Monday, 11 June 2018

A walk in the Park? Jurassic Park at 25 and the enduring popularity of dinosaurs.

The 11th June 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie Jurassic Park. Based on the 1990 novel by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park is a blockbuster which has stood the test of time and spawned an ongoing franchise of movies and games. The film won three Academy Awards, two BAFTA awards and key scenes remain staples in lists of favourite film moments. Released in 1993, Jurassic Park set a new standard of animatronics, bringing dinosaurs to the life as never before and sparking renewed popular interest in the prehistoric.
But although Jurassic Park (and the subsequent sequels) may have been the most successful appearance of dinosaurs in cinema, this certainly wasn’t the first time dinosaurs had captured the popular imagination, nor even their first appearance on the big screen. The growth of the discipline of geology in the early nineteenth century saw new developments in general understanding about the age of the earth and the existence of now extinct species, in turn developing the discipline of palaeontology. The identification of different geological layers helped date discoveries of pioneers like Mary Anning, who discovered numerous important Jurassic specimens along the Lyme Regis coastline, from 1811 onwards. Geological societies helped establish collections which would in turn form the basis of museum departments.

Still on display, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs
are now a Grade 1 listed landmark. (Image from Pixabay)
Popular interest was fuelled by increasing public access to museums and projects like the Crystal palace dinosaurs, unveiled to the public in 1854 and the first life size replicas of extinct animals. Artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins produced vast sculptures representing these prehistoric creatures. Although inaccurate by modern understanding, this was a serious attempt to represent the creatures properly, with advice taken from the eminent palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen. More fanciful were representations in the emerging literary genre of science fiction, perhaps the most famous example being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, first published as a serial in 1912.
The Lost World establishes an archetype of fictional dinosaurs - plots centred on remote places where dinosaurs and other extinct creatures have miraculously survived. Conan Doyle creates an isolated jungle plateau, but hidden valleys and forgotten islands are often used for the same effect. The alternative thread of dinosaur fiction emerging through the twentieth century, of which Jurassic Park is part, saw not the discovery of hidden dinosaurs, but rather their scientific resurrection or recreation. As greater understanding of dinosaurs and of the possibilities of genetic engineering grew, so did ideas about the capability of somehow recreating extinct creatures. Dinosaurs could play a part in stories about the limits and consequences of unchecked scientific experimentation.

This is not to say that all late twentieth century approaches to the topic were so thoughtful. Whilst Jurassic Park offered bioethical questions in the midst of an action blockbuster, other 1990s film efforts were not so successful. Released only a year after Jurassic Park in 1994, Dinosaur Island is on a distinctly lower budget, feels far older and was widely panned. The film uses a variant on The Lost World model - US airmen crash on a remote island, inhabited solely by scantily clad women and the prehistoric creatures who menace them. The plot, film quality and attempts at special effects have all aged badly, with the film arguably little more an excuse for extensive on screen female nudity.

But neither are plots based on scientific resurrection of dinosaurs guaranteed success. Even allowing that any scenario involving the recreation of dinosaurs would be far-fetched, the 1993 film Carnosaur tries to raise issues about scientific development and future dystopia which are largely lost in a mind-boggling improbable storyline in which a lethal airborne virus impregnates women with genetically mutated dinosaurs. It was not critically well received and nor were the following two sequels; the second of which has the genetically altered dinosaurs as an experimental weapon, the third was straight to video.

Much of the success of Jurassic Park is due to the apparent realism of the dinosaurs. Although many earlier portrayals of dinosaurs on film took little interest in the accurate portrayal of their extinct subjects, the twentieth century saw increasing efforts to portray prehistoric creatures with greater scientific precision, even in fiction. One of the earlier examples of this more factually based dinosaur entertainment can be found in Disney’s 1940 feature length film, Fantasia. The animated section accompanying The Rite of Spring shows prehistoric life, culminating in epic sequences depicting the dinosaurs and their demise. Although an animation created for popular entertainment, efforts were made to maintain some level of scientific accuracy, with the studio taking expert advice from authorities including the director of the American Museum of Natural History, the biologist Julian Huxley and the palaeontologist Barnum Brown.

Fantasia gives probably the least anthropomorphised depiction of dinosaurs from the animated depictions. Jurassic Park was not Spielberg’s first foray into dinosaurs on film - he was the producer of the animated 1988 film The Land Before Time. Reminiscent in animation style of the Fantasia sequence, this is another story set in the age of dinosaurs, without any human interference. Although the basic dinosaur behaviour is broadly accurate, the dinosaurs are named and anthropomorphised - given voices an inter-species gang of young dinosaurs face peril and adventure as the plot unfolds. The project had originally intended the dinosaurs to be portrayed more “naturally”, without dialogue, but the decision was taken to create the protagonists as characters with voices. (Whilst a very different approach to dinosaurs on film, like Jurassic Park, The Land Before Time proved popular and also gave rise to numerous sequels).

