Phenomena Understood

Credit: Universal Pictures

Our Dino Love Will Never Die

Dinosaurs haven’t been super-popular for 65 million years—it only feels that way. Fans and experts explain our obsession with dead monsters.

Early on in the brand new Jurassic World, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the manager of a giant dino theme park, explains that, in her world, “no one is impressed with a dinosaur anymore.” But in our world, little could be further from the truth. We’ve been impressed with them since before we even knew what they were.

The first recorded instance of our interest in dinosaurs dates back to the Jin Dynasty (265 BC), when Chang Qu wrote about the discovery of “dragon bones.” Meanwhile, western culture tends to cite 1822 as the beginning of “dinosaurs” being a thing, when Englishman Gideon Mantell “discovered” the jawbone of what would eventually be called an Iguanodon. A little under a century later, no longer content to write about the super-popular Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle caught dino-fever when he published his dinosaur-centric novel The Lost World in 1912. Following that, the 1925 film adaptation of The Lost World was, at the time, with a budget of $700,000, one of the most expensive movies ever made and gave popular culture its first serious-looking stop-motion movie dinosaurs. The Lost World also has the distinction of being the first film ever shown on an airplane. We loved dinos so much we had to take them to the skies with us! The New York Times also loved the film saying “[Conan Doyle’s] monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces.”

At the box office, The Lost World made about a million dollars, which is nothing compared to the 1988 animated dinosaur movie The Land Before Time, which made $48 million the year it was released. This was significant, because a non-Disney movie about dinosaurs beat a Disney movie about cats (Oliver and Company) at the box office, proving that maybe kids prefer dinosaurs to cats. And from the Flintstones, to the various time-traveling antics in Calvin and Hobbes, the omnipresence of dinosaurs is obvious in kids’ media if you’re paying attention. Remember what kind of creature Barney was? By the time Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park was published, America, if not the entire world, was totally in love with dinosaurs. That book has sold over nine million copies since its release, while the famous Steven Spielberg 1993 film adaptation made $1.029 billion at the box office.

In its opening weekend, Jurassic World made history by being the first film to make over $500 million in just those brief 72 hours of its initial release. That’s $511 million, globally, and it just came out. Meanwhile, the Field Museum’s famous T-Rex skeleton “Sue” is a full-on Mesozoic rock star. This iconic dinosaur has been on tour around America non-stop since 2000. So with the popularity of dinosaurs seemingly beyond extinction, how come our cinematic versions of them don’t look much different than the 1925 beasts of The Lost World? And could dinosaurs—as Claire suggests in the new film—ever become played out?

The Dinosaurs We Loved as Children

As with its predecessors, Jurassic World keeps the perspective of children central to the narrative conceit. And—provided you were born after 1975 or so—in America, at least, our love of dinosaurs often starts when we are young. According to dinosaur expert and author of the pop-paleontology essay collection My Beloved Brontosaurus, Brian Switek, “We’ve chosen them as mascots of the prehistoric past and ambassadors to science. A ‘dinosaur phase’ is an expected part of childhood.”

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s this is particularly true. Back then, the Alavrez Hypothesis—the notion that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid impact—was a brand new cutting edge theory. Prior to the ‘80s, dinosaurs were not destroyed by a giant rock from space, but rather more conventional extinction theories like climate change or disease. If children didn’t love dinosaurs prior to outer space being incorporated into this prehistoric narrative, they certainly did after. For this reason, it’s actually shocking there aren’t more films in which dinosaurs live in space, as they do in the 2012 Doctor Who episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” But back in 1986, there was a big asteroid in the beloved CBS documentary called Dinosaur! hosted by Superman himself, Christopher Reeve. If you’re a child, the only person you trust more than your parents is Superman.

Maria Konnikova, a psychology writer for the New Yorker, told me that children are often interested in “exaggerated” creatures like monsters. “And dinosaurs are cool,” she told me over the phone. “Because they’re like those pretend monsters—only real.” Jill Pantozzi, journalist and editor-in-chief of the geek-centric blog The Mary Sue, connected dinosaurs to imaginary monsters when she told me, “Maybe some of us love [dinosaurs] just a little because they make us think of dragons.”

The I-Rex mashes up the qualities of two dinosaurs you love for the ultimate intentionally inauthentic and, yes, completely satisfying dinosaur experience.

Dragons are generally a little scarier than dinosaurs, but Ryan North, the creator of Dinosaur Comics, says that there’s “an element to spookiness to them.… It kind of feels like moving into an abandoned house and finding all this evidence of the people who lived there before. Only… we’re finding the skeletons of these giant monsters that ate each other.” True, there are no large-scale psychological studies that prove children love dinosaurs, so I’m aware most of this is theoretical. But since so much of what we know about dinosaurs rests on theories too, this seems somehow appropriate.

In the novel version of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton speculates—through the perspective of Dr. Grant—that children love dinosaurs so much because of a more familial connection: “[Grant] finally decided that children liked dinosaurs because these giant creatures personified the uncontrollable force of looming authority. They were symbolic parents. Fascinating and frightening, like parents.”

But when the children of the ‘80s (and the generations that followed) grew up, we didn’t always grow out of our dinosaur love. In fact, we’ve figured out a bizarre way of keeping our childlike dinosaur love alive.

Retro-Dinosaurs Versus “Real” Dinosaurs

Unless you’re actually someone who works in paleontology or is actively a scientist, you probably have a preconceived idea of the way dinosaurs are supposed to look, scientific research be damned. The pervasiveness of dinosaurs throughout pop culture reveals that we’re also determined to control our perception of dinosaurs. Famously, “brontosaurus” was declared not a real dinosaur designation, but nobody seemed to really stop using the word. (And now the position has reversed). We’re told repeatedly that the velociraptors in the Jurassic movies and books weren’t nearly as big as that in real life, and actually based on another dinosaur called deinonychus. Guess what? People don’t want to hear it. For most, it’s important that raptors remain the cold-hard “clever girl” killers we all know and love.

