“the t- rex is portrayed by the most ragged, pitifullooking iguana”
as Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Smokey And The Bandit. If this was the best dino movies could manage, maybe they deserved to go extinct!
Fortunately, science stepped in to save us, both on and off the screen. From the 1980s onwards, a new focus on fields like genetic modification provided a quasi- believable explanation for how dinosaurs could conceivably come back – without leaning on hitherto lost islands or the world’s worst case of oversleeping. The ’ 90s was also the decade in which the stopmotion of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen gave way to computer generated special effects.
The most obvious meeting point between these two ideas was, of course, 1993’ s Jurassic Park, which rampaged on to become the highest- grossing movie of all time until it was overtaken by Titanic. Although this was Spielberg ’s first proper crack at a dinosaur movie, his love of the genre was clearly evident. In both his 1971 debut Duel and his 1975 mega- hit Jaws the sound of a dinosaur roar can be heard in the climactic scene. Spielberg explained it by saying the films were about “leviathans targeting everyman” – dinosaur movies by any other name.
Further down the food chain, we got Roger Corman’s Carnosaur. Released weeks before Jurassic Park, Carnosaur is Jurassic Park on a shoestring. It tells the story of a mad scientist ( are there any other sort in a Corman movie?) who decides to destroy the world by bringing dinosaurs back from the dead with genetic engineering. The dinosaur effects are bargain basement and the plot virtually non- existent, although that wasn’t enough to stop Corman from making two more movies in what became, terrifyingly, a Carnosaur “franchise”. Not to be denied a chance to wring out every last penny from his $ 850,000 Carnosaur, Corman later allowed footage from the movie to be reused in 2001’ s Raptor and 2006’ s The Eden Formula – or Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.
big and small
On the big- budget end of the spectrum there were two Jurassic Park sequels ( one acceptable, one less so), and a lengthy section of Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, which doesn’t hold a candle to Willis O’Brien’s original, for all its bleeding- edge effects. There was also a good scene in Night At The Museum, 2009’ s Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs, and Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age Of Extinction, which introduced Dinobots to the live- action franchise. All of these pictures tapped into the rise of CGI to produce effects that would have seemed unimaginable in an earlier age.
But the most unlikely dino- feature in the past few decades has to be Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree Of Life, a philosophical ode to the nature of existence that just so happens to include a lengthy dinosaur setpiece.
Aside from these scattered examples, though, most of the contemporary dino- flicks have been in B- movies, or, increasingly, in made- for- TV movies aired on America’s Syfy network. In a logical advance from Jurassic Park’s genetic engineering plotline, these films now focus on straight- up species hybrids, as even madder scientists ( read: inspiration- starved studio execs) appear to throw darts at a board to see what crazy new crossover they can come up with. The first movies in this series were the likes of Dinocroc, Dinoshark and, later, the very silly indeed Sharktopus Vs Pteracuda: the latter a halfpterodactyl, half- barracuda.
“These movies are tongue- in- cheek, but they come from a genuine place,” says Kevin O’Neill, who directed all three. “I got into this business purely because of Willis O’Brien. Where I grew up on Long Island, TV networks used to broadcast movies like King Kong for six days in a row. I watched it and just fell in love. That started a lifelong obsession with special effects – and with dinosaur movies.”
Given Jurassic Park’s towering position among dinosaur movies, all eyes are on Jurassic World to spur on the next great wave of dino movies. But however the film is received, this brief history should be enough to prove that the genre will keep going regardless. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm from the first Jurassic Park: when it comes to the continuation of dinosaur movies, life finds a way…
Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth mixed sexiness with kiddyness. Roger Corman cashes in with Carnosaur. The Lost World from 1960 had worse special effects than the 1925 version!
The film that reawakened dinosaurs: Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The day the cowboys met the dinos in 1969’ s The Valley Of Gwangi.