deep dives

How Jurassic Park Changed the Way Movies Looked at Dinosaurs

Photo: Universal Pictures/Getty Images

Jurassic Park has no shortage of quotable lines — from “Clever girl” to “Hold onto your butts!” — but one of the key bits of dialogue is also one of its least emphatically delivered. “Don’t let the monsters come over here,” Lex, one of two kids stranded in the gone-haywire dinosaur park pleads to Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant as they watch some brachiosauruses grazing nearby. “They’re not monsters, Lex,” he replies. “They’re just animals … they just do what they do.”

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film was a breakthrough in many ways, most significantly in its innovative use of computer-generated effects. But it also reconfigured how movies portrayed dinosaurs — even if some of the films that followed forgot how to shadow its example.

Adapting Michael Crichton’s novel, the film doesn’t short viewers on dinosaurs, but it also works to make them understand what dinosaurs were, how they fit into the history of the planet, and the ties they have with creatures that still walk the Earth. The screenplay, by Crichton and David Koepp, walks viewers through the science behind the movie, most famously in the instructional video featuring Mr. DNA (a cartoon character who’s part of a tradition of making horrifying scientific breakthroughs seem adorable that stretches back at least to Bert the Turtle). But it also takes time to show dinosaurs being dinosaurs: hatching from eggs, wandering the plains, growing ill, and so on. When the killing starts, that makes sense too. They’re animals. And animals have to eat.

Jurassic Park succeeds in part by breaking with the two approaches that have dominated dinosaur movies from the start: portraying them as bloodthirsty monsters or as cuddly anthropomorphized creatures. And the history of dinosaur movies is a long one, one almost as old as movies themselves. In fact, the medium developed alongside our understanding of what dinosaurs were — even if dinosaur movies didn’t always reflect this growing understanding.

With so many silent movies lost to time, it’s tough to make definitive statements about early film history, but 1914 seems to have been year zero for dinosaur movies, including one from D. W. Griffith, released a year before his revolutionary (and just as racist as you’ve heard) The Birth of a Nation. The three-reel Primitive Man (a.k.a. Brute Force) plays out a drama between two tribes of cavemen and illustrates that some still-persistent clichés about early humans date back much further than The Flintstones. In the film, the tribes go to war after one abducts the other’s women. Dinosaurs make only fleeting, threatening appearances in the form of what appears to be a papier-mâché T. rex and an irritated-looking alligator given wings and other bits of ornamentation. The effects of Primitive Man are, well, primitive, man, but they set up dinosaurs as a threat to humans that have to be avoided or destroyed (never mind that they never lived side by side). It’s a setup that would be much imitated in the years to come.

That same year saw the debut of Gertie the Dinosaur, a far more graceful, if no less scientifically suspect, attempt to bring dinosaurs to life created by Winsor McCay, the artist behind the groundbreaking, reality-bending comic strips Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland. Not content to be a genius in one medium, McCay branched out into another, and though attempts at hand-drawn animation predate Gertie, including some by McCay himself, the form as we known it more or less begins here, with an adorable brontosaurus. Made up of thousands of individual drawings executed by McKay himself, Gertie began as part of a vaudeville act that found him talking to his creation, asking her to perform tricks, making her cry, then riding off on her back. McKay later modified the film for theatrical exhibition, and it’s remarkable just how much he understood about what animation could do at its inception. Gertie emerges as a fully formed personality — sweet, easily distracted, eager to please, and capable of having her heart broken (then easily healed by a treat).

The next major figure in dinosaur movies began by working in the McCay tradition before moving to the other and defining the dangerous world of dinosaurs for generations to come. Willis O’Brien had been a cowboy, bartender, surveyor, professional boxer, and a guide to paleontologists (among other professions) before channeling his gift for sculpture and his interest in filmmaking into stop-motion animation. The comedic The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, released in 1915, pits cavemen against both dinosaurs and an apeman. One of his follow-ups, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. features a postman riding a stegosaurus.

But it was with the 1918 film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain that O’Brien started to come into his own as a dino visionary. Narratively confusing — it was cut down from a much larger film — it features an uncle telling a pair of nephews about the time a ghost instructed him to look through a magical device, allowing him to see a land filled with dinosaurs. But O’Brien’s creations here are an entirely different sort of dinosaur. They move realistically and have a heft and reality to them that had never been seen before. They look like real animals. And, of course, they fight. Because what’s the point of bringing dinosaurs to life if they’re not going to attack one another?

O’Brien would return to dinosaurs throughout his career, next with 1925’s The Lost World, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s influential novel about a group of explorers who find a land untouched by time where dinosaurs still dwell. The film finds O’Brien just as interested in dinosaur-on-dinosaur carnage as he tries out more sophisticated forms of stop-motion animation, approaches that would reach their apex a few years later with 1933’s King Kong, a film most famous for its giant ape, but also one with more than a few violent dinosaurs.

