Saturday 26 June 2021

All The Time in The (Jurassic) World (Dominion)

The concept of Deep Time in terms of Earthly geology has its roots, in large part, to the work of Scottish geologist James Hutton. His study of the great natural wonders of his native Scotland - the Isle of Arran with its fault line dividing the Precambrian and the Carboniferous; the dolerite/basalt Salisbury Crags of Holyrood; the rugged uncomformity of Siccar's Point with its clash of sandstone and greywacke - inspired the theory that geological features were not necessarily static and timeless, but transformed and changed over unfathomably long periods of time. This meant that the Earth could not be as young as previously believed, and must have been changing for billions, not thousands, of years. This soon developed into uniformitarianism, and the modern science of the Earth which we know today.

Understandably, such a monumental paradigm shift in humanity's understanding of the planet on which they live every day of their lives was controversial. Certain religious organisations rejected the idea outright, perceiving it as an attack on their scripture: more traditional scientists were skeptical, viewing it as incomplete or unconvincing. In The Science of Life (1929), H.G. Wells & Julian Huxley noted the psychological barriers in getting human minds around such gigantic eons of history can be surmounted with a little effort:

To think in such magnitudes is not so difficult as many people imagine. The use of different scales is simply a matter of practice. We very soon get used to maps, though they are constructed on scales down to a hundred-millionth of natural size; we are used to switching over from thinking in terms of seconds and minutes to some other problem involving years and centuries; and to grasp geological time all that is needed is to stick tight to some magnitude which shall be the unit on the new and magnified scale -  a million years is probably the most convenient - to grasp its meaning once and for all by an effort of imagination, and then to think of all passage of geological time in terms of this unit.

Alas, despite the centuries since Hutton's discovery (& decades since Wells and others developed the Popular Science genre of non-fiction), it seems Deep Time lies beyond the grasp of even the most intellectual of Holywood movie producers...




"I don't think we should kid ourselves. We haven't re-created the past here. The past is gone. It can never be re- created. What we've done is reconstruct the past - or at least a version of the past. And I'm saying we can make a better version." 
 - Dr. Henry Wu, Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

Ironically (or not), it took a while for Deep Time to filter into popular consciousness. Even at the turn of the 20th Century, popular science journals and newspaper archives refer to dinosaurs living mere millions, rather than tens of millions, of years before the dawn of humanity, and the failure to filter-down to popular consciousness meant that hominids and Cenozoic animals were depicted living alongside dinosaurs well into the second half of the 20th Century.

So on to Jurassic World Dominion. The Jurassic franchise has always had a deeply complicated relationship with scientific accuracy. The original novel was written, after all, by Michael Crichton, who prided himself on the realism of his techno-thrillers like The Andromeda Strain and Disclosure: while the passage have time means some of the palaeontology has been superseded (most infamously the "Velociraptor and Deinonychus are synonymous" proposition which didn't even last the period between the book's publication & the film's release). Likewise, one of the primary goals in the original Jurassic Park film adaptation was to create the most accurate & lifelike dinosaurs yet seen in popular media:

"One of my favorite scenes in the first movie was the kitchen scene. The original script had the raptors coming into the kitchen - they were after the children at that time - and sticking out their forked tongues, very much like snakes or lizards do. And I stepped in and said, "They really can't do that. Dinosaurs didn't have forked tongues like lizards or snakes, so we need to take that out." Steven didn't argue with me - he sometimes argued with me, but this time he didn't - but he said, 'You know, We need to fill that space. If we're going to take that scene out, we need to fill it with something else.' And so it was later decided that before the dinosaurs come into the kitchen, they would look through that window into the kitchen and the dinosaur would snort and it would fog up the window. Only warm-blooded animals can fog up a window, so it's a tiny little suggestion that dinosaurs are warm-blooded."
 - Jack Horner, Palaeontology Consultant on Jurassic Park

