The Jurassic World trailer came out this week to a flurry of online excitement. But there's a problem: I don't want to upset any of you who've already pre-booked your IMAX seats, but the teaser hasn't been all that well received in paleontology circles.
The problems, of which there are many, include: the fact that all the dinosaurs just look a bit wrong; that crane flies (the insect in the trailer) are not the same as mosquitoes (the insect they're presumably meant to be); and that there should generally be lots more feathers onscreen. In short, Hollywood is lying to us, and paleontologists are our only path towards the truth.
So I decided I should do the world a favour by speaking to a paleontologist and disseminating the information he told me via the medium of the internet. I plumped for Brian Switek, an expert on vertebrate paleontology with several books on the subject under his belt. As well as assisting on excavations across America, he writes about fossils for National Geographic and hosts Dinologue, a video series about dinosaurs.
Brian is a man who knows his shit, so I asked him to take me through the trailer and explain exactly what's wrong with it piece by piece.
VICE: Brian, is there anything wrong yet?
Brian Switek: The MPAA slate is missing the disclaimer, "Warning: not suitable for paleontologists expecting accuracy."
Zing. One-nil to Brian and we're barely out of the starting blocks.
This woman is joking around with her son, saying, "If something chases you... run." Is she naïve, Brian? What are the chances of her jerk kid outrunning a fucking dinosaur?
That depends on the dinosaur. If a long-necked Apatosaurus went on a visitor-squashing rampage the kid would be able to get out of the way – really big sauropods maxed out around five miles per hour. But a Tyrannosaurus? Tyrannosauruses could run at 15 to 25 miles per hour. Unless that child is as speedy as Usain Bolt, he'd be a quick bite for the carnivore.
What the hell are these guys? And, more importantly, are the humans safe, Brian?
At first glance, I'd say that these dinosaurs are an ill-fated attempt to reanimate a deep-fried turkey. But from the context of the previous film, my bet is that they're Gallimimus, one of the "ostrich-mimic" dinosaurs. I feel bad for them, though. The Jurassic World scientists didn't give them feathers, as we know they had. Poor naked dinosaurs. And while I don't think they'd be naturally aggressive, look at the claws on the hands and feet: a pissed-off Gallimimus would be more than capable of eviscerating a human in self-defence.
Would these feeble humans be safe in their little canoes? The dinosaurs look pretty big, Brian.
I know, I'd feel a little nervous. Big herbivores can be dangerous, too. A distracted Apatosaurus could easily smush a gawking tourist, and those Stegosaurus have a set of four huge spikes on the ends of their tails. Looking at the tail of a related armoured dinosaur – Kentrosaurus – paleontologist Heinrich Mallison concluded that they could swing those spikes at 10 metres per second, or "forces greater than those sufficient to fracture a human skull".
And what about these guys? They'd just be crushed to death in their balls, right?
It depends on how strong those spheres are. Sauropods were very heavy in absolute terms, but were relatively light if you think of their weight for their size. If they're at maximum size, those Apatosaurus would be 75 feet long and weigh about 18 tons. A fin whale of the same length would weight over 40 tons. So I hope the new park tech staff did some weight testing on their safety spheres.
Okay, this is the biggie. What is this and why are paleontologists saying there's something off about it?
The teeth on the palate are a dead giveaway – it's a truly enormous mosasaur. What species, I'm not sure. But, with that great white shark for scale, that seagoing lizard is far larger than any mosasaur found so far. But the critter is not exactly spot-on. Mosasaurs were lizards closely related to groups with forked tongues; this giant should have one, too. And while you can't see it in this grab, the wide shot shows that the park's mosasaur has a row of scaly fringe on its back. Paleontologists thought this feature was real until they quickly realised that the "frill" was actually misidentified rings from the animal's trachea. Either one of the park's geneticists made a mistake, or they're giving their sea lizards a retro chic look.
Tell me there's nothing wrong here, Brian.
Depends on what the park is doing with that insect. That's a crane fly, not a mosquito. Trying to retrieve dinosaur blood from the insect isn't going to go so well, but maybe Jurassic World wants to have accurate, Mesozoic insects that'll authentically bother the visitors. That'd boost the sale of Mesozoic Off! made especially for the park. I guess we'll have to wait for the movie for this mystery to be solved.
