Wednesday, June 12, 2024

How Artistic License saves Jurassic Park

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Artistic License is one of the most fascinating, and frustrating, tropes in media. TVTropes defines it as such:

“Creators are allowed to be inaccurate if the inaccuracy serves the story better than accuracy would.”

Artistic License means that creators can, literally, bend the laws of physics if they think it will serve the story well. Use of this trope is most common in speculative fiction, especially fantasy and horror, but many genres make use of it, for better or worse.

The example I want to talk about comes from one of my favorite movies: Jurassic Park. The JP franchise has bent the rules of science quite a bit over the last 23 years. It’s a story about genetically engineering non-avian dinosaurs from DNA that’s millions of years old and putting them into a theme park, after all. However, there’s a particular part of the dinosaur creation process that’s always intrigued me: the frog DNA.

jurassic-park-movie-screencaps-com-3090For those who need a refresher, the scientists at Jurassic Park extracted the dinosaur DNA from ancient mosquitoes trapped in amber (fossilized tree sap). The genetic code had a lot of gaps, so they spliced frog DNA in to fill them. The thing that fascinates me the most is not why they used frogs instead of an animal that was much more closely related. What gets me is that the frog DNA ends up solving almost every issue with the depiction of the dinosaurs in the series.

Frills, height, and bad eyesight

Velociraptor is a more famous examples. Velociraptor mongoliensis is depicted as a fearsome beast about the size of a human adult, with leathery skin and slitted pupils. In real life it was only a few feet tall at best, with feathers and rounded pupils like a bird. It probably sounded like one too, rather than making those cool vocalizations. It also didn’t have such limp wrists, but it did have an elongated skull.

Dilophosaurus is shown with even wilder deviations. It was downsized to about 3 feet, but was given an infamous neck frill and the ability to spit venom. In reality, Dilophosaurus was about 10 feet tall and 23 feet long. No proof of neck frills or venom sacs have been found (the latter wouldn’t survive fossilization, anyway).

For a more subdued example, there’s the Tyrannosaurus’s eyesight. Dr. Grant claims that it’s based on movement at the start of the film. He and Lex are able to hide from Rexy by just standing still when it breaks out of its paddock. In reality, one scientist found that Tyrannosaurus’s visual acuity was 13 times better than human’s is.

This scene would have ended a lot earlier, in real life.
This scene would have ended a lot earlier, in real life.

So what happened here? Why do they look so different, and why can’t Rexy see? There are many explanations from the Doylist standpoint – it was the 90s, rule of cool, etc etc. We’re never given any in-universe answers, since these weren’t questions when the movie came out (sort of). And yet, the frog DNA was right there, explaining it anyway.

Late in the film, Dr. Grant deduces that the frog/dinosaur gene splicing gave the dinosaurs the ability to change sexes, allowing the all-female population to reproduce. That’s canonical evidence that the frog DNA causes serious mutations. Missing feathers, venom sacs, and vision-dependent eyesight could easily be splicing-induced mutations too. And it doesn’t stop there.

Too big, too bad

Spinosaurus was brought into the franchise for Jurassic Park 3 because the writers wanted a new antagonist dinosaur that was bigger and badder than the Tyrannosaurus. If you read my last piece about JP3, you know that that didn’t go over so well.

So scary.

Characterization aside, anti-Spino people also have science on their side when it comes to the infamous brawl. While Spinosaurus was probably bigger than T. rex in real life (estimated between 43 and 60 feet long to T. rex’s 40 feet), it couldn’t beat it in a fight. Spinosaurus was likely a fish eater, and not made to take on something that big. T. rex, on the other hand, hunted hadrosaurs that were as large as it was. So how in the world did the Spino come out of that fight not only victorious, but alive?

Maybe the DNA splicing caused this dinosaur become stronger and sturdier than it should have been. This allowed it to become Isla Sorna’s apex predator, and explains why it lives so far inland (the characters travel to the coast to escape it). Better than having to admit that the writers overpowered it because they wanted to change things up.

The DNA also explains the raptor intelligence. While all the raptors in the series have been fairly smart, Isla Sorna’s black and white raptors take the cake. They have their own pseudo language, and can even determine human secondary sexual characteristics. Meanwhile, in real life, the smartest dinosaur was probably no smarter than any bird. Sure, Grant hypothesized that they had human intelligence, but as I showed above, he’s been wildly wrong before.

Taking advantage

JP3 was the first movie to acknowledge that the dinosaurs were mutated by the gene splicing. Dr. Grant refers to them as “theme park monsters,” but he still takes the hyperintelligent raptors at face value. He even makes assumptions about their ancestors based on them.

Jurassic World does what they wanted to do much more successfully. The movie acknowledges the fact, constantly affirms it, and uses it as part of the plot. The Indominus rex sparks tons of questions about the ethics of gene splicing for the characters and audience to ponder over. It even takes the next step, and has the scientists splicing in more than just frog DNA.

And good thing, because Jurassic World doesn’t lack for creatures whose appearances and abilities need to be explained away by something. The raptors still lack feathers, but that’s because they’ve got non-avian reptile DNA in them (save Delta, who is basically a double dinosaur). Gene splicing is probably to blame for the terribly ugly and incredibly strong pterosaurs as well. We can even throw in the inexplicable galloping Ceratopsians and Stegosaurs, if we like. My feelings about the movie aside, at least someone finally took advantage of this.

For better or worse.
For better or worse.

The perfect handwave, just add water

I’ve always been miffed at the JP franchise for never updating their dinosaur depictions (or not going far enough, in the case of JP3). It has such a huge impact on pop culture, and continues to influence the way the public sees dinosaurs. Science marched on from these movies soon after the first came out. Yet, the paleontology community is still dealing with the fallout of the mischaracterized Velociraptors.

So it’s really a wonder they didn’t seize onto the frog DNA thing earlier, in The Lost World. It’s the perfect handwave, yet it took until 2015 for them to acknowledge it properly. They could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble if they had done it sooner. Yes, people would pick it apart, but at the end of the day, a handwave is better than silence, or repeating “brand recognition” over and over. They wouldn’t even have to trouble their continuity to do it. And it would have saved dinosaur enthusiasts and paleontologists a lot of trouble having to explain that yes, Velociraptor was actually short, and no, feathers don’t make anything less scary.


Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

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