Jurassic Park I-III, Evolution, Reign of Fire

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Rating Symbols

HCIM

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.

SK

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 dinosaur island, where a tour boat is giving two parasailers the best legal view of the island. The boat enters a fog bank and when it emerges, the canopy is torn to shreds and the crew gone. We find out why, later. The parasailers land on the island.

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

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

Neill is approached by a mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, who explain they are multi-millionaires, have been everywhere, done everything, and want to visit Isla Sorna. They can support Neill’s research lavishly if he agrees. So despite his earlier protestations about never going back, he agrees. As the plane cruises the island, Neill realizes suddenly that they are about to land. 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 with roughly the same emotional range.

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

Neill is just about to be raptor snacks when someone scatters 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 been living inside the tank. No SK rating here - the kid is the object of the search and anyone savvy enough to survive for two months on an island where the normal life expectancy is five minutes is okay. Meanwhile the others locate the parasail with the remains of the other parasailer still in the harness. I confess frank puzzlement here. We saw this guy land in the tree and drop Eric to the ground, so we know he was alive. And he hasn't been eaten so the kid didn't have to flee to save himself. Why didn't the kid help the other guy down instead of just leaving him to hang there?

Pursued by raptors and Spinosaurus, the survivors flee to the coast. It turns out the raptors are pursuing a stolen egg carried by Neill’s graduate student, but why Spinosaurus would bother chasing such miniscule snacks is a mystery. As if that’s not enough, the survivors are descending 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 the graduate student saves him, only to be attacked himself. We last see him rushing down rapids with the pterosaurs busily pecking away at him. (We can assume the pterosaurs attacked the boat in the opening scene.)

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

The remaining survivors find a boat, which Mr. Kirby manages to get running, and they sail for the coast. Temporarily safe, they have an interlude sailing past a herd of brachiosaurs where we get to enjoy the wonder of seeing live dinosaurs. The slow march theme by John Williams used at moments like this is one of the most majestic pieces ever written for a film score.

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

Critics are fond of lashing out at characters in films like this 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 to rational people. Read a few biographies from the arts and see how many artists have destroyed themselves through alcohol, drugs, destructive lifestyles, and suicide. The real one-dimensional characters in film and literature are the angst-ridden neurotics. The characters in this film are under enormous stress and have panicky moments, but for the most part do the intelligent thing – they stick together and head for the coast. Mr. Kirby, in particular, starts out as a seemingly weak and sniveling character but turns out to be resourceful and quite courageous in the end. Eric, the missing teenager, comes armed with a good deal of knowledge about dinosaurs and puts it to good use in surviving until help comes.

Evolution

A 50’s monster movie brought up to date. There’s a black geology prof who spends most of his time in and out of class trolling for coeds (“Just like every geologist I know,” opined my son. Har.) There’s a low-key biologist (David Duchovny). There’s a flunked out firefighter and two hulking students with a world’s record for low IQ (Their biology essay, "Cells are Bad," explained that their uncle was in one only six by ten feet and had nothing to read). There’s a lovely but clumsy investigator from the Center for Disease Control and the stock collection of clich military types, including the kid from Brooklyn who’s too young to die (Sorry. It really won’t happen again. Promise). There’s puerile sexual humor and gross alien gunk.

A meteor strikes near Glen Canyon, Arizona. The two local professors go to investigate it and discover that it’s oozing a mysterious goop. Duchovny, whose lab has some pretty spiffy stuff for a community college, discovers the goop contains cells that have alien DNA (“Is the Nobel Prize paid in installments or a lump sum?” asks his colleague.) They soon discover that 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 merely an inside joke about The X Files. However, we learn that the commanding general is Duchovny’s old boss, and that Duchovny was cashiered in disgrace from the Army for releasing a faulty vaccine without proper testing. The creatures, however, don’t stay put and soon begin popping up in town, bigger and nastier each time. The military plans to napalm the caverns where the aliens live, but the two professors accidentally discover that heat triggers explosive growth.

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

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

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

Reign of Fire

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

A subway project in London tunnels into the lair of dormant dragons, who escape and begin overrunning the earth, destroying everything. Twenty years later, tiny bands of survivors seek to stay hidden. One such band in northern England is startled by the sudden arrival of a group of Americans outfitted with tanks and a helicopter. There is an immediate clash between Quinn, leader of the survivors (Christopher Bale) and Van Zant, the American leader (Matthew McConaughy). Also the helicopter 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 lead as well.

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

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

There's a feeble attempt to explain the physiology of the dragons. They have two glands that secrete chemicals which ignite on contact to make natural napalm, a highly original concept that's only been a staple of every sci-fi and fantasy tale about dragons for the last fifty years. Even if I buy this as possible, how do the dragons spray fire while they're flying forward? Wouldn't it fly back in their faces?

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

In the movie, the dragons are starving since they've destroyed just about all their own food. So clearly a nice yummy nest of human survivors would be a treat. 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, which inspires me to ask why Stinger missiles weren't effective. A shaped charge will punch a hole in nearly anything, to say nothing of depleted uranium bullets. And I really find it hard to imagine these beasts being much of a match for an F-16 with 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 the losing battle with the dragons but apparently the special effects budget wasn't there.


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Created 15 August, 2001, Last Update 05 April 2011

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