Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Dying Symbolism of Jurassic Park

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.


  1. Hi. I'm from México, I hope I wrorte well my point of view.

    I must say is an intereting thought that you're pointing out here.

    But I don't think that simply by removing the feathers of the velociraptors will cause them to become monsters and behave like monsters.

    As I recall, only the raptors had feathers in JP3. I am a fan of the JP trilogy, but the 3rd movie (putting a side the amazing SFX) the story was very dull.

    I don't think Universal Pictures will agreed to make a 4th JP movie only to make money without think if the fans will like it or not.

    I mean, for me "no feathers" make sense. When I saw JP3 I was shock that the dinos where evolving so fast without an explanation. Evolution takes houndreds of years. And if is not justify in the story then it dosen't matter whether they have feathers or not.

    This is my opinion. I don't know if this is the right director for this movie. But we can only hope this will not affect the franchise.

    My regards.

  2. Happy to hear from you.

    I was trying to get at something a little bit different. I understand the continuity issues of the feathers, thoughts David pointed out in his earlier piece, the dinosaurs have changed fairly drastically from movie to movie. I think the thing that bothers me about the lack of feathers is that, unlike in past films where there was still some doubt, there absolutely no reason to keep the velociraptors unfeathered--if, that is, you intend to make them like real animals.

    Which was sort of the big selling point of Jurassic Park.

    Not feathering the dinosaurs makes for a very strong statement that they are not real animals. Now they are creatures, characters, and monsters. Which is fine. I like a good monster as much as anyone.

    But Jurassic Park wasn't originally about monsters. That's all I'm saying.

    1. Hi again:

      You got a point there :) I agreed. I hope they (the prodction) don't evolve into incoherent beings with the franchise.

  3. I'm clinging to the vague hope that he's implying a lack of feathered dinosaurs. But unfortunately the average person only knows about THE Dinosaurs:
    1) T Rex
    2) Triceratops
    3) Stegosaurus
    4) "Brontosaurus" (Apatosaurus)
    5) "Velociraptor" (oversized, bald, Deinonychus)
    6) Brachiosaurus
    7) Diplodicus
    8) "Pterodactyl" (Pteranodon)
    9) "That armoured one" (Ankylosaurus)
    10) "Duckbilled Dinosaurs" (Usually parasaurolophus)
    11) "That one with the frill" (A chimera of dilophosaurus and various extant squamates)
    12) "Nessie" (Elasamosaurus)

    Plus spinosaurus for some of the more recent generations. Those are them. THE Dinosaurs, the infallible pantheon of childhood memories whom must be venerated at the box office once every several years. Out of all of those spinosaurus, "dilophosaurus," and raptors were all canonized by Jurassic Park alone. I hate to admit it but that franchise has a pretty tight monopoly over dinosaurs, or at least as far dinosaurs go.

    The problem is that dinosaurs are mostly used as a gimmick to sell movie tickets. That's why 99.9999999999% of dinosaur movies are either b grade horror or z grade comedy. Carnosaur? The old King Kong? The new King Kong? Super Mario Brothers movie? American "Godzilla?" All of those blow chunks. Disney's dinosaur had a pretty dull plot so it got swept under the rug where it belongs, even if the animation was pretty good. King Kong might have even been tolerable if it wasn't three hours long. And don't get me started on Land Before Time sequals. The point is, aside from Jurassic Park (and maybe the first Land Before Time if your under the age of six), most dinosaur movies absolutely suck.

    Personally I estimate feathered dinosaurs might catch on 10-20 years from now after the JP franchise has drawn to a close and there will be a vacancy for a current dinosaur movie. If at all.

    1. 13) The one with the sail on its back. No not that one, the four-legged one.
      14) The one that looks like a dolphin with teeth. Oh, I didn't know dolphins had teeth.
      15) Are sabre-toothed tigers dinosaurs?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I think you missed that Mark was joining in on Ross's joke, Matthew.

    4. Woops, yeah that kind of went over my head.

    5. Now that I read the whole thing, I don't know how I missed it. Again, sorry.

  4. It's up to us paleoartists to help ease the public into the idea of feathered dinosaurs ;)

    1. Well, theoretically yes, but paleoart doesn't have nearly the market penetration that a movie does. And if it's a choice between a moving, apparently breathing dinosaur, and a static image, the one people remember will be the moving one.

  5. As long as we're nitpicking sci-fi movies, maybe they should get the artists behind All Yesterdays to design more realistic dinosaurs for the movie. No more skeleton-hugging skin, give me fatter, slower dinosaurs. Especially a fatter, slower T-Rex. No more sleek, vicious versions. I also don't want to see dinosaurs from different eras together. That's completely unrealistic. Leave out grass too, cause dinosaurs never walked on grass. In fact, just leave out dinosaurs all together, because dinosaurs and man never coexisted.

  6. At this moment anything is possible although judging by the writers of the new Planet Of The Apes franchise being the ones who penned it it would seem like the story is in good hands. If that is the case then the lack of feathers must have a specific reason behind it especially since it is an actually surprising turn from an aesthetic that Jurassic Park 3 brought to the movies. I like to believe that it is a starting point to a transition from scales to feathers in later films. But as is often the case with Hollywood, it could lead to anything no matter how good or bad that is. All I hope is that the film-makers know what they are doing.

  7. Updating the dinosaurs to modern standards is totally fine. All I'm saying here is, do it carefully with the story continuity in mind instead of going "they retconned themselves" like with JP3. What we DON'T WANT is for that to happen yet again if the franchise is to be taken seriously again as a story.

    Condensed point: This is not a case of "the town being too small for both". Feathers and scales MUST co-exist.


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