I bought every book that came out on dinosaurs. So I was pretty well in tune with what the state of the science was at that point in time. Crichton would have a Tyrannosaurus pick up the jeep like Godzilla. I was like a reality check to say 'well no he wouldn't do that, because... the physics don't work.
... I have completely different ideas of what [dinosaurs] should be like now. If we were making a different dinosaur movie that didn't have to be Jurassic Park, I would do things totally differently. a lot of this stuff that they've discovered about feathers is pretty significant and there's a lot of really interesting things you could do. 
 - Phil Tippett, Dinosaur Supervisor on Jurassic Park

[The idea was] to get as far away from people’s perceptions of dinosaurs as possible, the upright bulky, clumsy kinds of creatures that have been seen in previous movies. The idea was to show that we were up-to-date on the current thinking that dinosaurs were probably warm-blooded and birdlike, rather than cold-blooded and lizardlike.
 - Mark "Crash" McCreery, Concept Artist on Jurassic Park

(Given the biggest film featuring dinosaurs before Jurassic Park came along was an animated ode to Disney's Fantasia, that wasn't going to be a challenge.)

Yet when Jurassic World came along, the passage of time meant accuracy had to give way to a more powerful and lucrative force - nostalgia. Now, I cannot say I ever had nostalgia for Jurassic Park, because the key thing about nostalgia is separation, as folk remember their childhoods & how they felt back when they watched the film as children - since I never left Jurassic Park, I cannot really say I feel nostalgic for it. Nor can I say that Jurassic World was entirely without merit, as there were clearly some interesting ideas in among the soulless marketing dictats and fiats. However, I am not most people - and evidently, the people who thought the time was right for more Jurassic films a decade after Jurassic Park 3 felt that people wanted the nostalgia hit - and that meant the scientific concensus from 1993 must be upheld.  

In-universe, there's a ready-made explanation for why the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park don't resemble their prehistoric selves, and it's reiterated a number of times in the franchise's history. 

This is made particularly explicit in Jurassic Park III:

Student: Your theory on raptors is good and all, but isn't all this conjecture kind of moot?  I mean, once the U.N. and Costa Rica and everyone decides how to handle the second island, scientist will just go in and look for themselves. 

Grant: No, and let me be perfectly clear on this point. Dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago. What's left of them is fossilized in stone the actual scientists spend years to undercover. What John Hammond and InGen created are theme park monsters. Nothing more, nothing less.

and in Jurassic World:

Dr. Henry Wu: You are acting like we are engaged in some kind of mad science. But we are doing what we have done from the beginning. Nothing in Jurassic World is natural. We have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. (voice rising) And, if their genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn't ask for reality. You asked for more teeth!

and the original novel:

"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, Henry. 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."

Here's the important thing: all this applies to the cloned dinosaurs living in modern times. It explains why Dilophosaurus has a Chlamydosaurus-esque frill & expectorates blinding fluid; it explains why Spinosaurus is a long-legged round-sailed killing machine; it explains why Ankylosaurus is all spikes. The cloned dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures are explicitly genetically altered & engineered in such a way that they are not 1-1 reproductions of the fossil record. They can be close approximations, or loose extrapolations - but they are not the same, even if they are still animals deserving of the same respect as any naturally-occurring species.

The only arguable exception is the fossil raptor seen being excavated in Montana early in the first Jurassic Park, which is quite clearly of the same dimensions of the "genetically engineered" Velociraptor of the park: that's an unfortunate result of the aforementioned "Velociraptor and Deinonychus are synonymous" idea, but it can be explained fairly easily given the presence of similarly sized Dromaeosaurids in Cretaceous what-is-now-America. Up to this point, this mystery raptor and the fossils of the Visitor's Centre were the only direct depiction of actual prehistoric life free from genetic chimaerification in the Jurassic franchise.

... Until Jurassic World Dominion threw a rock hammer into the fossiliferous strata.

