Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several days you’ll know that June 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the Universal Studios movie Jurassic Park, one of recent history’s most influential, popular and successful of movies. Jurassic Park did more than any other dinosaur-themed movie before or since. It brought to the public the svelte, hot-blooded, dynamic, sophisticated and perhaps behaviourally complex animals of the Dinosaur Renaissance. Its main characters said (fairly accurate) things about the dinosaurian origin of birds. And it celebrated dinosaurs as awesome animals that would bowl us over with their size, majesty, power and spectacle were we to see them alive. And it did all of this with effects that were – at the time – among the best to be brought to the big screen.
I was a college student in my late teens in 1993 (studying for qualifications we term ‘A’ levels here in the UK), but even then I was both a fully-fledged, card-carrying dinosaur-nerd and fairly committed to an academic career that would – ultimately – lead me to being qualified in vertebrate palaeontology. I am not, therefore, among those palaeontologists who felt especially inspired or moved to action by the movie; I was already travelling down that path, Jurassic Park or not. For me, the success and popularity of Jurassic Park – initially Michael Crichton’s 1991 novel and latterly Spielberg’s movie – was, rather, a case of seeing people jump on the dinosaur bandwagon after we cool kids were already wallowing in the awesome. But this was ok.
On that note, virtually everyone involved in scientific dinosaur research today has their own Jurassic Park story, and virtually everyone has something interesting to say about the movie and what it means to them. If you feel as if you’ve heard more than enough starry-eyed lovefesting already, now is the time to turn away. But if you want to hear my take on the movie... well, here we go.
Even during the early months of 1993, I – like many people seriously interested in dinosaurs – already knew quite a lot about Jurassic Park the movie. I’d read Crichton’s book (Crichton 1991) two or three times prior to the summer of 1993, and I was familiar with the look of the dinosaurs that were going to feature in the film (my English language teacher Mr Shaun O’Toole was kind enough to pass me some Jurassic Park-themed educational material sent to colleges, and it used Crash McCreery’s concept art). A really fun article in January 1993’s National Geographic finished with a brief, tantalising section on the in-development movie and included a mouth-watering image of the T. rex robot, under construction, in Stan Winston’s workshop. It was also known that Jack Horner would be the main scientific adviser, which is fair enough given that Crichton made it very clear that the Alan Grant of the book was based on Horner. Grant of the book, in fact, basically is Horner. At least some storyboards for Jurassic Park the movie even show Grant as a Horner-lookalike.
But I had mixed feelings about the film we were going to see, as weird as that might seem. It was great that people at large were finally going to Hear The Good News About Dinosaurs (my teenage dinosaur fandom did have something of an evangelical zeal), but I had this nagging doubt that things might not turn out well. Crichton’s book includes a bunch of weird stuff that’s objectionable to those who know dinosaurs. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: no, neither Crichton nor Spielberg super-sized Velociraptor (which was, as I’m sure you’ve heard, similar in size to a large turkey in real life, albeit with a much longer tail than a turkey). Rather, Crichton followed an unpopular, minority proposal published by Greg Paul in his 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: this being that the Late Cretaceous, east Asian dromaeosaur Velociraptor was similar enough to the substantially larger, geologically older dromaeosaur Deinonychus from the USA to be classified with it in the same genus. And Velociraptor wins out, since the name was published in 1924, versus 1969 for Deinonychus. So, the Velociraptor of Jurassic Park is actually a slightly enlarged Deinonychus, not a super-sized Velociraptor. If you already knew the argument put forward by Paul (1988), the Jurassic Park use of the word Velociraptor was not much of a big deal. Incidentally, neither Paul nor anyone else endorses this view today. Deinonychus is not a species of Velociraptor, nor are the two all that closely related.
What else was weird about Crichton’s Jurassic Park? The T. rex has a giant, flexible, extendible tongue that smells of urine, the juvenile tyrannosaur romps like a puppy (yeah, when I look at baby birds and other archosaurs I definitely think “it romps like a puppy”), the dromaeosaurs have hyena-like bite strength and are capable of chewing through metal, Triceratops has poor eyesight (why would a dinosaur have poor eyesight? It’s not a mammal), a whole bunch of the dinosaurs have toxic saliva, and there’s a weird streak of anti-science rhetoric throughout. To give one example, Ian Malcom says at one point that palaeontologists deliberately want to turn the natural environment into a degraded wasteland during their digs because --- that’s how we like our science! Disclaimer: I have, indeed, met palaeontologists who don’t give a crap about the environment or its preservation (two of them, to be precise). But they’re very much in the minority.
