be easy: the other company knew to use bird DNA to plug the gaps. If, however, these are InGen dinosaurs, then there is also the possibility that the expression of the genes for feathers had been silenced by the amphibian DNA, yet switched on later (analyse that all you like, but it would be convincing enough in a film). Would it then feel like a Jurassic Park film? Well, that depends on the competence of the director. The third film did not feel like the first two, it got the tone completely wrong and even messed about with the iconic raptors and the might of T. rex as though nothing was sacred.
Some of the “unbelievable” aspects of Jurassic Park which seem to keep cropping up are the fact that we cannot clone dinosaurs from the extraction of DNA and that the film’s Velociraptors are not accurate. With regards to the DNA extraction this is just believable enough, especially with the recent news that an extinct organism has been brought back and frequent talk of resurrecting beasts such as mammoths. It became more well known since the first film that it would not be possible, but without that stretch we would have no films (unless they went for reverse engineering extant birds; an enormous departure which would only make sense in a full reboot). Velociraptor is indeed inaccurate, resembling Deinonychus instead, though this may have been through using the taxonomic ideas of Greg Paul, as he lumps the two in the same genus. This is an error, one which could be corrected in an offhand comment that could justifiably go largely ignored, but it is not a huge error. More people actually know about Deinonychus because of the raptors in the film, but this will not likely be the case with feathered dinosaurs. It will make feathered dinosaurs seem like a fantasy held only by palaeontologists, not the stuff of real dinosaurs.
Films like Jurassic Park are fantastical, yet they are a form of palaeoart in their own special way. They thrust dinosaurs into the faces of everyone, much more so than any book or TV documentary could manage. They can be used educationally, but I feel that this film will be an obstacle. If you put such glaring errors in your film, yet are a major source of information on dinosaurs, then you force palaeontologists to have to constantly correct those errors. Some errors are more forgiveable than others. When they are pointed out afterwards the scientists are often held in contempt, as though they are trying to ruin the fun. This is not accurate at all, we don’t want to ruin the fun, we want to increase it whilst also making sure that misconceptions are not being spread. This film could very well set the public perception of dinosaurs back ten years; they are already behind, which is to be expected, but do we need to push them back further?
Jurassic Park could break new ground, it could continue to present dinosaurs in a new and exciting light. We don’t need more of the same, we don’t need another JP3.
I feel that I may have more to say about this.