Triceratops at the American Museum of Natural History.
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Photo by Brian Switek.
Triceratops at the American Museum of Natural History.

Get Ready for Dinomania Next Year

I was ten years old when Jurassic Park smashed into theaters. I had never anticipated a movie more. Michael Crichton’s original novel – as a movie tie-in paperback, of course – was the first “grown-up book” I was allowed to read, TIME and National Geographic ran dinosaur cover stories that year which I pored over again and again, and representations of brightly-colored, actively-posed dinosaurs seemed to be everywhere. Dinomania hit a fever pitch that made me absolutely certain that I wanted to spend my life chasing the extinct monsters. Now, over twenty years later, I wonder if the same fossil pandemonium could be sparked again.

Walking With Dinosaurs 3D has already migrated through theaters, and, given the kaiju’s origins, Godzilla technically counts as a dinosaur, but next year’s releases are what may send fossil fans into a tizzy. Not only is the animation studio Pixar set to envision an alternate prehistory in The Good Dinosaur, but the Jurassic Park franchise is due to at long last continue the story of genetically-engineered monsters in Jurassic World. 2015 could be the Year of the Dinosaur. The question is how Hollywood versions of the long-extinct creatures will affect the public’s understanding of prehistoric life and how paleontologists study lost worlds.

How The Good Dinosaur will intersect with science, if at all, is a mystery. That’s because almost nothing has been revealed about the film other than the general story that humans and sauropods mingle in a universe wherein the deadly asteroid that devastated Cretaceous life never hit the planet. Seeing a feral prehistoric child palling around with non-avian dinosaurs does have something of a creationist tinge to it, but with a clear premise that the movie is meant as imaginative fiction I doubt that Pixar is going to give religious fundamentalists much solace.

Other than the fact that we won’t be seeing special-ops raptors, even less is known about Jurassic World. Yet the movie has already drawn the ire of dinosaur diehards – myself included – for reportedly refusing to adorn saurian stars like Velociraptor with the feathers the dinosaurs had in life. While the first Jurassic Park certainly took some liberties with dinosaurs – Dilophosaurus neck rufflesDilophosaurus neck ruffles, anyone? – the movie nevertheless paired bleeding edge special effects with up-to-date science that brought dinosaurs to life as they had never been seen before. That Jurassic World might prefer scariness over updated dinosaurs is a disappointing possibility. What other film is going to have the chance to so powerfully revitalize dinosaurs for a new generation?

Would I like to see an enfluffed Tyrannosaurusan enfluffed Tyrannosaurus chasing after hapless humans? Absolutely. I’d be thrilled to view such scientifically-informed nightmare fuel. But even if Jurassic World is populated by unabashedly scabrous and scaly dinosaurs, not to mention any other possible inaccuracies, I don’t see much reason to despair. As slavering monsters or friendly companions, the dinosaurs in next year’s films offer museums, writers, and science communicators with a rare opportunity to enjoy the free boost in dinomania.

Just like The Lost World, The Valley of Gwangi, and all the greater and lesser dinosaur films that have gone before, The Good Dinosaur and Jurassic World are works of fiction. They can do as they please with dinosaurs. Even with scientific advising, which I’m glad to see Jurassic World still hasJurassic World still has, the dinosaurs will still be deployed in the service of story. But if that helps spark the public’s interest in prehistory and inspires increased museum attendance, that’s a great benefit to everyone.

Consider the original Jurassic Park. Even for the era, the dinosaurs weren’t flawless. But the film did more to popularize paleontology and interest in dinosaur than any other recent event that I can think of, and I have to wonder how many upcoming paleontologists owe at least part of their interest in fossils to that movie.

Inaccurate and distorted dinosaurs can still offer useful ways to reach out to and excite the public. I can only speak for myself here, but when I repeatedly raided my local and school libraries for dinosaur books I mostly found already-outdated animals that were still dragging their tails and wallowing in swamps. Yet those lumposaurs still stoked my imagination, and by comparing them to more accurate depictions I gained a better understanding of how science is an ongoing process that will continue to alter what we understand about nature. We can and should push for accuracy where appropriate, but even animals that are less dinosaur and more dinosaurish can still assist efforts to plug the public into the wonder of science.

Next year’s big-budget dinosaur films may spur some new myths. (Over two decades after Jurassic Park debuted, I’m still earnestly asked whether or not Tyrannosaurus had vision based on movement.) That risk is a perpetual side effect of the fact that dinosaurs belong to imagination as much as they do science. Rather than grumble, though, paleontologists and educators should start thinking about how to use the films as springboards to talk about the true stories of discovery that continue to teach us about evolution, extinction, and the ongoing story of life on Earth. Plan an exhibit. Start a video series. Coordinate workshops, events, and screenings. Write articles for popular audiences. Don’t wait until the tide of prehistoric popularity has passed. Next summer, audiences will stomp to theaters and roar at the sight of dinosaurs brought back to life. We should be ready with stories of our own – true, amazing tales that tie us together in a shared and evolving history.