And then… feathers. It was obvious that the movie’s dromaeosaurs were going to be unfeathered. They’re described that way in the book, and consensus opinion among experts of the time was that feathers were a no-no. I knew (‘knew’) that this was wrong, and that Greg Paul was right about the likely presence of Archaeopteryx-like feathering on dromaeosaurs and other bird-like predatory dinosaurs (Paul 1987, 1988). I’m being ironic here; I was convinced by Paul’s logic about the featheriness of non-bird dinosaurs, but confirmation of this proposal (that dromaeosaurs are kin are so similar, skeletally, to Archaeopteryx that – like Archaeopteryx – they were surely feathered too) was not yet on the table.
On that note, it’s popular these days to say that the palaeontologists of the early 1990s didn’t know that dromaeosaurs and their kin were feathered, and that making them scaly-skinned was thus the ‘right’ thing for the makers of Jurassic Park to do. Here I’m in a bit of a quandary. The material evidence demonstrating a full-on feathery covering for these animals was, indeed, absent at the time, and an argument could be made that going with a scaly skin was appropriately conservative and thus ‘more scientific’. But – on the other hand – the logic behind Paul’s argument that these animals likely were feathered was pretty good, was in accord with the rest of our understanding about theropod evolution and bird origins, and – while not mainstream – was considered at least worthy of consideration by palaeontologists who knew what they were talking about. Look at enough dinosaur literature of the 1980s and 90s and you’ll see lots of nods to the idea that feathers were not exclusive to birds. Indeed, another dinosaur film of 1993 – Adam Simon’s Carnosaur – features (very briefly) a feathered dromaeosaur... though Carnosaur did, admittedly, have somewhat lower production values than those of Jurassic Park, to put it mildly.
Ok, there are all kinds of arguments as goes why they didn’t feather the Jurassic Park dromaeosaurs. Feathers are a pain in the ass to render, especially so given the infant state of CG in the early 1990s, so leaving them out was definitely a wise move effects- and budget-wise. Then there’s the fact that Horner and the other advisers for the movie wouldn’t want to be seen as crazy radicals leaping ahead of scientific evidence. And then there’s Spielberg’s take: that feathering the dinosaurs would make them non-scary. This argument is nonsense of course, since an accurately feathered dromaeosaur looks about as non-scary as an eagle, but it does have some validity given that many renditions of feathered non-bird dinosaurs have been laughably bad if not comical. It takes a special artist and (in cases where the artists aren’t experts themselves) a special adviser to get feathery dromaeosaurs looking right.
Nevertheless, concerned that Mr Spielberg was indeed going to deny the world the big-budget feathery dromaeosaur outing it deserved I… wrote to him. A futile gesture, and one that did not elicit response, duh. I also wrote to my local newspaper who – I think – published my letter. And I had a protest t-shirt made, the plan being to wear it to the premiere and score valuable points. Inspired by words used in Paul’s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and a season 3 episode of Red Dwarf, it read ‘Scaly Protobirds No Thanks! Feathering the Theropods: A Matter of Principle’. Ha, take that, bourgeoisie! Sure enough, when I wore this t-shirt out on the night of the premiere, I was greeted with smiles, high-fives, and was hoisted aloft to cheers and laughter; I also got hit on quite a lot (I mean sexually). Or something like that.
And so, at last, we come to the movie itself…. To be continued!
For relevant Tet Zoo articles on dinosaurs (there is a lot more in the archives), see...
- An American tyrant in London
- Did dinosaurs and pterosaurs practise mutual sexual selection?
- Greg Paul’s Dinosaurs: A Field Guide
- Ryan et al.'s New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: a review
- The Great Dinosaur Art Event of 2012
- Junk in the trunk: why sauropod dinosaurs did not possess trunks (redux, 2012)
- All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals – the book and the launch event
- Dinosaurs and their exaggerated structures: species recognition aids, or sexual display devices?
- Artistic Depictions of Dinosaurs Have Undergone Two Revolutions
- Yi qi Is Neat But Might Not Have Been the Black Screaming Dino-Dragon of Death
- 50 Million Years of Incredible Shrinking Theropod Dinosaurs
- The Romanian Dinosaur Balaur Seems to Be a Flightless Bird
- Hot News From Planet Archosaur
- The Ridiculous Nasal Anatomy of Giant Horned Dinosaurs
- The Integrated Maniraptoran, Part 1
- The Integrated Maniraptoran, Part 2: Meet the Maniraptorans
- The Integrated Maniraptoran, Part 3: Feathers Did Not Evolve in an Aerodynamic Context
- Naish and Barrett's Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved
- The Supracranial Sinus of the Horned Dinosaur Skull
Refs - -
Paul, G. S. 1987. The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives - a rigorous how-to guide. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present Vol. II. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and London), pp. 4-49.