Scary, violent dinosaurs would be the default mode for dinosaur movies in the years that followed, from Fantasia’s “Rite of Spring” sequence to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the first film with an effects team headed by Ray Harryhausen, a stop-motion artist who grew up idolizing O’Brien and worked under him on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young. That effort featured no dinosaurs, but Harryhausen — whose previous work included an ambitious, abandoned, dino-heavy project called Evolution — made up for it with Beast, which sent a dinosaur awakened by an atomic blast to wreak havoc on New York. Like O’Brien’s creations, Harryhausen’s beast has presence and personality. It feels real and dangerous, responding to the world with the hostility of a creature ripped out of time. If the film’s interest in the monster don’t extend much beyond making it a scary set of teeth looking for a meal, it’s still a remarkable accomplishment. Beast would spawn direct imitators — including the dinosaur Western The Beast of Hollow Mountain, recently mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 — and help inspire the creation of Godzilla, a kind of mutant offspring of the violent dinosaur tradition.

But Harryhausen wasn’t done with dinosaurs. Working alongside O’Brien, he created a dinosaur sequence for the Irwin Allen–directed documentary The Animal World. In 1966, he provided the memorable effects for the extremely silly Hammer Films–produced adventure One Million Years B.C., otherwise famous for making Raquel Welch a star by placing her in a fur bikini. The plot and view of prehistoric life comes right out of Primitive Man, but the effects are remarkable, including a pterodactyl that attempts to turn Welch into a snack. Even better, both as a film and as a Harryhausen showcase, 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi sends cowboys into a lost valley filled with dinosaurs, and — shades of Jurassic Park — dramatizes the consequences of trying to bring them into our world. Gwangi began as an O’Brien project picked up by Harryhausen after his mentor’s death, and it’s a masterpiece of the violent dinosaur school, climaxing with an allosaurus destroying a cathedral.

The dinosaur films in the decades that followed, however, showed why Jurassic Park felt like such a revelation in 1993. The ‘70s were filled with lost-world adventures in which dinosaurs served primarily as adversaries to human adventurers. In the 1975 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot, for instance, visitors to a lost world encounter, kill, and eat a dinosaur within a few minutes of arrival. After awhile, it became hard to tell serious efforts from send-ups like the Ringo Starr–starring Caveman, which pits the former Beatle against some (fairly impressive) stop-motion dinosaurs. Elsewhere, the decade favored a cuter approach, be it via the much-liked Don Bluth animated feature The Land Before Time or the laughable Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, which sends Sean Young and William Katt to save a baby dinosaur and its mother — both of which appear to be props left over from a high-school play — from an evil scientist and some ugly African stereotypes.

Enter Jurassic Park, which gave audiences all the violent dinosaurs after they could want, but only after providing some thoughtful context that helped them understand what dinosaurs mean. Then … exit Jurassic Park. The film’s sequels had a much harder time taking an interest in dinosaurs as dinosaurs, not just as battle beasts. And though The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III are both largely enjoyable, the inexplicably successful, defiantly dumb Jurassic World mostly exists as a showcase for the violent possibilities of letting dinosaurs crash into the modern world. The Colin Trevorrow–directed film tries to have it both ways, both sending up the bigger, faster, more mentality of 21st-century blockbusters while operating as a prime example of the same. It both chides audiences for wanting to see an unholy creation of genetic engineering like the Indominus Rex and then makes sure we get an eyeful of it as it fights it out with all the other dinosaurs.

So it’s surprising that Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, directed by J.A. Bayona from a script by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, would turn the focus back on the dinosaurs themselves again. The imminent eruption of a volcano that will destroy Isla Nublar, home to a pair of ill-fated dinosaur theme parks, has made the decision of whether or not to evacuate the imperiled dinosaurs a “flashpoint” animal-rights story. (Oh, to have such issues dominating the news.) While the answer might seem obvious given the chaos caused by revived dinosaurs in the four preceding films, Fallen Kingdom takes it seriously, creating an investment in the animals’ survival while acknowledging that, sure, many of them would be happy to eat humans if they got the chance. They’re vicious beasts, but the film makes us worry about them anyway. (It helps that the endearing Blue, a velociraptor that’s deeply bonded with Chris Pratt’s character, has a lot of Gertie DNA swimming alongside her killer instincts.) The film goes full throttle with its pulpy plot — the volcano rescue is just the beginning of a story that, improbably but delightfully, becomes a gothic horror story — but the concern for its prehistoric animals keeps it grounded. As in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs just do what they do. But Fallen Kingdom is the rare post–Jurassic Park dinosaur movie that makes us care about why they’re doing it.

How Jurassic Park Changed the Way Movies Looked at Dinosaurs