Friday, November 28, 2014

Calm Down, Breathe, ... OK Repeat: It Is Only a Movie, It Is Only A Movie.....

I really did not want to write about the movie which, I mean you know what movie I am talking about, had a very early debut commercial this weekend. The fourth installment in a certain iconic franchise. Yes that movie. Anyways, although it was already known said starring characters would not be feathered, the backlash in the paleo/dino blogosphere was very palpable indeed. And then swiftly followed by a larger backlash against said backlash promoted and promulgated by the more general public at large against dino-buffs with indictments of "nerd rage" shot fourth.  Shots were indeed fired.

My point in writing this is not to pick sides but to add a little bit more context, reason, and nuance to the  general debate.

Before I do this I also think it worth reminding ourselves (political rant warning) there were a lot more interesting and profound things going on in the world this week than the trailer I speak of. At least here in America Ferguson should trump "bunny hands" in terms of relative importance. If you spend a lot of time thinking about, musing upon, blogging about, drawing, and theorizing about dinosaurs and other paleo related stuff just remind yourself that you are in a privileged position. Chances are if you are reading this you are white, male, and come from a relatively stable socio-economic background. You can dedicate a lot of mental energy to this stuff because you are not so preoccupied with getting shot due to the color of your skin or worrying about getting sexually assaulted or street harassed due to your gender.  You yourself might be poor, but more on that later...

Point #1 The Jurassic Park franchise was fictional from the start and willfully ignored the best available science from the get go.

I forgot where I read this or who said this (let me know in the comments) but to paraphrase "The first Jurassic Park felt like a love letter to paleontology and this new movie feels like a middle finger". While I will agree that the first Jurassic Park movie allowed the general public to play catch up to a lot of current thought in dinosaur paleontology - intelligent behavior, horizontal posture, advanced metabolic strategy, active lifestyle - it outright ignored some of the others and made plenty of stuff up. For example, the exquisitely preserved fossil Velociraptor, the supposed "cheetah speed" and "primate level intelligence" of raptors, a bipedally rearing Brachiosaurus  (not impossible but more likely for diplodocids), the enlarged size of Velociraptor (Utahraptor was not known when the decision was made to blow them up), and cobra spitting Dilophosaurus.

My point is this movie franchise set a precedent from it's inception to utilize some of the current science, ignore other bits, and completely make stuff up as was felt fit. Because it is a movie made to make money. Let us not deify, or glamorize the original movie - it is not without sin in these regards of scientific accuracy.

Point #2 There likely was a push to update the dinosaurs in JP$$$4. But money, and public opinion, and story continuity.

Just because your film has scientific advisors, does not mean that their advice will be listened to. If money is involved and the choice between making more money versus less money involves picking the non-scientific route, the non-scientific route will be chosen. Not because I agree, but because that is how the Hollywood machine works.

Here is how I think it likely went down in the boardroom meetings:

Scientific Advisor/Creative Type People: "We think updating the dinosaurs with feathers and diverse integumentary structures to reflect current knowledge of these animals will create a smart, edgy, new, and scientifically accurate film. We can not only add to the legacy of this franchise in this manner but jump start a new era in the Jurassic Park saga."

$ People: "While the board respects and appreciates your suggestions our in depth customer surveys finds that the general public at large still finds scaly dinosaurs more "scary" and "monstrous" and finds "feathery" dinosaurs more cute and less threatening. So, although we have taken your suggestions into consideration, we will keep the narrative of the first three films intact in terms of how these animals are depicted. As a bit of a compromise, our independent consultants have suggested a type of bio-engineered ubersaur. Fast, quick, smart, insatiable killing appetite. You paleo folks should love it because you love monsters anyways, am I right? Yeah we can sprinkle some dread lock looking stuff on that guy. White people are scared of dread locks too our surveys show."

Scientific Adivisor/Creative Type People: "We challenge this notion that you have to dumb down the franchise in order to appeal to a lowest common denominator. Many of the most iconic and celebrated movies of all time took risks and were intellectually challenging. For instance 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien...

$ People: "Frog DNA."

Scientific Advisor: "We think you are missing a great opportunity. Hear me..."

$ People: "Thank you that is all. Frog DNA."

Advisors: "But!!!-"

$ People: "Frog. D. N. A."

Door slams shut.

