Jurassic Park I-III, Evolution, Reign of Fire

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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High Caloric-Intake Monster. Large animals eat a smaller fraction of their body weight each day than small ones, a manifestation of surface to volume ratio. Hollywood critters, on the other hand, eat like shrews.


Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.

Jurassic Park and The Lost World (HCIM, SK)

The superb animation makes up for some morphological flaws in some of the dinosaurs and some questionable behavioral attributes. The scene where Sam Lloyd and Laura Dern first see the Brachiosaurus is marvelous and moving. But were Velociraptors really that smart? Nothing, on the other hand, can make up for the hokey inclusion of kids in both films, especially the truly obnoxious brat in the sequel. I found myself rooting for the velociraptors.

There's a truly delightful story in the August, 1974 issue of Analog science fiction magazine called Paleontology: An Experimental Science by Robert R. Olsen. The author seems to be using a pseudonym but is clearly intimately familiar with geology. The story contains so many elements that occur in the two Jurassic Park films that I really wonder if there's a connection. The story even ends with the reconstructed T-Rex getting loose in San Diego!

Some politically correct but otherwise illiterate viewers complained about racism because a scene in The Lost World depicts Japanese fleeing the Tyrannosaurus who gets loose in San Diego. In fact, the scene is a spoof on the Japanese Godzilla films and the Japanese dialog translates "I left Tokyo to get away from this sort of thing!"

Jurassic Park III (HCIM)

The film opens at Isla Sorna, the off-limits dinosaurisland, where a tour boat is giving two parasailers the best legal view of theisland. The boat enters a fog bank and when it emerges, the canopy is torn toshreds and the crew gone. We find out why, later. The parasailers land on theisland.

Cut to Sam Neill at Laura Dern’s house, entertaining acouple of children. It turns out she’s married, but not to him. Her husband isin the State Department. That will come in handy later.

Then we visit Neill’s research site in Montana. Hisgraduate assistant is demonstrating a rapid prototype machine he’s purchasedwith grant funds, and uses it to replicate a fossil. Rapid prototypers exist.They are like three-dimensional plotters that squirt plastic or molten metalinstead of ink, and they really are amazing. But any graduate student who boughtone on his adviser’s grant without consulting first would be out on the streetfaster than you can say “You want fries with that?” They are expensive.

Neill is approached by a mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, whoexplain they are multi-millionaires, have been everywhere, done everything, andwant to visit Isla Sorna. They can support Neill’s research lavishly if heagrees. So despite his earlier protestations about never going back, he agrees.As the plane cruises the island, Neill realizes suddenly that they are about toland. He’s been kidnapped to help them search for their missing teenage son,who was one of the parasailers.

It gets worse. The Kirby’s aren’t millionaires at all.They’re divorced, and Mr. Kirby owns a building supply store in Enid,Oklahoma. Mrs. Kirby is played by Tea Leone, lovely as a marble statue and withroughly the same emotional range.

The villain this time around is Spinosaurus, a beast thatmakes T-Rex look like a pussycat. Spino wrecks the plane and eats some of thesuperfluous cast, then kills a T-Rex just to show how mean he is. The survivorshead for the coast and get separated.

Neill is just about to be raptor snacks when someonescatters the raptors with tear gas grenades. It’s Eric, the missing teen-ager.He found the one safe place on the island, an empty water truck, and has beenliving inside the tank. No SK rating here - the kid is the object of the searchand anyone savvy enough to survive for two months on an island where the normallife expectancy is five minutes is okay. Meanwhile the others locate the parasail with theremains of the other parasailer still in the harness. I confess frank puzzlementhere. We saw this guy land in the tree and drop Eric to the ground, so we knowhe was alive. And he hasn't been eaten so the kid didn't have to flee to savehimself. Why didn't the kid help the other guy down instead of just leaving him tohang there?

Pursued by raptors and Spinosaurus, the survivors flee tothe coast. It turns out the raptors are pursuing a stolen egg carried byNeill’s graduate student, but why Spinosaurus would bother chasing suchminiscule snacks is a mystery. As if that’s not enough, the survivors aredescending a staircase in the fog when the fog clears, revealing a huge cage.The cage was built for pterosaurs. The pterosaurs carry off Eric, but thegraduate student saves him, only to be attacked himself. We last see him rushingdown rapids with the pterosaurs busily pecking away at him. (We can assume thepterosaurs attacked the boat in the opening scene.)

