Saturday, July 31, 2010

Jurassic Park

My father had a lot of Time-Life series natural history books with plenty of dinosaur renderings in them, so I kind of developed an early fascination for the prehistoric world. But this was not a hot topic when I was a kid. Sometime between kindergarten and first grade, the schools gave us these catalogs of books for children, mostly educational, to encourage us to practice reading and learn something at the same time. There was one book that was all about Dinosaurs, and it quickly became my favorite, one that I read over and over. The illustrations were authentic dinosaur scenes and the text contained then current scientific facts, presented in simple language but not "dumbed down" like many kid's books. When the teacher discovered how well I could read this one book even though it was well past my grade level, she ordered several copies, took a recording of me reading it, and then played it back on a headphone system for other students to follow along. In second grade, now at a new school, there was a learning center run by one of the nuns that had these circular discs with pictures on them. You inserted a disc into a machine and it would ask you to write down the word that matched each picture. Then you would turn it in for a score. Each disc revolved around a particular topic. The discs for the second grade level had relatively simple words, but I found one for the 7th and 8th graders that had pictures of dinosaurs. I would write down their names - Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, etc. I knew them from my little book. I still remember Sister Dorothy dropping her jaw when I got them all right.

Ok, so enough about my childhood. The point is that as much as I loved everything prehistoric, there was always so little material to digest at that age. In the early 1970's, that one little book was the only children's book I ever found that treated the subject seriously. The only one! There wasn't anything on TV about dinosaurs except silly comedies like the Flintstones. That's why I went crazy over Land of the Lost when it came to TV a few years later. I would also jump out of my seat whenever we passed that grand canyon prehistoric exhibit on the train ride at Disneyland. It features, among other great stuff, an animatronic battle between a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus with full sound effects. It's still there after all these decades and several makeovers. Here's a good video of the scene. I think the original audio was better, if I could only find it.

By the time I was old enough to be interested in movies, post 1976, I don't remember any films about dinosaurs in release at the time. It seems there were plenty in earlier decades - One Million Years B.C., When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and even some great scenes in the original King Kong. A big deal was made about The Land Before Time in 1988, but that was just a stupid kid's film with talking dinosaurs in it. Then, one day I saw an ad for a book published by Michael Crichton in 1990 called Jurassic Park about using DNA sequencing to bring dinosaurs back to life to create an amusement park. That sounded cool, but the amusement park idea seemed a bit corny, so I just filed it away somewhere in my memory.

Then in 1993, it happened. When I saw the trailer for Jurassic Park I could hardly believe what I was watching. It wasn't just that somebody had finally made a serious modern dinosaur flick, but the dang CGI dinosaurs looked more real than I could have ever imagined. I kept thinking, "How on earth did they create those images? - I gotta see this film!" It was the first time I had reacted to a movie trailer like that since first seeing the original trailer for Star Wars, which also featured effects never before seen on film.

When I did eventually see it, I was not disappointed with regard to the visual effects. They are still quite stunning when viewed today. But I did feel disappointed that the story focused mainly on people getting chased by the dinosaurs rather than exploring some of the more interesting aspects of the story. Crichton's book does a better job of that, addressing many modern theories about dinosaurs, but much of it was left out of the film. For example, the puzzle about why the Triceratops was sick (in the book it is a Stegosaurus) turns out to be that it has a gizzard-like stomach that requires it to consume small pebbles for digestion, and the pebbles are found in the midst of some poisonous plants. The movie presents the problem but not the solution, using it simply as an excuse to split up the tour group. The whole film was rather "dumbed down" to make it more audience friendly. By contrast, it is Crichton's tendency to include a lot of science in his fiction that allows me to legitimately feature a dino film like this on a sci-fi oriented blog.

I made it point to read the sequel to the novel, The Lost World, as soon as it came out. I could tell that Mr. Crichton was a bit annoyed at how Hollywood had butchered his first novel, even though he had been involved in the screenplay. You see, for dramatic effect, in Jurassic Park they manufactured a factoid about the T-Rex, which was that it could not see you if you stood perfectly still. This was not in the book nor was it a conclusion of any current research. So in the Lost World novel, Crichton had one character get eaten because he erroneously thought the T-Rex would not see him if he didn't move. That kind of cracked me up.

The movie version of The Lost World was quite a disappointment and departed even more drastically from Crichton's second book. In fact, he was not involved at all in the production this time. It seems they thought that if they just put more dinosaurs on screen it would make it more successful or something. And they added a King Kong copycat sequence at the end where a T-Rex is captured, taken to a big city, and then escapes on a rampage. What a classic example of sacrificing the story line for some completely superfluous carnage. The third installment was written directly for the big screen and is at least worth watching, even if the dino chase motif has been taken to the most crazy extremes.

If I had to make a recommendation, I would point you straight to the two more interesting novels on which the movies were based. But I do appreciate that it was the success of the first film that, almost overnight, thrust dinosaurs back into the public eye. After Jurassic Park, it seemed like CGI dinosaurs were popping up all over the place, including material for children again. The Discovery Channel's landmark series Walking With Dinosaurs in late 1999 probably finalized the transition and brought dinos squarely into the new millennium.

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