I've been thinking about dinosaurs, monsters, and Jurassic Park.
Recently, the director of Jurassic Park 4 tweeted two words that have unsettled a lot of us over here at LITC: "No Feathers." I suspect he was trying to reassure anxious fans who were worried their precious monsters would be defanged and made cuddly by the addition of plumage. Unfortunately, I think in the process he completely undercut the facet of Jurassic Park that gives that film (and to lesser extant its sequels) enduring power.
Jurassic Park, it has been widely pointed out, is revolutionary not just for its special effects but t from the way the dinosaurs were depicted as real animals. Huge, yes, perhaps monstrous in form, but with the body language and presence of living creatures. When I think of Jurassic Park, my first thought isn't necessarily of raptors in the kitchen. It's of the cocked head and curiously dainty step of the Tyrannosaur as it climbs over the rim of its enclosure. It's of a panicked flock of Gallimimus arcing over a grassy field toward the camera. It's of the closing moment of the The Lost World, where we glimpse a primeval world without humans, where the carnivores don't always roar and the herbivores can go about their business.
But why is this so revolutionary? There have been hundreds of other films with dinosaurs in them, often with impressive special effects, and yet few of them have made their mark on people the way that Jurassic Park has. Why does the attempt to treat dinosaurs as living animals hold such a powerful grip on our imaginations?
We'll never truly be in the presence of dinosaurs. The dead are long gone, their very bones frozen in rock, echoes of a world we can never touch. And, like all of the dead, when we try to raise them they return as monsters. The jaws in the water. The terror in the forest. The horror out of time. The grinding, inexorable certainty that all of our achievements, all of our struggles and triumphs, will be washed away just as surely as they were, and nothing will be left to remember us.
How can any creature survive under a weight like that? How can we watch King Kong or Godzilla, or The Valley of Gwangi, and hope to see anything but monstrosity, things that don't fit, symbols of what should not be? Those figures have as much to do with real dinosaurs as a reanimated corpse has to do with a man. The form's right, but everything else is wrong. They might as well be dragons.
But Jurassic Park changed that. For moments, the dinosaurs were narratively unencumbered, allowed to exist undefined by human ideas. For a moment, we got to walk up and peer past the fence of story, of drama, of horror, and see the animal beyond. The two islands were places of terror, yes, but of wonder, too. Moments of death were balanced by vistas of life, and for all the moralizing about the folly of bringing dinosaurs back, their very existence on screen gave reason enough.
That's why the "no feathers" tweet depresses me. It signals that the change begun in The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3 is going to stick. The dinosaurs will once again be ravening caricatures rather then real animals, symbols existing only to persecute and punish mankind. And once again, we'll be denied that precious glimpse into a distant world.
Cross Isla Sorna and Isla Nublar off your mental map. There's an inscription there, now, signed and copyrighted and trademarked.
Here there be monsters.