Not technically a dinosaur, but a Jurassic creature,
CGI enabled portrayal of pterosaurs on film. (Image from Pixabay)

The incredible developments in Computer Generated Images or CGI in more recent years have seen changes in the way dinosaurs are brought to the screen. Without the total reliance on models and animatronics, new creative possibilities are opened up, such as the depiction of flying creatures such as pterosaurs. The blending of animatronics and CGI - as was done in Jurassic Park and various subsequent representations- allows close interaction between human and dinosaur actors, as well as giving the potential for use of different environments and the creation of whole herds of dinosaurs - the sheer numbers of which would have been both vastly expensive and impractical were a production to rely solely on models. The innovative blend of live action, models and CGI helped win the film multiple awards for special effects.

Unusually, fact followed fiction in taking this blended approach. The 1999 BBC documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs created a series of nature documentaries, following prehistoric individuals in the same format as a wildlife documentary about a living creature. This series also used a combination of animatronics and CGI, with real locations providing the natural backdrops to the action. Although a factual series, it was inspired by the public interest created by Jurassic Park and used many of the same techniques in portraying dinosaurs on screen.

A Turkey sized terror (Image from pixabay)
So how realistic are the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? In any scientific field, new knowledge comes to light and changes past understanding, so portrayals will change. Palaeontologists could take umbrage with the film’s title. Although the brachiosaurus is a Jurassic era dinosaur, many of those featured in the film are not. The triceratops is from the cretaceous era, as is tyrannosaurus rex. Velociraptors are also cretaceous and although widely accepted that they did hunt in packs, in reality these carnivorous dinosaurs were considerably smaller than in the films. Instead of standing over 7 feet tall, as in the movie, these predators were actually around the size of a large domestic turkey. Additionally, it is also thought they may have been feathered. Although the similarities between birds and dinosaurs is mentioned in the film, most notably with the ostrich like gallimimus, feathers are not introduced. It is easy to see why filmmakers were tempted to introduce the iconic triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex to the dinosaurs featured in the park, but the Jurassic era also had well known species. Pterosaurs were common, allosaurus and megalosaurus were major predators, stegosaurus perhaps the most recognisable dinosaur of the period (these species do start to make appearances in later films from the franchise).

A detail of Dippy, a long time favourite at the
Natural History Museum of London, now on tour
around the UK. (Image by dronepicr, via wikimedia commons)
Twenty five years on, Jurassic Park has aged well and still stands up as an action film. The ongoing series of sequels suggests a continuing appetite for prehistoric creatures on film, whilst dinosaurs remain a perennial favourite in any natural history museum. The crowd pleasing quality of dinosaurs is attested by Natural History Museum of London’s decision to host a mini-site The Dino Directory and the popularity of events and exhibitions, such as Dippy the Dinosaur, the star of a national touring exhibition, and Yorkshire’s Jurassic World, recently opened at the Yorkshire Museum. So what is the enduring appeal? Perhaps the dramatic function is that dinosaur fiction is both scary and safe. These are powerful creatures about which we know little allow for a thrill of fear-these creatures could have crushed or eaten you - but the reality of their extinction renders the same - they pose no threat to the modern audience.

The dinosaur perhaps also reminds us of the changeability of our planet and human transience upon it. With increasing awareness of climate change and loss of biodiversity, focus on extinct species can add poignancy. Narratives using the “Lost World” device of the hidden prehistoric habitat can give rise to stories questioning human impact on the natural world and habitat destruction, whilst those plots resurrecting the extinct through science allow for the exploration of ethical questions about genetic science and the human exploitation of other species. In the original Jurassic Park film, the emphasis on chaos theory and the violent failure of the park offers a message that commercialised science is exploitative and potentially dangerous. And there lies the irony. As Megan Stern notes in her article Jurassic Park and the moveable feast of science, Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg succeed where the film’s John Hammond fails. Although the narrative depicts disaster for the resurrection of dinosaurs for commercial exploitation, it is a feat which Jurassic Park accomplished with great success.

Find Megan Stern’s article Jurassic Park and the moveable feast of science, in the journal Science as Culture, Volume 13, issue 3, 2004. University member? Log into Yorsearch and get access to Science as Culture online.

Inspired to re-watch the movie? Find the DVD of Jurassic Park at shelf-mark LP 4.30973 SPI in our audio-visual collection.

Read Conan Doyle's classic adventure The Lost World, available in the J B Morrell Library at shelf-mark MA 173.9 DOY.

Yorkshire’s Jurassic World is curated by York Museums Trust and is open at the Yorkshire Museum.

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