Monday, 5 March 2018

dinosaur thoughts

We rewatched all the Jurassic Park movies in the last couple of days and I have a lot of half-formed thoughts about dinosaurs and monster design that need to go somewhere.

The basic unit of Jurassic Park is the theropod. From smallest to largest we have:

Compsognathus. Cute little piranha boys. You only see one at first - it looks innocent until you spot the next one, and the next one. Once there's a critical mass they jump all over you biting, then back away and wait for you to tire out from loss of blood. They stay just out of your reach like a hungry seagull will. Any "swarm" monster lets you escalate tension by slowly increasing the number of component bodies - compies are good because they combine that with the intelligent birdlike playfulness of theropods. Only in the second movie.

Dilophosaurus. Kills the fat guy in the first one. Again we see the movement from "this thing seems cute and harmless" to "wait, could it actually hurt me?" to "oh shit, I didn't know it could do that" to "I am dead". Has the frill and the poison to distinguish it from raptors - a little overdesigned, and therefore less versatile, which is probably why they never brought it back. Only so many scenes you can do with this guy.

Velociraptor. Actually a utahraptor, as we know. Smart, playful, always faintly smiling - basically a dolphin that can kill you. These films deserve immense credit for inventing a genuinely new horror monster - that's hard as hell to do. The core dynamic is "clever girl" - they can actually out-think you, which is always surprising in an animal. Immensely versatile but the writer has to work a bit harder - they should be more than wolves but it's easy to make them too human.

Tyrannosaurus rex. So big you can escape its notice - you're too small to be its natural prey. Scenes with this guy don't have as much moving around as raptor scenes. Either you're lying still and hoping it doesn't notice you or you're running away from it in a straight line. Can only see quick things - forces you to move slowly, which builds tension. The puppet they use for its head is great. The distant stomping that makes water ripple doesn't make sense - is it only taking one step every five seconds? - but still works wonders, obviously. An omen of the monster's approach, like seeing only one compsognathus. Not as sadistic as the other theropods - doesn't play with its food like the rest do. Would rather be eating a stegosaur really. A doting parent, feeds people to its babies but can you really begrudge it? The friendliest of the theropods.

Spinosaurus. The T-rex replacement in the third one. Long crocodile snout that it uses to probe into narrow spaces where people are hiding - seems designed to eat smaller prey than the T-rex mouth. Gives the sense that it actively hates you. You could make these amphibious - it could lurk like a crocodile with its sail jutting from the water like a shark fin.

Indominus rex. The genetically-engineered dinosaur from the fourth movie. This thing sucks and I hate it. It's supposed to be like a smarter crueller T-rex and also a metaphor for consumerism, but the design sucks and allegory by itself is always boring. They just glued a bunch of spikes onto a T-rex and gave it a random assortment of superpowers. It's lazy and you can't give dinosaurs superpowers, the basic idea is already complex enough that you can't overload it like that. Fuck this whole movie honestly. The name is okay though.

The movies only use a couple of other carnivores:

Pteranodon. Pointy-headed beaky boy. Clumsy and ungainly. Always on the verge of falling out of the sky. Picks people up and carries them off. When it’s on the ground it kind of hops toward you in this awkward way, stabbing at you with its beak. Interesting combination of heavy and fragile - you could break its wings with something heavy if you were lucky. Can probe into small spaces with its beak the way the spinosaur can. Wants to be fought in a three-dimensional space - there’s a good scene in the third one in a ruined aviary with ravines and catwalks and the great dome overheard. Doesn’t have the faint theropod smile and therefore does not code as playful or intelligent - it’s a mindless shrieking death monster that kills automatically. In the fourth one they dive like cormorants, which is good.

Dimorphodon. Smaller pterosaur with T-rex-esque head. Pins people down and snaps at them. A pteranodon couldn’t do this - its beak is designed for eating things smaller than itself, so they have to be bigger to be scary. Only in the fourth one, which is allergic to doing anything clever with its monsters. Have potential though. Basically another swarm monster like the compies. Could accompany a larger monster as groomers, picking parasites off its scales.

Mosasaur. Has only one move, which is to jump out of the water and grab something. Impressive by virtue of size but hard to see how you would use it. Effectively bigger-fishes the Indominus. Could maybe sink a ship - I could see one coming up through the floor of a glass-bottomed boat. They needed to let this thing get out into the ocean where it can actually move around.

The herbivores don’t really do anything and I’m not going to go through them one by one. Most of them are used as just big dumb herd animals that get captured and eaten. Julianne Moore almost gets spiked by a stegosaurus and there’s a good bit in the second one with a pachycephalosaurus attacking a jeep - its head moves almost mechanically, like a piston. Sauropods and hadrosaurs are mostly set dressing. You could do something with a triceratops - maybe it goes into musth like a male elephant, goes insane with rage and starts weeping ichor from its neck glands. Works with an ankylosaur as well.

