Are Scientists Right to Criticise the Jurassic World?

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In development for over a decade following the release of Jurassic Park III, the much loved sci-fi franchise is set to continue this year with Jurassic World. The first full-length trailer for the film, which director Joe Johnston has stated will start a new trilogy within the franchise, was released on 25th November, and eager audiences got their first glimpse at Hollywood’s dinosaurs in 13 years.

Featuring a Big Bad dinosaur made from hybridised DNA that harks back to the original film’s theme of man’s obsession with playing God and meddling in things he just can’t control, and raptors clearly so enamoured with Chris Pratt in a leather waistcoat that they’re trotting tamely alongside him, Jurassic World doesn’t exactly seem as if it will be grounded in reality. No one is denying that. Rather, that’s what audiences are likely hoping for – it’s going to be a jolly romp in fantasy.

Criticism, however, has arisen from scientists who have openly commented on the inaccuracy of the reconstructed life appearances of Jurassic World’s dinosaurs, among other things. One of those featured in a round-up article by The Independent is Southampton’s own Dr. Darren Naish, a renowned palaeontologist. Blogging on Tetrapod Zoology for Scientific American, he highlighted some issues in the appearance of the giant marine Mososaur, though he did praise others.

Further, enthymologist Brian Jackson noted that what was probably meant to represent a gigantic blood sucking mosquito was instead a crane fly. The life spans of many crane flies are so short that many don’t eat at all, so the film’s geneticists might have some trouble obtaining dinosaur DNA from that bit of amber. The larvae however are herbivorous – maybe they’re trying to reconstruct ancient plants, as in the first Jurassic Park? Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch.

Subsequently there has been a vocal social media response to criticism of the film, suggesting those commenting should lighten up because after all it’s only a film, likening them to dorky palaeontologist Ross Geller from Friends. Firstly, most scientists will both readily and proudly acknowledge that they are in fact dorks. It’s the age of the geek. But it must be also considered that the inaccuracies Jurassic World features are not recent revelations, or concepts supported but one or two niches journals only. The presence of feathers in dinosaurs in particular is supported and argued across vast quantities of literature.

Birds descended from theropod dinosaurs – a group primarily composed of bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs, that contained species such as the charismatic Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus. But feathers did not appear full formed in ‘missing link’ species like Archaeopteryx towards the crown of this group, but rather were present in some form far back into dinosaur’s evolutionary history. Likely evolving from single filamentous skin protrusions, which subsequently split to develop the barbs, barbules and central quill of modern feathers – we now know that dinosaurs across the development of this group had some kind of soft body covering.

V. mongoliensis by Jules RuizIn early dinosaurs this would have been a fuzz of ‘proto-feathers’, but these would have become advanced such that by the time the relatively ‘young’ group the Dromaeosaurids emerged, these dinosaurs would have been covered in feathers all over their bodies, perhaps elaborated to longer ‘wings’ or with a tail fan. Velociraptors are Dromaeosaurs; this modern reconstruction by paleoartist Jules Ruiz is probably quite unlike anything audiences have been exposed to in mainstream media. Supporting this further, a formal description of a new fossil published in Science in July 2014 suggests that feathers coexisted with scales in the very earliest of theropod dinosaurs, where they split from other evolutionary groups, and are potentially widespread across early and other dinosaur groups.

I’m not expecting Jurassic World to incorporate new concepts that arise during or prior to its film making; far from it. If anything, I would strongly suggest against it – one article in one journal does not make a sound scientific concept, and to distribute possible misinformation to innumerable cinema goers would be reckless.

But so it also is to continue perpetuating ill founded information, which goes against the established consensus of the entire paleontological community. A palaeontologist from the Smithsonian gave the scientific knowledge displayed thus far in Jurassic World a resounding “Meh”, dating the reconstructions to ideas from the 1970s and 1980s and likening them more to regular fantasy monsters than anything like what we now know real prehistoric animals to have looked like. These are not new ideas, and neither can these mistakes nor others be chalked up to a lack of research by a film with a budget of $150 million.

At the end of the day Jurassic World is a film. It’s entertainment. It’s not a documentary, and it has no obligation to be completely scientifically accurate. It wants its dinosaurs to look like dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, that is, of public imagination – grey-brown, scaly and mean looking. Audiences, including those from a background of palaeontology, will love it regardless. Because, hey! Dinosaurs! In a theme park! Eating people! It’ll be like Zoo Tycoon, when you delete the fences. But being in such a position does not exempt filmmakers from making responsible choices to educate and inform. Far more people will watch Jurassic World than will study the evolutionary emergence of morphological characters in theropod dinosaurs – does that not give them some duty to disseminate accurate information? Celebrities and other public figures are constantly scrutinised, for their actions both public and private, and the criticism levied at them often constitutes their status as a role model. In the public eye, your actions for better or worse will have an impact on those they are broadcast to.

When the media we consume (purpose built to be watched and enjoyed) has the power to impact our lives and culture so significantly, those who suggest it not be given a free pass to do as it pleases are certainly worthy of consideration.

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