I was ten when Jurassic Park roared across the screen in the summer of 1993. I couldn’t wait for it. Both National Geographic and TIME ran dinosaur cover-stories leading up to the release, celebrating the new image of “hot-blooded” saurians set to make box-office records. In the week leading up to the movie, I finally read Michael Crichton’s original novel, the first “grown-up book” I was allowed to get my claws on. I devoured the book in less than a day, walking slow circles around the garage with the sci-fi tale when my parents admonished me to stop imagining prehistoric monsters in my room and get some sun.
The film itself was grander than anything I could have hoped for. Steven Spielberg, Stan Winston, and the rest of the creative team succeeded where John Hammond failed—they recreated amazing dinosaurs that left patrons unscathed. I had never seen dinosaurs like that before. The dinosaurs I first met were clearly men in suits, stop-motion models, alligators with fins glued on, and other impostors. I knew that Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were technically effects, too, but they had a ferocious vitality never before realized. They were the closest I’d ever come to seeing Mesozoic life revived. In fact, the creators of Jurassic Park may have made their dinosaurs a little too realistic, a little too powerful.
More than twenty years later, on the eve of Jurassic World’s release, 90s-style dinosaurs are still running amok in the public imagination, totally overwhelming our ever-refined image of what dinosaurs were truly like. Fluffy, bird-like dinosaurs that would have enthralled Alan Grant are being pinned down by the hyperextendable killing claws of scaly nostalgia.
There have always been inaccuracies in Jurassic Park. Dilophosaurus didn’t have a neck ruffle and was not venomous. Velociraptor was only about the size of a turkey. Grant’s pet hypothesis on Tyrannosaurus-vision being “based on movement” was total bullshit. Of course, the common refrain to these points is “It’s just a movie.” A movie, yes—but not just a movie.
Ask someone to do an impression of a Velociraptor, and they’ll imitate the Jurassic Park version, right down to the “bunny hands.” (In fact, the raptor wrist required their palms to face each other—they were clappers, not slappers.) Go to an exhibition of dopey animatronic dinosaurs and you’re likely to find a Dilophosaurus that spits jets of water. Or bring up how to evade a Tyrannosaurus during dinnertime conversation and you’re likely to hear “Well, don’t move.” These are carryovers, all, from a film released when an interactive CD-ROM was still so impressive it merited a shout-out.
And now we have the engineered monsters of Jurassic World, which are the spitting image of their 1993 counterparts. More than a few paleontologists are bothered by this. Part of what made the original Jurassic Park so wonderful was that, despite some inaccuracies, the blockbuster instantly popularized the image of fast and smart dinosaurs that paleontologists had been piecing together. There was no going back to the stupid, tail-dragging, swamp-bound reptiles of the past. For Jurassic World to ignore everything paleontologists have done in the past twenty years in favor of visual continuity felt like a hell of a snub.
We could argue canon here. Thinking that they’re the first to point this out, both online and at some of my public talks, I’ve had diehard fans of the film tell me “The park’s dinosaurs were made with frog DNA, so that explains the inaccuracies.” I know. Mr. DNA told us all about it. And in Jurassic World, the returning Dr. Wu—played by B.D. Wong—explains that the park’s animals could have been true-to-form dinosaurs, but the executives in charge wanted “bigger, louder, more teeth.” Jurassic World’s attractions really aren’t revived prehistoric species. The dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine reptiles were made to be monsters.
But this doesn’t change the fact that Jurassic World will leave a deep impression on the public’s image of what dinosaurs “were really like.” The animals in the film don’t have new names to underscore their hybrid status; they’re still called Tyrannosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Velociraptor. They still have a connection to real animals whose bones have been carefully pieced together from the wreckage of lost worlds. This is why some paleontologists I know—particularly those who teach—are dreading the questions they’re going to get about dinosaur behavior after the release of the new film. It’s also why I agreed to be the “resident paleontologist” for the Jurassic World website when Universal came calling early this year.
When Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow announced that there would be “no feathers” in the new film, I was one of his critics. From a scientific standpoint, it made as much sense as filming Pleistocene Park, but announcing that the mammoths and sabercats would be totally waxed. I was really hoping that Jurassic World would bring us the first real image of up-to-date, gloriously feathery dinosaurs, perhaps with a geneticist explaining how drawing from the DNA of birds resulted in more accurate versions of their prehistoric relatives. And, honestly, I would still love to see that. But despite my difference of opinion, I took the job because Jurassic World offered a rare platform to sneak in some science amongst the fiction. Even if the doomed park’s animals are dinosaurs in name only, they still offer a starting point to talk about what we’re learning about the real animals.
Despite their various inaccuracies, the uncontainable “dinosaurs” of Jurassic Park provide a starting point for conversation that can work to the benefit of paleontology. It gives paleontologists and science communicators a pop cultural landmark to start at and then wander into what we actually know—or don’t—about ancient DNA, dinosaur intelligence, prehistoric social behavior, and more.
Not to mention that the Jurassic Park films are just fun to watch. A week ago, after hours of rain doused our camp, I shacked up in the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry visitor center with the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh field crew I was volunteering with. There, in the shadow of a mounted Allosaurus skeleton, we pulled up a plastic buckets for seats, cracked a few beers, and fired up Jurassic Park on my laptop. There was no better way to spend the evening, and when I rolled out my sleeping bag under the Allosaurus that night, I tried to envision what all those bones would look like wrapped in flesh. But the Jurassic Park films have done more than that. They’ve recreated some of our favorite prehistoric celebrities through puppetry and pixels. Those dinosaurs will always be some distance from what paleontologists consider the most accurate mark, but, as creatures caught between science and fiction, they can do something few creatures can. By digging their teeth and talons into pop culture perception, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs can help drag our imaginations further back into the Mesozoic.
Brian Switek is a science journalist who writes the Laelaps blog at National Geographic. He is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs and Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature.