Friday, March 29, 2013

Who Cares About "Dinosaurs"?

Question: Who cares about dinosaurs?

Short Answer: Marketing departments and monster movie fans.

Above: Not what most people think of when you say "dinosaur."
(Ashdown Maniraptoran by Matt Martyniuk, all rights reserved).

Long Answer:
This is a philosophical issue that's been on my mind for a while now, inspired by some recent and heated debates over the content of the Dinosaur article at Wikipedia. It also seems to be simmering in the background of a lot of discussions about the recent suggestion that Jurassic Park 4 will not feature modern, scientifically accurate dinosaurians.

Friday, March 22, 2013

No Feathers

As many of you know by now, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Trevorrow has (basically) announced via tweet that JP4 would not feature feathered dinosaurs but would stick to the 1980s designs of the original film.

Lots of opinions are flying around paleo blogs and they all raise good points. Andrea Cau has been one of the few to defend the decision by noting that changing the dinosaurs would upset the continuity of the films, such as it is (it's not like we're talking about Lord of the Rings style mythology here). Brian Switek has countered that each previous film has completely re-designed the "raptors" anyway with no in-universe explanation. This has even been jarring in the films themselves. At the beginning of the third film, Sam Neil's character Alan Grant has a dream about a raptor, but it's one of the new raptors (with a totally different skull featuring lachrymal horns, new color scheme, and those bizarre psittacosaur-like quills on the neck), not the raptors he or the audience should remember from JP1.

Anyway, it's obvious the producers don't give a hoot about continuity and are trying to appease the JP fans who love the classic dinosaur designs. That's understandable, but it should also be understandable why a significant portion of the fan base is upset. JP is what got many of us into paleontology in the first place, and the first film went out of its way to emphasize the latest science. Steven Spielberg could have gone with dinosaurs the audience expected in 1993: tripodal, tail-dragging, sluggish reptilian beasts. Instead, he made JP the coming out party for the Dinosaur Renaissance, introducing active, bird-like, Bakkerian dinosaurs to a mass audience for the first time in defiance of expectations (dialogue from the film quickly addresses the inaccuracy of the then-classic dinosaurs as well, like noting that the brachiosaur is warm-blooded and doesn't live in swamps).

So it's a bit sad that JP has eaten its own tail and become the self-perpetuating font of inaccurate science the original film was designed to destroy. The franchise is now a slave to its own cannon and the expectations of its audience, rather than having the guts to challenge those expectations. It will inevitably have to rely more and more on cheap built-in loopholes like frog DNA to briefly explain why the dinosaurs are monstrous relics of a bygone era of science less accurate than the CGI characters on a popular children's show.

As Cau noted in his comments, the only thing that could revitalize the series is a reboot. Here's hoping!