Cinematic Science: Jurassic World, Virtual Witnessing, and Dinosaurs

When the first strains of the familiar theme music from the original film drifted over the theater, I felt like a kid again, eager to see the new genetically modified Indominus rex who stars in Jurassic World. It seems like everyone is flocking to the latest installment in this famous dinosaur series, which opened June 12, from those drawn in by nostalgia, like me, to people who are merely excited to see a big summer action movie, to kids who just love dinosaurs.  Zookeepers all over the world have been hilariously recreating Chris Pratt’s now iconic raptor-taming pose. The film has even captured the attention of scientists who are critiquing the look of the dinosaurs on screen. This brings us to the question, what is the role of science in relation to film?  Perhaps an even more interesting question is how does film impact our perceptions of science?

Jurassic World Brings “More Teeth”

Early in the film, an employee in the theme park’s control room, Lowery (Jake Johnson), sports a t-shirt from the original park and indicates that he prefers the earlier days when all they needed were real dinosaurs, but as the park’s operations manager, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), explains, “No one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore. Kids today look at a stegosaurus like it was an elephant.” It has been over twenty years since the first Jurassic Park and people now want bigger and better dinosaurs. In an effort to “up the wow factor,” the park has created Indominus rex. Its very name should be enough to make people leery since it calls to mind the word “indomitable,” an adjective that conveys how difficult it will be to subdue or conquer this creature. Cleverly, the film at first only shows us glimpses of the dinosaur through the trees and we get a rough sense of her size and physical appearance, which builds up the suspense until about halfway through when her violent rampage is in full swing.

“I never asked for a monster!”

We also learn that Indominus is a genetic hybrid, raised in captivity away from other animals, and according to Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a velociraptor trainer, this makes her even more dangerous. The result of this genetic engineering, which has combined the DNA of a T. rex, a cuttlefish, a tree frog, and some other secret ingredients, is a super intelligent and aggressive creature unlike any other. Owen scoffs, “That thing out there . . . that’s no dinosaur.” In another scene with the park’s owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the chief geneticist, Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), explains that “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. And if the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.” This applies to the velociraptors too since we now know that they were likely feathered and much smaller than the ones portrayed in the film.

Virtual Witnessing and Perceptual Reality

All of these scientific elements help create an entertaining storyline for the film, but they also contribute to the audience’s attitudes towards real science. According to David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, films like Jurassic Park and its later installments are particularly effective at creating a “virtual witnessing” experience for the audience that convinces them that these representations accurately reflect natural phenomena, especially when that involves things that humans have never directly witnessed before, like dinosaurs or wormholes. Kirby describes filmmakers as designing images to correlate to “cues” with which viewers normally interact and this compels the audience to perceive the unreal images as realistic. Stephen Prince calls these images “perceptually realistic” because digital technology allows us to see unreal animals with movements, appearances, and sounds that match animals that we have interacted with, prompting us to perceive them as realistic.

Special effects aren’t the only significant part of this reality effect though. As Martin Barker has noted, those effects must be integrated into the narrative and the fictional world that is created must be convincing. In Jurassic World, some elements of the dinosaur theme park experience mirror the typical sights and sounds of any amusement park – waiting in lines to board rides, sitting in crowded amphitheaters, tourists buying over-priced park food and souvenirs. In this sense, Kirby argues, popular films “naturalize” images and depictions embedded within their narratives. This situates the movie audience into a world they can recognize (at least until pteranodons start swooping down into the crowds and giant dinosaurs try to eat you for lunch).

It’s important to remember, as Kirby contends, that audiences make judgments about what is plausible within the film’s world, not about what seems “real” in comparison to our own world. There is also an important distinction between the terms “natural” and “authentic” because the dinosaurs in the Jurassic films have to move like real animals to make them seem natural but the audience also has to believe that they move like authentic dinosaurs. This notion is complicated in Jurassic World due to the complex genetic engineering, but there are still clearly efforts to portray the dinosaurs’ movements in a way that seems authentic. Kirby concludes that the perceptual realism of movie dinosaurs comes from BOTH their naturalism (visual realism) AND their authenticity (scientific realism).

Science Consultants

So how do films like Jurassic Park and Jurassic World create this cinematic science? Kirby and others suggest that there is a circular relationship in which science enhances cinematic plausibility and films enable scientists to explore new questions and concepts which can lead to new interpretations and connections. Many filmmakers bring in science consultants, but they aren’t merely fact checkers. Science consultants like Jurassic World’s Jack Horner help shape the visual look of the film, advise actors, and contribute to the creation of scientific elements in the film’s narrative.

Films can significantly influence people’s perceptions of science, so including real scientists in the film process is becoming increasingly more important. Next week I’ll look at another piece of cinematic science – Interstellar and its scientific consultant, Kip Thorne.


Suggestions for Further Reading:

Kirby, David A. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

Perkowitz, Sidney. Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

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