And what of the feathers? Over the last 20 years, paleontological research overwhelmingly seems to indicate that many dinosaurs had feathers—like, a lot of feathers. But we’re not having that in this brave new Jurassic world of ours. The most derided “Jurassic” movie of them all is 2001’sJurassic Park III, and those raptors have little feathers on their heads. The ones hanging out with Chris Pratt’s motorcycle gang in Jurassic World? Not a feather in sight. While The Nerdist pointed out this week that the world might be ready for feathered dinosaurs, at the moment, the culture has restored the raptors to their “true” form, which is actually intentionally fake.

This fakery is explained within the “Jurassic” universe of course: these dinosaurs are genetic clones of “real” dinosaurs, meaning if they don’t look like “real” dinosaurs, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Presciently, Crichton sort of addresses this meta-fictionally in the novel when Dr. Henry Wu tries to recommend to John Hammond that the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park will seem fake to the outside public (children of the ‘80s?), because the dinosaurs are in fact “too real.” His main suggestion is that they clone new, more toned-down dinosaurs, which will be closer to the expectations of the general public. Hammond—Jurassic Park’s founder—objects:

“Domesticated dinosaurs?” Hammond snorted. “Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, Henry. They want the real thing.”

“But that’s my point,” Wu said, “I don’t think they do. They want to see their expectation, which is quite different.”

Here, it’s suggested that the simulacrum of the thing is more “real” than real, which is why we’ve got the classic featherless raptors back front and center for Jurassic World. In the narrative of the new film, it’s a similar desire to please that has encouraged these geneticists-gone-mad to create a super-fierce dinosaur-hybrid, the Indominus Rex. Without spoiling too much, the I-Rex mashes up the qualities of two dinosaurs you love for the ultimate intentionally inauthentic and, yes, completely satisfying dinosaur experience.

Will We Ever Feel Differently About Dinosaurs?

Inherently, whenever we view or think about dinosaurs, we’re seeing layers of representation, all of which skew (or outright destroy) any concept of a “true” dinosaur reality. But why are we so resistant to new dino facts? Are our opinions and perceptions of dinosaurs as written in stone as the fossil record itself?

“That [resistance to change] is a fundamental part of how our minds work,” Konnikova told me. “We are very stubborn in giving up our ideas about the way the world works, especially if we’ve been given those ideas by an authority figure.... And because a love of dinosaurs unites so many people who don’t have much in common… we’re resistant to give up our image of them. We want our smooth-skinned dinosaurs!”

But Switek thinks we’re just dealing with a sluggish culture, not a static one. “Culture is usually slow to cope,” he said. “We now know that many dinosaurs—including favorites like Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus—were covered in protofeathers.… But it may be a generational thing. Kids [today], as far as I can tell, are onboard with more birdlike dinosaurs.”

Forget feathers, could a future generation stop caring about dinosaurs all together? Consider this: If Jurassic Park/World were real, but functioned properly without one human death or smashed window, it’s possible our culture might lose interest. Part of the appeal of dinosaurs and our insistence on keeping our image of them static may be connected to their inherent elusiveness. If they became manifest, such as creatures in a zoo or an amusement park, instead of inhabiting the spooky haunted house of our child brains, might we stop caring? When I was a child, people loved things like pogs and trading cards, fads that would never interest the kids of today. This isn’t to say dinosaurs are like pogs, but the very premise of Jurassic World implies that a little bit. In the narrative of the film, a bored consumer culture would eventually stop believing that dinosaurs were cool enough on their own. When confronted as to why a new mutant dinosaur was created in the first place, Claire tells Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) that investors wanted more “wow factor,” because regular dinos just aren’t cutting it.

Disgusted that someone could be underwhelmed by dinosaurs, and maybe standing in for the audience, Pratt’s Grady raises his eyebrows and spits back, “Dinosaurs! ‘Wow’ enough!” Grady is clearly someone from the real world, while Claire and those investors exist in alternate dimension that could only diminish the excitement we have about dinosaurs with fiction. Make no mistake, the most unrealistic thing about Jurassic World isn’t the occasionally incorrect science, or unlikely narrow escape, it’s the idea that the world could actually ever become bored with dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs Forever

In the climax of Jurassic World, Chris Pratt pits his trained velociraptors against the murderous and dangerously on-the-loose Indominus Rex. Relatively speaking, the raptors are closer to “real” dinosaurs than the Indominus, meaning that sometimes even our fantasies about dinosaurs manage to dream up their own unrealistic fantasies. In one of the film’s more nostalgic moves, a legit dinosaur (T-Rex) battles a faux-dinosaur (the Indominus), totally symbolizing the victory of childhood monsters over adult cynicism.

It’s too early to say if Jurassic World will become another classic dinosaur film on par with the 1993 Spielberg awesome-fest from which this new movie was cloned. Not that it matters at all, because dinosaurs will go on. Back in 1985, Christopher Reeve closed his narration to Dinosaur! with these words: “They’re not creatures from museums or fossil beds. They’re made of more than rock and sand. They’re eternal, because they live in our imagination.”

I think Reeve was right, because dinosaurs are like reoccurring dreams. Most of what we know about dinosaurs takes place somewhere we can’t completely access. But our minds are real and the past is real, too. And as long as we keep dreaming of dinosaurs, they’ll be as close to real as imaginations and intellects can fathom.