The lead geneticist has just said, "We have our first genetically modified hybrid." What are we dealing with, Brian? Cut the small talk.
A hybrid of a hybrid. All the original Jurassic Park dinosaurs were mixed with frog DNA to start with, so calling this beastie the first hybrid is a bit of a stretch. From the long spines on the bottom I'd say those are cervical vertebrae from a theropod dinosaur. What's all the wiring and stuff for? To look more science-y, I guess.
Of the massive dinosaur who's just gone AWOL, Chris Pratt says, "She's a highly intelligent animal. She will kill anything that moves." Will she? And what's Chris got in his hand?
That dinosaur's going to be very, very busy if she kills anything that moves. A gentle breeze shakes the leaves of a tree and that dinosaur will spend all day shredding the foliage. But Chris Pratt is so deadly serious that I'll believe him. And he's holding a dinosaur tooth that broke off into the shattered tourist vehicle. Don't worry about the killer dinosaur, though. Dinosaurs replaced teeth throughout their lives, with new ones constantly coming in to replace the old ones.
What do you reckon to this?
This has got to be the killer dinosaur. One way to tell – too many fingers! Predatory dinosaurs with big clawed hands had a reduced number of fingers, usually three. This one has four, with an opposable thumb sticking out at the top of the screen. Real predatory dinosaurs had thumbs, too, but they were relatively stiff and certainly couldn't create a grasping hand useful for, oh, I don't know, opening doors. And I'm sure the thumbs are just one special feature of this new dinosaur. The Big Bad is rumoured to be a combination of Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, a snake and a cuttlefish. So my question is "Do we get dinosaur tentacles?"
Here it looks as though Chris has the raptors on his side.. Could you tame a raptor, Brian?
You don't tame raptors, Ralph. You earn their respect. Given their high intelligence, I wouldn't be surprised if the raptors were as impressed with Chris Pratt's performance in Guardians of the Galaxy as everyone else and unanimously elected him King of the Raptors.
Valid point. While I've got you here, I have a couple of other dinosaur-related questions that have been keeping me up at night. First, which movie would you say most accurately portrays dinosaurs as they really were?
That's hard to say. Dinosaur movies usually rely on humans and non-avian dinosaurs being brought together, which typically requires the discovery of a lost world, time travel or genetic engineering. But, for their time, the dinosaurs of the first Jurassic Park were pretty close to the real animals. The Velociraptor were too big and Dilophosaurus didn't have a frill, nor spit venom, but, for the most part, they helped usher in a new, updated image of dinosaurs that paleontologists had been piecing together.
And even though they weren't real species, I was charmed by the speculative dinosaurs of Peter Jackson's King Kong remake. They at least made an attempt to imagine how non-avian dinosaurs might have evolved over 66 million years if they became isolated on an island. And Dinotasia – a supercut of the Dinosaur Revolution given ominous narration by Werner Herzog – has some stunning scenes with colourful, up-to-date dinosaurs that are closer to reality than the frogosaurs of Jurassic World.
Finally, what do you make of this talk about cloning woolly mammoths, Brian? Is that ever going to happen?
We're never going to be able to clone a mammoth. Aside from the technical issues involved in bringing a clone to term in an animal with a gestation period of two years, the fact is that the best we can do is piece together our best guess of what a mammoth would be like. DNA starts to degrade at death, so paleo-geneticists need to take all those tatters and reassemble them into a working genome with that of a living elephant as a kind of map. And an organism isn't just a box of genes.
From what we know of living elephants, we can expect that woolly mammoths were highly social animals that learned from each other. Who is going to teach the first woolly mammoth to be a mammoth? Even with a successful cloning attempt – or genetically modifying elephants according to woolly mammoth genes – the best we could get would be a shaggy elephant that is adapted to cold, dry grasslands in an increasingly warming world. I think we can learn much about mammoths and the Ice Age world from their DNA, but they're gone, and I think they're best left that way.
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