Here are some dinosaurs they could use but don’t:

Allosaurus. Occupies the size category between the raptor and the T-rex, which is probably why they don’t use it. Could fit into human-sized spaces - I imagine this following you through caves and tunnels, cramped, its head scraping against the roof. It actively wants to kill you, specifically, but it’s not playful about it like the raptors - it just comes for you until you’re dead. Maybe an endurance hunter - could pursue you across miles of jungle terrain, scenting and tracking you. Packs of two or three. There’s a similar dinosaur called the carnotaurus, which has two immense advantages - it has horns, making it visibly distinct, and it is called “the carnotaurus”.

Elasmosaur. Would be at home in a mangrove swamp, grabbing people from beneath the water, or picking off the passengers on a sinking ship. The long serpentine neck was not actually that flexible - it wouldn’t bend like a swan or strike like a cobra, but you could make it work. Can climb out of the water, although it’s hard to imagine them going very fast. There’s one called a styxosaurus, which is good.

Ichthyosaur. The huge eyes make these guys. They’re mostly just sharks but they do look super creepy. Since they look like dolphins, and raptors are dolphins, they could be the raptors of the sea - smart, playful pack hunters. They don’t smile though. There’s something very goblinlike about them - they always look frightened and appalled. Maybe an escaped pack that strikes fishing boats on moonless nights, giving rise to ghost stories.

Quetzalcoatlus. King of the skies bb. Bigger than the T-rex - the pteranodons they use are pretty big but this would dwarf them. Same basic body structure as a giraffe. Could fill the T-rex role as an ultimate boss monster, though not as friendly or loveable. Would attack you like a heron attacks a frog, striking downward with its toothless beak. Demands some kind of megastructure - an aviary, a skyscraper like the Burj Khalifa.

Titanosaur. Largest genus of land animals ever to live. Big enough to be terrain in its own right - you could put a howdah on its backs and rappel off its sides. Have an entire fight scene that takes place physically on the dinosaur while it rampages through the park, stomping through rollercoasters, before stumbling into the mosasaur tank. Give it its own ecosystem - moss grows on its sides, crab-sized parasites live in folds in its skin, pterosaurs eat the parasites. Best names are aegyptosaurus and patagotitan.

Conclusions we can draw from all this:

Dinosaurs work because they’re animals with clearly-defined physical characteristics. It’s not a Lovecraft thing like Alien where the more you find out about the monster, the less scary it is. They’re not metaphors for anything - they have their own existence independent of yours, and are native to an environment that you are trespassing in. The Indominus sucks because it breaks these rules.

Theropods have a very simple basic design that can be used for a huge range of different things. What compares to this? You can only do about two or three things with cats and dogs. The only comparison I can think of is primates - you get monkeys, apes, humans, neanderthals, goblins, etc. But we are primates so that’s not really fair. Maybe some morphologies lend themselves better to size variation than others - you can’t imagine a house-sized cat but you can imagine a house-sized gorilla.

Horror franchises don’t lend themselves to plot variation. Every Jurassic Park film is about humans trying to get off an island that’s overrun by dinosaurs, and always will be - it’s hard to imagine what else you could even do. The filmmakers think in scenes - this is the pterodactyl scene, this is the scene with the T-rex in suburbia and a bunch of classic sight gags. Since each film has the same premise, you could move any scene from one film to another without losing much. As long as you can come up with more scenes - which involves either finding new dinosaurs or coming up with new things to do with existing dinosaurs - you could keep reusing the same plot basically forever.

It doesn’t have to be Isla Nublar every time though. Jurassic World was a great opportunity to move the park to, like, Patagonia. Or it’s somewhere in Mexico and there’s actual Mayan ruins on site. Or it’s an artificial island in the Persian Gulf, funded by a Saudi billionaire. The environment controls the kind of scenes you can do - raptors can’t hide in the jungle if there is no jungle. I can kind of see what they were going for with the fourth one but they dropped the ball in about a million different ways.

The only thing I'm not talking about here is the different types of character in the films - the capitalist, the mercenary, the scientist whose warnings get ignored. That's kind of its own post though.

Okay it’s Logan Lucky but with the Jurassic Park payroll office and the name of the film is Jurassic Heist.


  1. Paleontologist Robert Bakker said, "Dinosaurs are Nature's special effects."

  2. What annoyed me about the Jurassic Park movies is they tossed existing protocols for keeping dangerous animals contained (deep moats usual) and replaced them with advanced tech (electric fences) to serve the primitive vs technology themes. I'd like to see a Jurassic Park where they actually built the park properly, and nothing actually goes wrong. Okay, it would probably have to be a comedy but so what.

  3. Theropods have a very simple basic design that can be used for a huge range of different things.

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