Posted on behalf of Henry Gee
If you have not seen Jurassic Park yet, I envy you. One of the greatest creature features of all time, Steven Spielberg’s tale of human hubris and a dinosaur theme park going horribly wrong is right up there with the original 1933 film King Kong, directed by Merian Cooper. I still remember seeing Jurassic Park for the first time — amazingly, 22 years ago — after which I reviewed it glowingly in Books and Arts.
I saw Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, the fourth in the franchise, at the very same theatre, only this time in IMAX and in 3D, and with an audience raised in a digital age and with higher expectations. They will not have had the unrepeatable experience of having first looked without preamble on Jurassic Park.
I shall not keep you in suspense: Jurassic World is a winner.
I won’t be spoiling anything to say that the plot is, in essence, the same as the franchise’s first three: Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III. People travel to an island and meet dinosaurs. Some people are eaten by dinosaurs. Some of the dinosaurs eat one another. The rest of the people escape. Seen one, seen ’em all. Where Jurassic World succeeds is by upping the tooth count while at the same time nodding affectionately to the original in countless ways, large and small, all of which I shall leave it to you to discover.
A reminder: Jurassic Park was set on the fictional Isla Nublar, off Costa Rica, which a wealthy entrepreneur has stocked with genetically engineered dinosaurs. They were brought back from extinction by mining ancient DNA, stitching the DNA together with DNA from modern animals, and, by dint of science-fictional macguffins and machines that go beep, resurrecting Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor and their dentally advantaged chums — which then go on a killing spree. The action of the next two is set on a different island, Isla Sorna, where the spare dinosaurs were kept.
Jurassic World returns us to Isla Nublar. Here, the original Jurassic Park theme park has been revived and is a raging success. This gives the movie an instant lift, as it features the interaction between dinosaurs and a lot more people than the plots of films 2 and 3 allowed. Indeed, the second in the series had to have an ill-fitting appendix in which a transplanted T. rex goes on the rampage, Godzilla-style, in San Diego.
In Jurassic World, though, the dinosaurs are tame. Thousands of tourists see them close up, go canoeing down rivers accompanied by kindly stegosaurs and sauropods, queue for sanitised rides among the emasculated monsters, and watch a Sea World-style display with a leaping mosasaur. There is even a petting zoo — and not even an EVIL petting zoo — where small children can stroke baby dinosaurs that look like refugees from The Land Before Time.
It’s no surprise, then, that the park’s marketing department is on the lookout for more thrills to pique the public’s jaded palate. Dinosaurs are old hat, so they brief the lab to come up with something bigger, fiercer, and with more teeth. And so the lab combines tongue of dog, wool of bat, blindworm’s sting and several other proprietary ingredients to make a wholly invented beast, Indominus rex. It’s important, says marketing, that it has a name that can be pronounced by any four-year-old. Of course it is this creature that is the park’s nemesis.
There has been much talk on the dino-web about the antiquated look of the dinosaurs in Jurassic World. When the franchise kicked off in 1993, there was as yet no inkling that many dinosaurs, theropods in particular, had feathers. A modern recreation of a Velociraptor, for example, would have carried more or less abundant plumage. The dinosaurs in Jurassic World, though, remain firmly featherless, as if the discoveries of the past two decades had never been. And that’s exactly as it should be — for three reasons.
First, as palaeontologist and series adviser Jack Horner notes in his recent Q&A, to clothe the dinosaurs in feathers now would break the artistic continuity of the series. In the Jurassic Park ‘universe’, the dinosaurs are 1990s dinosaurs. For dinosaurs to be feathered we’d need a whole new franchise.
Second, nobody is going to thrill at somebody being brutally savaged by enraged poultry.
Third, the dinosaurs in these films aren’t really dinosaurs, but man-made recreations, sewn together with genetic material from other animals to suit human tastes, and whose relationship with the real dinosaurs of the Mesozoic is uncertain. This point is hammered home in an impassioned scene featuring the chief scientist Henry Wu (B. D. Wong) — perhaps significantly, the only character in Jurassic World to have survived from the very first film. These are not dinosaurs. They are dragons, designed to pique the same primal fear of the Worm that storytellers from the ancient Norse to J.R.R.Tolkien to George R. R. Martin know lurks in us all.
Henry Gee is a senior editor at Nature. His latest book is The Accidental Species. He blogs at http://cromercrox.blogspot.co.uk. Listen in to Gee, Nature reporter Ewen Callaway and features editor Rich Monastersky on a Backchat podcast here.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.