Jurassic World: Dominion is still a year away. For hyped-up dinosaur enthusiasts, not to mention aficionados of Ian Malcolm, that wait may as well be 65 million years. But fortunately, director Colin Trevorrow and Universal have put together a special treat for fans to help the time fly by, a five-minute preview of the movie that will play before IMAX screenings of Fast & Furious 9.

Empire got to see the footage earlier this week, up on a brachiosaurus(sic)-sized screen, and it begins with something new for the franchise: an epic flashback to prehistoric times, teeming with all manner of toothy, scaly beasties (plus a buzzing, DNA-extracting mosquito or two). After a fierce showdown between a T-Rex and enormous debuting dino the Giganotosaurus, it cuts to the modern day, and a sequence in which a drive-in cinema is under assault by the Rex we know from previous movies, with a military helicopter in hot pursuit. It’s the kind of huge, kinetic spectacle we’ve been missing, and we spoke to Trevorrow over Zoom to find out how it came to be.


an epic flashback to prehistoric times... After a fierce showdown between a T-Rex and enormous debuting dino the Giganotosaurus


prehistoric times showdown between a T-Rex and Giganotosaurus


... Let me take it from here.

I understand there are adults who read this blog: generally speaking, unless you're a giant dinosaur nerd like 37-year-old Aly, some of the finer points of palaeontology might escape you. So allow me to explain as simply and in as adult-friendly a way as possible.

Ever since the discovery of the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Prize-Fighter of Antiquity, Absolute Warlord of the Earth, et cetera et cetera et cetera, children of all ages have pondered: who could possibly challenge the King of the Dinosaurs? For almost the century since the T. rex's existence, only the mighty Triceratops - the great horned herbivore which we now know definitively from the fossil record did engage in titanic combat with the Tyrant Lizard King - was seen as a worthy opponent, and even then, it could never shake the stigma of being prey. In terms of carnivores, there were no challengers: nothing approached its size, its range, or its effectiveness anywhere in its territory. The world of 65 million years ago was much more divided on a continental level, with North America divided from South America by a great sea (which would over time shrink into the Caribbean):

Hell Creek is the site of T.rex's discovery, but remains have been found from as far north as Alberta, Canada to as far south as Tornillo, Texas.

What is now North America was an island continent - as, indeed, were South America, Africa, India, Western Europe, and Asia. Yet even accounting for other continents, only the closely related Tarbosaurus approaches it in size (and the jury's still out as to whether it is synonymous with its Yankee cousin).

Which brings us to Giganotosaurus.

Cast your minds back to 1995. It's only 2 years since Jurassic Park was released, and sent the latent love of dinosaurs present in all small people into overdrive. Dinosaurs were popular, sure, but never on this media-saturation level - toys, games, posters, clothes, pinball machines, memorabilia, merchandise of all shapes and prices. And hot off the palaeontological presses was a monster of a bulletin - a new carnivorous dinosaur had been discovered which could challenge even the mighty Tyrannosaurus!

"WOW, a meat-eater as big as a T.rex?! Tell me all about it!"

I surely will, speculative fellow young person! Its name is Giganotosaurus carolinii: it means "Giant Southern Lizard." The species name is in honour of its discoverer, Rubén D. Carolini, who found it while dune-buggying around the badlands near Villa El Chocón, in the Neuquén province of Patagonia, Argentina.

 "Dude, I want to go dune-buggying in badlands to find dinosaurs!"

 Me too, pal, me too.

"So how big was it exactly?"

Well, the largest T.rex known at the time belongs to a skeleton named Sue. Sue's femur (thigh bone) was 130 centimetres (or 51 inches) long. The Giganotosaurus's holotype femur was 5 centimetres (or 2 inches) longer than Sue's, and thicker too. Palaeontologists estimated the skull to be 5.3 metres (or 5 feet) long; and the whole animal to be 12.5 metres (41.5 feet) long!

"That's amazing! But how did it live with the T.rex?"

 It didn't.