This is the least successful part of the movie. The jury isstill out on whether pterosaurs had active flight, but their fossils are all verydelicate and graceful. The pterosaurs in the movie are clunky and ungainly anddownright ugly. With a wingspan of ten feet or so as shown in the movie, theycould not carry a half-grown human. In fact their bodies are so big relative totheir wings I doubt theycould have carried their own weight. And now for an experiment. Get a pair ofscissors and a piece of really stiff cardboard. Try to cut the cardboard usingonly the tips of the scissors. Doesn’t work, does it? The only way to cutsomething strong is with the inner part of the scissors. It’s all a matter ofleverage. You don’t chew tough steak with your front teeth, but with your backones. Real birds of prey that have to tear flesh all have short beaks so theycan apply lots of leverage for cutting. Birds with long beaks, like storks andherons, use them for snatching fish and small animals. So the long-beakedpterosaurs wouldn’t have attacked large prey they couldn’t tear apart, butsmall animals and fish.

The remaining survivors find a boat, which Mr. Kirbymanages to get running, and they sail for the coast. Temporarily safe, they havean interlude sailing past a herd of brachiosaurs where we get to enjoy thewonder of seeing live dinosaurs. The slow march theme by John Williams used atmoments like this is one of the most majestic pieces ever written for a filmscore.

As night falls, the survivors hear, amazingly, the ring ofa satellite phone. It was carried by one of the defunct airplane crew, went intoSpinosaurus and out. They find it and clean it off, but where there are freshSpinosaurus droppings, there’s probably a Spinosaurus angry at the T.P.running out. He attacks the boat as Neill frantically tries to retrieve thephone and call Laura. Mr. Kirby, who turns out to be resourceful and courageous,distracts the Spinosaurus and everyone escapes. They reach the coast just intime to see helicopters buzzing in and Marines storming ashore. Laura’sconnections to the State Department have paid off. And the graduate studentturns up, battered but alive.

Critics are fond of lashing out at characters in films likethis as flat and uninteresting, and I really think it’s because the critics’personal lives are in such disarray they simply don’t know how to relate torational people. Read a few biographies from the arts and see how many artistshave destroyed themselves through alcohol, drugs, destructive lifestyles, andsuicide. The real one-dimensional characters in film and literature are theangst-ridden neurotics. The characters in this film are under enormous stressand have panicky moments, but for the most part do the intelligent thing – they stick together and headfor the coast. Mr. Kirby, in particular, starts out as a seemingly weak andsniveling character but turns out to be resourceful and quite courageous in theend. Eric, the missing teenager, comes armed with a good deal of knowledge aboutdinosaurs and puts it to good use in surviving until help comes.


A 50’s monster movie brought up to date. There’s ablack geology prof who spends most of his time in and out of class trolling forcoeds (“Just like every geologist I know,” opined my son. Har.) There’s alow-key biologist (David Duchovny). There’s a flunked out firefighter and twohulking students with a world’s record for low IQ (Their biology essay, "Cellsare Bad," explained that their uncle was in one only six by ten feet and hadnothing to read). There’s a lovely but clumsy investigator from the Center forDisease Control and the stock collection of clich military types, includingthe kid from Brooklyn who’s too young to die (Sorry. It really won’t happenagain. Promise). There’s puerile sexual humor and gross alien gunk.

A meteor strikes near Glen Canyon, Arizona. The two localprofessors go to investigate it and discover that it’s oozing a mysteriousgoop. Duchovny, whose lab has some pretty spiffy stuff for a community college,discovers the goop contains cells that have alien DNA (“Is the Nobel Prizepaid in installments or a lump sum?” asks his colleague.) They soon discoverthat the cells evolve at a prodigious rate.

Soon after, the site is taken over by the military. The trailer line"No government. I know those guys" looks, out of context, like merelyan inside joke about The X Files. However, welearn that the commanding general is Duchovny’s old boss, and that Duchovny was cashieredin disgrace from the Army for releasing a faulty vaccine without propertesting. The creatures, however, don’t stay put and soon begin popping up intown, bigger and nastier each time. The military plans to napalm the cavernswhere the aliens live, but the two professors accidentally discover that heat triggersexplosive growth.

Then Duchovny has an idea. If arsenic is poisonous tocarbon-based life, maybe selenium is poisonous to the nitrogen-based aliens. Imissed the part where it was explained that the aliens were nitrogen based, andthat’s rather mysterious if they have DNA, which is carbon-based, but this is no time to getall scientific. Now, where to get enough selenium? The dumb brothers exclaim thatit’s in shampoo (“How can you guys know that? You don’t know anything,” Duchovnysays in amazement.) The would-be fireman commandeers a truck. When theArmy sets off the napalm, the alien life grows into a huge mass, but the heroessquirt the selenium into it and it dies, splattering the surrounding area withglop.

