Twenty-two years ago, "Jurassic Park" (based on the Michael Crichton best-selling novel of the same name) thrilled audiences with its tale of resurrected dinosaurs run amok, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide and spawning two less successful sequels. The latest incarnation, "Jurassic World," takes us back to Isla Nublar where 20,000 visitors a day flock to the titular theme park to watch a mosasaur devour a great white shark, and the kids can ride the baby triceratops.
But the novelty of living dinos has worn off, and the corporate brass needs something new to recapture interest and raise attendance numbers. So Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong) literally creates a monster: a 40-foot hybrid Franken-dino called Indominus rex that — inevitably — escapes its cage, delivering the scares and carnage that fans expect. But "Jurassic World," opening today (June 12) in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX, is more than a chomp-fest. It's also a cautionary tale about corporate greed and the consequences of messing with Mother Nature. And it has some real science behind its science fiction.
On June 11, The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County hosted a screening and panel discussion with a trio of experts, who weighed in on the movie's fact and fiction in its depiction of dinosaurs. They also discussed the plausibility — and ethics — of bringing back extinct species.
Michael Habib is a paleontologist, biochemist and assistant professor at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and a research associate at the Natural History Museum's Dinosaur Institute who reconstructs the anatomy, physiology and motion of extinct animals. He had a few bones to pick with the movie's dinos, starting with the mosasaur, which is actually a giant aquatic lizard, not a dinosaur.
"It's way too large. The largest ones would be the size of an orca, not a whale. You'd need 50, 60 years for it to get to that size even if it could, and the park has only been there for 20 years," he said. "The skin texture was wrong. They left off the tail fluke. It was more lizard-looking." For the Tyrannosaurus rex, "There were some anatomical quirks that were not correct, but overall it was pretty cool. The palms of the hands should face toward the middle, more birdlike, and the skull shape is a little weird. But I think they wanted to keep it in line with the T. rex in the first movie," Habib presumed.
"Velociraptors were a lot smaller than you see in the film, and are closely related to birds. They had feathers. And they probably weren't that loud," he continued. "We don't have evidence for the sounds they made or language they used. But we do know that birds are good communicators and really social."
As for the ferocious Indominus rex, Habib said, "It's not a plausible dinosaur but it's not meant to be a plausible dinosaur. It's a crazy genetically engineered monster and comes across that way. It's visually stunning. The physics of it are great. It works. It does exactly what they wanted it to do, which is to be an awesome, impressive monster that humans cobbled together in a lab."
A Jurassic World security guard stares down the Indominus rex.
David Krentz, a movie character designer specializing in dinosaurs who as worked on such projects as "Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D," pronounced the "Jurassic World" effects and CG "really good. You can get closer to the animals in the computer now. You couldn't get too close 20 years ago because it started to look fake and rubbery. You'd see the skin stretching. Now there's higher resolution, better muscle controls,” he compared.
Krentz explained the process of creature creation, from sketching to sculpting, clay model, virtual rigging, texture painting, adding muscles and animation, but emphasized, "The most important thing is to serve the story," and that often means taking dramatic license and fudging the facts.
It's now known that many dinosaurs were brightly colored and had proto-feathers, but you won't see any of those in "Jurassic World." "Because of the previous [film] iteration we expect them to look a certain way. These are scary dinosaurs. It requires two suspensions of belief: We can bring dinosaurs back, and this isn't quite what they look like because this is a horror movie," said Kyle Hill, a science journalist and host of YouTube show "Because Science."
He told a story about an exchange Jack Horner, the paleontology consultant on every "Jurassic" movie, had with producer Steven Spielberg before the original film. Horner "wanted dancing dinosaurs, displaying their proto-feathers. Steven said, 'Technicolor feathered dinosaurs aren't scary.'" Hill concedes the point, as Horner did, but added that "maybe there's room to explore" the less-scary version on film.
For now, the mega-monstrous Indominus rex is the star of the show (sorry, Chris Pratt), a GMO mix of various dinosaurs' DNA with genetic material from creatures like cuttlefish and frogs that give it camouflage capability. It's more than a hybrid, Habib differentiated.
"A hybrid is where you have two distinct species and get them to interbreed. What they do in the film is transgenics, where you take genes from an unrelated animal and stick them in the embryo. You can do a shotgun approach, throw a whole bunch of traits in and see if anything shows up. Sometimes you get really interesting results you can learn from. But custom designing a monster like that would be awfully difficult to impossible, based on genetics."
As Hill further explained, "DNA has a half-life, meaning every 521 years half of it decays, making the parts unusable. That puts a firm limit on bringing an animal back from the dead. So dinosaurs don't fit the bill. But we have brought animals back," he said, relating the example of DNA from an extinct species of ibex that was implanted in the cells of a close relative animal. "Seven embryos took and one animal was born. It only lived for a few minutes. It had malformed lungs. But we had an extinct animal back for a brief time."
Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) trains a trio of Velociraptors in "Jurassic World."
The genome of a wooly mammoth has been sequenced. But whether one can be resurrected via an elephant surrogate remains to be seen.
"It might be possible with a mammoth. Do I think anyone is going to cough up the dough to do it? It's a tough call to put millions of dollars into something where the animal will probably die in 15 minutes," Habib reflected.
Habib is concerned about the ethical aspects of de-extinction as well. "We don't know enough about how the genes communicate yet to keep the animals alive. That ibex lived ten minutes and died painfully." But he has no problem with reactivating traits that have gone extinct. "You can find ancient silent traits in the living relatives and turn them back on — for example, teeth, claws, a long tail in birds — and get a glimpse of what its ancestor was like. Turning on teeth or tails in chickens is fairly harmless."
"These ethical qualms have to be addressed," agreed Hill. "But like space flight, there are a lot of things we do in exploration just because we can and want to see what happens. Think of the things we can learn about genetics from just attempting to bring an animal back from the brink. We can learn a lot, but we have to be careful."
Although the experts didn't think dinosaurs would be resurrected any time soon, they agreed that good science fiction stories spark the imagination and get people talking about and involved in science. "I think this will do great and get a lot of people interested in science like the first movie did," said Kyle. "So many people got into paleontology because of 'Jurassic Park.' Dinosaurs are the gateway drug for science."
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