"It didn't?"

It didn't. Remember where and when the T.rex lived?

"Sure I do: North America during the Late Cretaceous, 65 million years ago!"

Well done! At the time of the Tyrant Lizard King - the Maastrichtian Age of the Late Cretaceous Epoch - what is now North America was an isolated continent. The tiny strip of land which would become Mexico was largely submerged under the Proto-Caribbean Sea, and the rise of the Rocky Mountains made the route to Asia all but impassible.

"That's right - and Argentina's in South America, so it wouldn't have been able to get there - unless it fell in the sea and somehow got washed up on the coast."

There's a problem with that too: Remember how T.rex lived 65 million years ago? Well, the Candeleros Formation where Giganotosaurus was found dates back quite a bit earlier - to the Late Cenomanian Age, 99 to 97 million years ago.

"Jings. That's 32 million years between them - almost half the distance between T.rex and us!"

Aye. So just like with the Spinosaurus - who lived around 99-93 million years ago in what is now North Africa - the Giganotosaurus would need to travel through hundreds of thousands of miles in space and millions of years in time in order to meet a T.rex.

"But that's ok in Jurassic Park, after all, they're clones in the present day, right?

Aye, about that...

Well, we start with the Dreadnoughtus, which was discovered not long ago, those bones. And it's one of the great things about being able to rip dinosaurs from the headlines, that we're able to see something exciting and do some research on it, then build a model and put it in the movies. The Quetzalcoatlus, which we've never seen before, which is much bigger than a Pteranodon. We're following this massive Quetzalcoatlus, and then it lands and you see all these Pteranodons at its feet like birds, and you realise how big the thing is. And then we have our first feathered dinosaur, the Oviraptor. I feel like that's going to be a bit of a headline for those who care about paleontological accuracy. Another one [with feathers], which is the one in the picture, is the Moros intrepidus. That one showed up maybe two years ago. It probably popped up into your feed, that people found a tiny, T-Rex-like feathered dinosaur. And that was one of the quickest turnarounds that we've had, from discovery to putting it on screen.

But there's more...

Jurassic World: Dominion isn't just relying on dinosaurs fans have seen before. The sequel is introducing 7 new dino species that really existed.

Dreadnoughtus - A massive new sauropod similar to the Brachiosaurus, the bones of the Dreadnoughtus were only discovered in real life in 2005. The herbivore makes its Jurassic World debut in Dominion's prologue.

Quetzalcoatlus - The Pteranodons were introduced in Jurassic Park III and returned in the first two Jurassic World movies but the Quetzalcoatlus is an even bigger and scarier winged dinosaur. The Pteranodons even treat the Quetzalcoatlus as an alpha.

Nasutoceratops - The Nasutoceratops is similar to the Triceratops and the Sinoteratops but this huge dinosaur has shorter horns extending from below the bony armored plate in its head.

Iguanodon - The Iguanadon is another large herbivore that debuts in Jurassic World: Dominion and is sighted briefly in the film's Cretaceous prologue.

Oviraptor - The Oviraptor is a feathered dinosaur that's similar to the Velociraptor but smaller in scale. It's one of the first dinosaurs with feathers in the Jurassic franchise, which is more scientifically accurate.

Moros intrepidus - Moros intrepidus is a feathered dinosaur that resembles a tiny T-Rex. Discovered only two years ago in real life, Moros intrepidus is the fastest case of a new, real-life dino discovery being included in a Jurassic movie.

Gigantosaurus - Jurassic World: Dominion also introduces a huge new apex predator in the Gigantosaurus, which battles the T-Rex in the Cretaceous period. However, the Gigantosaurus also appears in the present-day story of Jurassic World: Dominion so it may be a threat that Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, Ian Malcolm, Owen Grady, and Claire Dearing will have to face.

37-year-old Aly's mandated single GIF per post


To clarify for those who are not 8 years old.

Dreadnoughtus lived here, 75 million years ago.