The best thing in the film is the banter between the twoprofessors. The trailer scene is typical: “Take off your helmet.” “I’veseen this movie. The black guy dies. You take off your helmet.” Duchovny’slow-key tongue-in-cheek style served him well on the X-files and he’s got themakings of a good comedian. I’m reminded of Leslie Nielsen, who was good indramatic roles but really took off in comedy.

On a technical note, strictly speaking it’s illegal foranyone not in the military to wear a military uniform, so I’ve heard it saidthat all actors in uniform have some uniform flaw so that they are technicallynot in uniform. Of course, so do a lot of real soldiers. As a former Armymember, I find it a fun challenge to spot the discrepancy. In the movie, theGeneral’s Kuwait Liberation Ribbon is upside down. Another little irony isthat a mousy lieutenant is wearing a Soldier’s Medal, the highest Army awardfor heroism outside of combat.

Reign of Fire

This was bombed by the critics for its gloomy atmosphere, but my son likedit. "Helicopters and dragons. What's not to like?" Well, of courseit's gloomy. Has anyone ever made a cheerful post-apocalyptic movie? Nowplaying: On the Beach: The Musical? Or maybe The Muppets Meet Mad Max?

A subway project in London tunnels into the lair of dormant dragons, whoescape and begin overrunning the earth, destroying everything. Twenty yearslater, tiny bands of survivors seek to stay hidden. One such band in northernEngland is startled by the sudden arrival of a group of Americans outfitted withtanks and a helicopter. There is an immediate clash between Quinn, leader of thesurvivors (Christopher Bale) and Van Zant, the American leader (MatthewMcConaughy). Also thehelicopter pilot (Izabela Scorupco) is a gorgeous blonde. Can we all see where this is headed?Not only is only one species getting out of this alive, but only one male leadas well.

Seems the Americans figured out that the dragons were all female, and theonly male must be hanging around where the dragons first emerged. (If thedragons were hermaphrodites, as a lot of organisms are, or reproduce viaparthenogenesis, we're toast - literally) So they salvaged a plane, loaded upand came over to do battle. Why nobody figured this out years ago when therewere far more resources and people to fight is never explained. The Americansrecruit a few of the survivors, head off to London, and get crisped. So Van Zantand the chopper pilot come back. Quinn agrees to help them,they take out the male dragon, Van Zant gets killed, and the worldslowly begins to recover.

Do I really need to hammer on surface-to-mass ratio and how it limits thesize of flying animals? Guess so. If you double the dimensions of a flyinganimal, its volume and mass increase eight-fold, but the surface area of thewings increases only fourfold. That means the wings have to become twice as longto support the body weight. This is why sparrows have short wings but condorsand albatrosses have very long ones. These dragons not only are huge in relation totheir wings, but the wings are ratty and full of holes too.

There's a feeble attempt to explain the physiology of the dragons. They havetwo glands that secrete chemicals which ignite on contact to make naturalnapalm, a highly original concept that's only been a staple of every sci-fi andfantasy tale about dragons for the last fifty years. Even if I buy this aspossible, how do the dragons spray fire while they're flying forward? Wouldn'tit fly back in their faces?

Supposedly the dragons burn things and feed on the ash. Now burning thingsreleases energy. So why not eat the food, burn it internally (or oxidize itslowly like we do), and capture all that energy? It makes about as much sense as burning asteak to carbon before eating it.

In the movie, the dragons are starving since they've destroyed just aboutall their own food. So clearly a nice yummy nest of human survivors would be atreat. So how come the survivors keep their compound brightly floodlit at night?Why not just hang out a sign saying "Free Lunch?"

The male dragon is finally brought down by a modest explosive charge, whichinspires me to ask why Stinger missiles weren't effective. A shaped charge willpunch a hole in nearly anything, to say nothing of depleted uranium bullets. AndI really find it hard to imagine these beasts being much of a match for an F-16with heat-seeking missiles, or an Apache helicopter, or an A-10 Warthog.

I found this movie fairly disappointing. I'd hoped for a lot more on thelosing battle with the dragons but apparently the special effects budget wasn'tthere.

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Created 15 August, 2001, Last Update 24 May 2020

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