Action paleontologists, to the rescue!

In nearly any film that involves dinosaurs, the main problem facing the people making the movie is determining how to get humans and dinosaurs together in the first place. Some films have opted for genetic experiments, others hidden refugia, and still others nuclear tests (although these films usually feature mutated dinosaurs rather than the animals themselves), but a solution is usually found through time travel, the existence of the lost world, or (more recently) fiddling around with DNA. Once the monsters have been securely brought into contact with humans, though, a hero needs to confront the toothy menace of the dinosaurs, and in a few cases paleontologists fill this role. Unfortunately, though, whether they live or die has nearly nothing to do with paleontology.

We might as well start in the most logical place; the Jurassic Park films. The series heavily relied upon input from paleontologist Jack Horner and others, and the hero Alan Grant is a bit of a toned-down Indiana Jones meant to be an extrapolation of Horner. Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler also takes matters into her own hands to bring power back to the park in the second half of the first film, and the pair of scientists struggle in different parts of the park to keep the people they're with safe. This puts them into the role of action heroes rather than scientists, though, and although Grant seems to be much more mystified with the park than Sattler is, our view of paleontologists as scientists is quickly done away with in the first part of the film.

The audience's introduction to Grant and Sattler is worth noting because it shows just how much things have changed since the film came out. Looking at a perfect, articulated skeleton of a Deinonychus Velociraptor, Grant tries to tell the volunteers at the site how dinosaurs evolved into birds. The crowd snorts and laughs, and ultimately Grant feels that he has to defend the honor of birds as dinosaurs by describing how a Mesozoic "600-pound turkey" would eviscerate and consume a pudgy young boy who gets on his nerves. (Today, of course, the evidence that birds are "glorified dinosaurs" is quite strong.) During his spiel, Grant puts forth his pet hypothesis that the vision of Tyrannosaurus was "based on movement" (i.e. it couldn't see you if you stood still), and other than setting up a later, harrowing scene it reflects the notion that paleontologists try to put the flesh on the bones of the creatures they did up.

Indeed, paleontologists are often referred to as "dinosaur hunters," although the quest is to bring back to life rather than to slay. There is a sort of romanticism that surrounds the enterprise, scientists using their wits to track down, "capture," and ultimately mount their finds. Translating paleontologists to action heroes might not be that much of a jump, then, but not every film takes this view. In the much older Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant played the nerdy and uptight Dr. David Huxley, who is much more concerned with finding the "intercostal clavicle" for his "Brontosaurus" than wooing Susan Vance (played by Katharine Hepburn). Rather than being a somewhat rugged researcher clad in jeans, Huxley seems much more comfortable in a lab coat and would much rather fiddle around with the dusty old bones in the museum; it doesn't seem like he would do well in the field at all.

Going back to the Jurassic Park franchise, the second film (The Lost World) is even lighter on paleontology. Again, there are two paleontologists in this film, but the scientific aspect of what they do is played down. First we have Sarah Harding, and her experience with carnivores in Africa seems to be more important than any of her paleontological training. What is most grating, though, is that she crawls into the nest of a baby Stegosaurus (much to the alarm of its parents) and soon thereafter admonishes the rest of her team that they can't "so much as bend a blade of grass" while they're on the dinosaur-ridden island, oblivious to the hypocrisy of what she's saying. The other paleontologist is a caricature of Robert Bakker named "Burke," and his main role is to spout out random facts in apparent wonderment until he's ultimately consumed by a Tyrannosaurus.

By the third film, the paleontological aspect has almost entirely been removed. Grant comes back as a tour guide, but again, survival skills trump any scientific knowledge as they try to survive on the island. His notion that the "raptors" on the island are super-smart seems to come in handy, but his hypotheses serve to get him out of a fix late in the film rather than reflect reality. He's accompanied by a graduate student named Billy Brennan (who can't tell the difference between a Baryonyx and a Spinosaurus), but outside of a few brief comments the science is kept to the background. The film The Last Dinosaur takes a similar approach, a geologist by the name of Chuck Wade spouting off scientific assertions here and there but generally playing second fiddle to the film's hero, the "great white hunter" Masten Thrust.

The horrid American adaptation of Godzilla also features a paleontologist character, Dr. Elsie Chapman, but she has little to no involvement in the film. As far as anything approaching paleontology goes, she suspects that Godzilla might be a huge Allosaurus, but that's the extent of her scientific input. Much like some of the other appearances for paleontologists, she serves to show up on the "science team" only to go "Um," and contribute little else.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn't mention Dr. Challenger from the various incarnations of The Lost World. Challenger is convinced that dinosaurs still live in isolation and leads an expedition to go find them, but much like the Jurassic Park films the group soon finds themselves in peril from stamping feet and crushing jaws. In the film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, a "Brontosaurus" rampages through London, a climax that was paid homage to in the 2nd Jurassic Park film (trading up for a Tyrannosaurus, the creature being meant to go on display in a manner later mirrored by King Kong. In the novel, however, Challenger brings back a pterodactyl to prove his hypothesis to other scientists, and although it ultimately escapes science rather than showmanship appeared to be more of a priority to Challenger.

What ties all these films together, though, is that paleontologists usually provide the scientific setup, naming and describing the extinct creatures as they rampage across the screen. As soon as people and dinosaurs come together, though, their expertise with bones isn't very relevant. In this sense they're not so much paleontologists as people trying to survive in a strange situation, and whatever they learned from fossils doesn't seem to help them outside of knowing what they're about to be swallowed by.

Should things be otherwise? While I think it's a good idea to give scientists more depth and not make them caricatures of Roy Chapman Andrews or "academic egg-heads," unless a film specifically deals with digging up bones I don't see much of an alternative. The movies I've mentioned (with the exception of the one comedy) are action films and seek to deliver on adventure, thrills, and special effects, not scientific accuracy. Alan Grant in the first Jurassic Park film, for all his flaws, is probably the most balanced; trying to survive but also in wonderment of creatures he had only seen as bones. The biological inaccuracies and other problems are a whole other story, but in general I have the feeling that paleontologists in films are typically used to set the scene and provide definitions when necessary rather than represent what real-life researchers really do.

Post-script: Now that I think of it, there are many other movies that feature paleontologists (or something approximating them) in more minor roles. The classic examples are Japanese monster movies where a paleontologist just always seems to be on hand to explain just what where the monster came from (although The Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds provides a more substantial role to the hero). As such, this post might be expanded as I uncover more representations of paleontologists in cinema.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth looks like a doozie!

"Do you know what a radioactive isotope is!?" LMAO

Scenario: It's the more near than far future and we've invented time travel. We can't yet get back further than 90 million years ago (complications), but we have successfully recovered eggs and small animals of various kinds. So Stephen Spielberg is shooting a remake of Jurassic Park using those now mature specimens.

Which includes a full grown tyrannosaurus rex who's proving to be something of a problem because ... She's bonded to humans, and thinks we're baby tyrannosaurs. Every time Spielberg goes into a tirade she thinks it's feeding time, and dumps partially digested meat on his head.

Then you have The Wrecking Crew. A flock of eight deinonychii into pranks and practical jokes. Such as the time they put together tour guide outfits for themselves, and then hi-jacked a studio tram and gave tours of the studio and the surrounding neighborhood.

I was having fun with the idea of dinosaurs in the modern day in case you're wondering.

Thanks for the brilliant post.

You've hardly exhausted the glaring holes in the first Jurassic Park - who could? The later films? Let's not even go there.

What about the notion that they've used Frog DNA to reconstitute dinosaurs. Uh? So what was all that about the birds then?