Quetzalcoatlus lived here, 65 million years ago.

Pteranodon lived here, 86-84 million years ago.

Nasutoceratops lived here, 75 million years ago.

Oviraptor lived here, 65 million years ago. 


Iguanodon (or at least, the only evidence of a North American species) lived here, 115 million years ago.

Moros lived here, 90 million years ago.

Literally only 3 prehistoric creatures out of 10 (Ankylosaurus, which appeared in every Jurassic film since 3, and Pteranodon are also featured in the Cretaceous prologue) in a scene which everyone and their mother is falling over themselves to assure us is the most accurate depiction of dinosaurs in cinematic history, actually could have appeared in the same time and place as one another. Either they lived a continent away (Oviraptor) tens of millions of years earlier (Nasutoceratops, Iguanodon, Pteranodon) or both (Dreadnoughtus, Moros, Giganotosaurus).

But hey, it's just a movie, right? Nobody goes to these movies for education, or for realism, or for any of that nonsense. This is a big dumb action movie for big dumb idiots to take their big dumb families to waste a few hours of their big dumb lives. Palaeontology is nowhere to be seen.

Except no, that's not what Colin Trevorrow is going for at all:

Some of the new dinosaurs in this movie, you'll see again, in a bigger, a more richer way. I think that what's exciting about this for me is we get to see these dinosaurs in their paleontologically correct form. It's the first time that we don't have dinosaurs that were completed with frog DNA, and therefore inaccurate for those who really pay close attention.  Steve Brusatte and Jack Horner, who are two brilliant paleontologists, really dug in here, to make sure that if we're going to show the Cretaceous period, that we're not going to get too many letters about our inaccuracy. And it means a lot to me that this feels like you're actually in that moment in Earth's history.

we get to see these dinosaurs in their paleontologically correct form

make sure that if we're going to show the Cretaceous period, that we're not going to get too many letters about our inaccuracy

this feels like you're actually in that moment in Earth's history


I mean. 

How much clearer do I have to be?


See, when I was now years old, I collected Dinosaurs! Magazine (which some kind and generous soul has archived in its entirety online here). It started before Jurassic Park's release. Every issue has a spotlight on three dinosaurs or prehistoric animals, all of which have something like this:

Name, size, food, lived, the basic Top Trumps statistics any small child with the slightest interest in dinosaurs would know. These are the absolute minimal basics that any child with any serious interest in dinosaurs would learn as soon as they were capable of reading and understanding the concepts of space and time. Admittedly, a very small dinosaur enthusiast like 3-year-old Aly might not immediately understand, as he is still trying to get to grips with things like language development and motor functions - but 8-year-old Aly? He knows.

Indeed, a particularly up-to-date 8-year-old Aly might even point out how unnecessary this dinosaur soup is. Consider Hell Creek formation, one of the most famous & thoroughly excavated T.rex hunting grounds: there are animals there which could easily replace the anachronisms. Why have Oviraptor, who has appeared in multiple dinosaur films for decades, when Anzu is right there? Why transport poor Moros across continents & eons when the fascinating Pectinodon deserves a spotlight? Iguanodon and Nasutoceratops - what about Edmontosaurus and Torosaurus? Rather than Dreadnoughtus, why not the comparable Alamosaurus, which lived a bit further south on the continent? Instead of having Palaeo-Rexy die at the teeth of a Giganotosaurus, why not a larger rival, or even a big bull Triceratops?

For more excellent palaeobiota drawings, visit paleop.

Unfortunately, the entire point of the exercise precludes the possibility of a truly accurate Late Cretaceous before we even start - it's a prelude to a T.rex vs Giganotosaurus showdown at some point in the present day. Back in the past, the T.rex we all know and love was slain by a rival theropod - the sort of "rival to T.rex" that bad science journalists have been craving for decades. But that dinosaur's DNA was preserved in amber, in blood taken from it by a mosquito (which has always been a sticking point for JP/palaeontology fans too) - now, its "descendent" is here to even the score.