Point #3 How to Talk to Non-Paleo People About Dinos Without Coming Off Like a Pompous Blowhard

This might be a tough pill for many to swallow but the average person does not care about dinosaurs or paleo related stuff at the level that you do or even at all. And they have a right to not care about 'em. You might feel very passionate about dinosaur socio-ecology or hadrosaur growth rates - but it is not your duty to promulgate this info to everyone in your life. In fact by aggressively espousing your knowledge and/or opinions on said subject matter you might be doing more harm than good to your social life and in fact turning them off to scientifically minded people in general.

Let us imagine a dinosaur buff is lucky enough to be on a date to see the Jurassic Park 4. First of all, if the decision to see JP4 is made by the date or concurrently at this point I would say it is ok to let the date know your background on the subject. But do it softly. Hey, if they are meant to be the one it is ok to let them know what you are passionate about.

Example: "I am actually a bit of a dinosaur fan myself. In fact, my interest in the subject has continued since childhood."
(Somehow or another this post turned into dating advise for paleo-nerds but this could apply to all social interactions.)

If your date says "Me too!!" count yourself lucky and continue forth in a measured pace. If your date does not mirror your interest. Shut up about Dinos (this is crucial).

During the film, and this might be excruciatingly hard to do, do not guffaw, roll your eyes, and make sardonic remarks at every scientific inaccuracy you see. If you are among like-minded friends go right ahead.

And finally after the movie is done do not go into an unsolicited diatribe concerning the plethora of errors you meticulously noted in your head. If your date petitions you for your opinion regarding the film and/or its inaccuracies feel ok to go forward in a measured pace but not overly opinionated. At the first sign of disinterest, glazed over expression, or exasperated stare, and this is important, SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT DINOSAURS!!!

Look, just because your date does not share your passion for dinosaurs (and chances are they will not), does not mean you should lose out on a potential partner.

Point #4 Why You Should Righteously Be Mad At JP$$$4

If you want to really have some fire in your belly, if you want to really speak truth to power, if you really want to punch upwards - this is why you should righteously be mad at JP$$$4: Because the  work and efforts of many people in or surrounding the field of paleontology - who did the work for little or no pay - is being appropriated, bastardized, plagiarized, and commodified with little or no recompense to said field by a film and franchise that will likely make (and has made) billions of dollars. Where is the funding that the Jurassic Park franchise could and should be giving back to paleontology and/or biological sciences in general? Just a small slice of the money that this franchise generates could support paleontological digs the world over. For a film franchise that owes so much to paleontological discoveries - whether they used the info correctly or not is not so important - where is the slightest bit of  financial recompense to the field that even allows such a franchise to exist at all?

And finally I quote from the first movie Dr. Ian Malcolm:

"You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibilities for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox and now, and now your selling it, you want to sell it. Well -"....

And finally a dreamy shot of Dr. Ian Malcolm and a rigorously rendered Tyrannosaurus rex:

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Sean McCabe said...

I've always been in the "JP should have feathers" band, but after seeing the trailer, I honestly think we should just look past that and see it as a good movie, and not focus on the accuracy of the dinosaurs.

Sam said...

So I guess if the dinosaurs were fat, tail-dragging dimwits that would be OK too because "it's just a movie"?

Duane Nash said...

@Sean McCabe I am not entirely in the "say nothing" camp and I am not entirely in the "go on an expletive filled rant" camp. What I am suggesting, to build upon point 3, is that there are more useful ways to get your point across i.e. not come across as pompous, know-it-all douche bag, which I suggest might turn people off from you or your argument or sciente entirely. But yeah, to your point, the paleo-community as a whole needs to get a little perspective and chill a bit. And not be afraid to poke fun at ourselves once in a while.

@Sammy Allouba But fat, tail dragging dimwits is not what we have being portrayed here. And the JP franchise would be unwise to do that because they already set the precedent for hyper intelligent uber athletic dinos (arguably to too high a degree). As I have pointed out this franchise has picked and choosen what science to use, ignore, or simply make up from the get-go. So why the huge backlash now?

As I argue in point 3, the whole paleo community would be better served if we framed our argument as such: " Ok JP franchise we can't do too much about how you bastardize the science. But since this franchise is indebted to the hard work, often upaid, of paleontologists kick a little cash down to fund research." The JP franchise is a multi-billion dollar franchise and paleontology is notoriously underfunded.

That is the ultimate point of my post and maybe it went over your head or you simply did not read it all.

