‘Jurassic World’ misses an opportunity

Editor’s Note: Darren Naish is a vertebrate paleontologist affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK. He blogs for Scientific American and is the author of “The Great Dinosaur Discoveries.” You can follow him @TetZoo. The views expressed are his own.

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"Jurassic World" is released this week

Darren Naish: Reboot was incredible chance to do something special

CNN  — 

More than 20 years have passed since Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” hit the big screen.

I’m a scientist who studies, writes about and excavates dinosaurs, and my friends, colleagues and I love “Jurassic Park.” Well, the first of the “Jurassic Park “movies, anyway. So when the announcement came that a fourth movie was due to appear in 2015, our interest was sparked, and expectations were high.

Surely, we thought, this movie – “Jurassic World” – would be the “Avatar” of dinosaur movies: a vibrant, spectacular take on dinosaurs as we understand them today, a move away from the mostly brown, wholly scaly dinosaurs of 1993’s “Jurassic Park.” You know: a reboot.

Darren Naish

After all, the early 21st century is the age of fuzzy-coated tyrannosaurs, a time where we have seen a seemingly endless stream of discoveries about feathery little bird-like dinosaurs. We now know that pterosaurs had furry pelts, we’ve discovered iridescence on dinosaur feathers. We’ve also found out about bizarre dinosaurs that bristled with spines, fuzz and filaments, and a myriad other extravagant ancient beasts never dreamed of 20 years ago, like the “Hellboy” dinosaur Regaliceratops.

So showing new-look dinosaurs would have been wholly consistent with the rest of the “Jurassic Park” franchise. Indeed, we’re told in Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” the book the movie was based on, that the animals are released in upgraded batches, improved over time as more genetic data is discovered.

There’s a nod to this in the third movie – 2001’s Jurassic Park III – with the “raptors” there having quills, a specific reference to advancing knowledge of real-world dinosaurs. And given the disasters associated in the movies with InGen’s projects prior to the time of “Jurassic World,” it would make sense to use updated, new-look animals less like the chimaeras of previous outings.

But for all our anticipation, our hopes came crashing down with the tweeting of two words from “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow: “no feathers.” Rather than feature new-look dinosaurs and present audiences with something wonderful, “Jurassic World” appeared to have made the “bold” decision to stick with the dinosaurs of yore.

Never mind all those fossils that demonstrate the presence of feathering in all bird-like dinosaurs, or the bony feather attachment knobs present on the arm of Velociraptor. Judging from the trailers, “Jurassic World” has opted to stick with scaly-skinned raptors, scientific advancement be damned.

And the raptors aren’t the only animals in the film to be weirdly anachronistic – “Jurassic World’s” pterosaurs are not the attractive, furry beasts they should be, but shiny-skinned horrors with grotesque, gnarly faces. The herbivores Stegosaurus and Triceratops, meanwhile, seem to be depicted with tails that droop or even drag on the ground. And the movie’s super-sized mosasaur (a paddle-limbed, sea-going lizard, not a dinosaur) is not the sleek, shark-tailed reptile of 21st century understanding, but a lumpy-skinned behemoth with a frill running down its back.

Even the movie’s big new reveal – a genetic mash-up called Indominus rex – appears from early glimpses to be a chunky, fat-headed beast that looks as if it was plucked from the pages of a book published three decades ago. Everything, it seems, is decidedly old school. And to those of us that are particularly interested in these animals (and involved in outreach and public education too), it’s a huge leap backwards and a bitter disappointment.

Yes, yes, we know that it’s just a movie. We know it’s not a documentary, and that it exists to entertain. And we completely get that the world has bigger problems to worry about. But the reason this irks so much is that the “Jurassic Park” franchise has a gargantuan influence on the public’s perception of ancient animals. Indeed, “Jurassic Park” did more to update public understanding of dinosaurs than any other single event.

Maybe that’s why “Jurassic World” can only be regarded as a disappointment. Previous installments in the franchise went to some trouble to get things right, with the look of the animals being guided by consultants. So why does “Jurassic World” seem determined to disregard this record? Why ignore the progress of knowledge and stick to safe and boring?

Some have suggested that it’s a practical choice, that fuzz or feathering are too difficult or expensive to render. But other movies have depicted fuzzy or feathery skin just fine – just look at the latest “Planet of the Apes” film. And the continuity argument? Well, as I said, an in-universe feature of the franchise concerns the continual tweaking of dinosaur genomes.

Furthermore, “Jurassic World” even describes how the dinosaurs now have their DNA repaired with data from birds (you know, those feathery animals), not with that of frogs as described in the first film. So, the only explanation for the retro look could be that the animals have been genetically designed to look like old-school reconstructions.

So yes, “Jurassic World” is just a movie. And it may get plenty of other things right. But this reboot was also an incredible chance to do something special – to bring new-look dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mosasaurs to modern audiences. And that chance looks like it might have been lost.

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