It's an unbelievably pulpy premise, and were this a franchise other than Jurassic Park (and were it written sometime prior to 1960) I would have absolutely adored it. But for all the flak the original Jurassic Park received for superseded science and wilder ideas, at least it tried to keep to the science in spirit. The only reason this scene exists is to provide a narrative reason for the T.rex and Giga to fight - as if two highly territorial carnivores need a reason to - because the idea of an ancient feud between warring dynasties of monsters seemed to be a thing when these films were in development.

They just can't seem to do it, can they? First The Land Before Time was going to be a silent prehistoric documentary. Then Disney's Dinosaur. Then the actual Walking With Dinosaurs movie. Finally, the single most successful dinosaur franchise in cinematic history makes a shot at a proper, cutting-edge depiction of the Cretaceous period as the science of the time understands it, and... they still can't do it right. Instead of sticking to their assigned and much-trumpeted goal of extreme palaeontological accuracy, they literally took dinosaurs Ripped From The Headlines.

The sad thing is these changes just aren't worth it. The sight of seeing a Giga and a T.rex fight for a fraction of a second in a fake Late Cretaceous time soup is not cooler than absolutely blowing everyone's minds with a depiction as close to the actual Cretaceous as possible. Any idiot film can stick dinosaurs from all time periods and have them fight - any idiot film already has. It's not new. it's been done. What hasn't been done is exactly what Colin Trevorrow says they've set out to do, but failed to as soon as they added another gigantic apex predator in a place where a gigantic apex predator has long eliminated any competitor:

... we get to see these dinosaurs in their paleontologically correct form. 
It's the first time that we don't have dinosaurs that were completed with frog DNA, and therefore inaccurate for those who really pay close attention. 
Steve Brusatte and Jack Horner, who are two brilliant paleontologists, really dug in here, to make sure that if we're going to show the Cretaceous period, that we're not going to get too many letters about our inaccuracy. 
And it means a lot to me that this feels like you're actually in that moment in Earth's history.

That would be amazing. That would be something that hasn't been done before. That would be something worth talking about. But this hodge-podge of dinosaurs plucked from bad science journalism ("bigger than T.rex!"/"cousin of the T.rex!"/ancestor of the T.rex!") undermines that to the point of collapse. Whatever Trevorrow tried to do, he lost it as soon as Jurassic World Dominion transplant a creature that not only didn't coexist with a T.rex, but couldn't coexist with a T.rex. What animal competes with the yiger in India? What predator rivals the polar bear in the Arctic? What marine terror challenges the mighty orca in the oceans? Such is the case with the T.rex, which was the largest predator by a considerable margin in its time.

And this isn't 37-year-old Aly with all the powers of the internet and decades of dinosaur research in my head: 8-year-old Aly knew this, and he's 8. 8-year-old Aly knew that the raptors were the wrong size, that Dilophosaurus had an entirely fictional predation method, and that the T.rex's top speed may have been somewhat exaggerated - but these were acceptable because, in universe, these dinosaurs were not meant to represent 1-to-1 interpretations of the fossil record - informed by it, and heavily skewed towards realistic extrapolations of it, but not ultimately beholden to it.

It's like book adaptations: you don't have to be faithful to the book if you don't want to. 37-year-old Aly just watched Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm and loved it, because it wasn't trying to be a faithful adaptation of the deeply flawed and fatally-monkeyed-about-with final Bram Stoker novel - it was Ken Russell deciding to parody a Hammer Horror before Mel Brooks got around to it. When viewed on those merits, it's utterly fascinating. All I ask is that when you're adapting a film, or presenting scientific ideas, you only be as faithful or accurate as you say you are going to be.

I guess I'm still going to have to wait for that true "window into the prehistoric world" experience that so many directors have promised and either abandoned or bungled. The wait wouldn't be so frustrating if directors would just be honest with us.

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