I can't fathom how anyone who is seriously passionate about paleo would be adverse to more money to fund the science.

Sean McCabe said...

oh dn't worry, the accuracy arguing commences after the movie. But really, I think it's best to just enjoy the movie until then.

As a side note, I've seen the point thrown out that nobody seems to be taking note of any of the other innacuracies in the trailer then continuing the no feather thing... which isn't even new. At best the size of the mosasaur is getting attention.

Robert Haan said...

So... What about them plesiosaurs ?

Duane Nash said...

Got caught up in Jurassic World politics... hopefully middle of next week or so.

Robert Haan said...

Ohh Ok, no problem , was looking forward to that. I'm pretty much neutral when it comes to the whole JW Fiasco

Anonymous said...

My personal take is that, if you're not happy with the way Hollywood routinely abuses biology, don't bother to see the movie. Here I'm thinking of Interstellar, where the problem of abandoning science for woo (in this case, it started with biology and environmental science, not physics) started in the first act and never let up. As a 1970s retro fantasy, it was fun. As cutting edge SFF, it was a joke.

My take is that Hollywood isn't that far from the creationists in their treatment of biology, and theydeserve about as much respect and financial support if it's a subject that matters to you. You can, of course, say that in a fun movie who cares, but nothing drives Hollywood to improve like a boycott that actually hurts them.

That said, I'm not planning on seeing JP4, just as I didn't see JP3.

I did see JP2 up in Humboldt with a bunch of biology grad students, and the derisive hoots of laughter were the best part of the movie. The fun part was how they sailed to an island off of Costa Rica, walked 100 meters and were at Patrick's Point State Park in Humboldt, a few minutes later were up in Redwood National Park, then off to New Zealand, then Kauai, etc. etc. etc. We local nerds caught the changes and thought it was all very silly indeed. I'm sure the next movie will be precisely no improvement.

Anonymous said...

By the way, if you want a more scientifically accurate take on the whole dinosaur reconstruction thing, I'd suggest reading Charles Stross' "A Bird in Hand" ( Note that this contains adult themes, and might be NSFW, depending on who's reading over your shoulder.

I don't think Hollywood will ever film this one. Perhaps a smaller production company in the San Fernando Valley might take it on, though...

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for commenting Heteromeles I was worried something happened to you as I have not heard from you here in a bit...

The ironic thing is that I will most definitely see this movie, probably more than once!! I am able to distance myself from the whole science/non-science thing more than most. And I have no shame in enjoying BIG, DUMB stuff. Like "pro" wrestling or slap stick comedy. I find it very refreshing to get away from over-analytical, intellectual thought. (One reason I did not want to go to grad school and immerse in academia culture). Agree with you about the landscape shifts!!

Anonymous said...

I've just been busy with other stuff, Duane.

As for movies, I like ones like American Hustle, where even though they tell something's a con, you forget halfway through and only notice it again when they finish conning you. That's the good part about paying attention to detail, because it makes you realize just how thoroughly you got sucked in and how good the movie is.

My problem with Hollywood SFF is simply that there's this common cycle of:
(movie types) "Hey nerds and fanboys, this one's got real science. See all the puff pieces we put in your favorite mags about all the real science we put in the movies? We're speaking your language."
(me): "Really, how about all the..." (fill in the details)
(them):"Oh, you're the only one who noticed that, and no one cares about you."
(Me): "well, that's a good reason not to go to the sequel of that movie now, isn't it?"

Most recently, this went on with Interstellar, which was a good enough retro 1970s film. Problem is, part of the PR campaign is how they spent a lot of money working with physicist Kip Thorne to create a realistic black hole for Gargantua. And that particular effect was pretty. Then they've spammed places like Wired and Scientific American with "The Science of Interstellar," articles which only cover the physics, and the whole thing ignores all the rote Hollywood silliness of that movie, including all the biology and physics they got wrong before and after Gargantua. We saw that with Jurassic Park, we saw it with Avatar, and I'm sure we'll see it again soon enough.

Thing is, I'm not interested in a dreadfully earnest science movie. I miss silly films like Buckaroo Banzai, where it was fun to watch it again simply because there is so much comedy hiding in the details. The more you watch, the more fun it is. The first Men in Black did it well too.

I'm not convinced something like Avatar, JP, or Interstellar rewards a repeat view, because the problems become more apparent and the joys diminish. But then, to each his own. I'm just enjoy observing things.

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