FILM / They're back. And this time it's personal: Dinosaurs once again rule the earth. And, says Marek Kohn, they have more than Steven Spielberg to thank for their monstrous rise in popularity

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EASTER is coming twice this year. The key motif amid the dinosaurabilia that the Natural History Museum has piled high, but is not selling cheap, is the plastic dinosaur hatching out of its egg. In Jurassic Park, the British premiere of which takes place next Fridav, Sam Neill is entranced bv the sight of a velociraptor emerging sharp-toothed and bloody from its shell, shining under laboratory lights. Science, as anyone but a dewy-eyed movie palaeontologist can tell, has Given Birth to a Monster.

While much of the subsequent adventure in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel turns on the traditional dinosaurian activities of roaring and stomping around tearing other creatures limb from limb, the egg is the symbolic

centre of the story. Eggs have played a similar role throughout the current phase, crowned but not initiated by Jurassic Park, in which dinosaurs have been translated from a perennial theme in popular culture to an all-out mania. The dynamics are oddly assorted; new scientific ideas, marketing, and the collective imagination of children. It would be nice to think that the first and last of these, rather than the second, were what was needed to bring the craze to critical mass.

Even the Creationists have reached for the dinosaur egg to resolve a theological problem. In Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs, an exploration of the appeal of the dinosaur which forms part of Channel 4's 'Dinomania' weekend, the secretary of the Biblical Creationist Society explains how Noah got dinosaurs on to the Ark.

Obviously, the patriarch couldn't have herded fully-grown brontosauruses and tyrannosauruses up the gangplank, two by two. That would be ridiculous. But hatchling dinosaurs would have been of a quite feasible size and would not have grown too big bythe time the waters receded.

There is a curious harmony between the pat exiguousies of the Creationists and the way scientists talk about dinosaurs. It used to be a mere jigsaw puzzle, albeit a devilishly complicated one, in the days when Cary Grant spent his time overlooking the great skeleton in Bringing Up Baby, wondering where the leftover bone should go.

Progress has not been straightforward: on the evidence of Claws and The Real Jurassic Park - Equinox's 'Dinomania' dinomentary - palaeontologists today tend to look as though they are on secondment from the Grateful Dead's road crew. But they now think about their dinosaurs in multiple dimensions - as living, breeding, nurturing, socially interacting members of an ecosystem. They can tell you how big a dinosaur would have grown after 40 days and 40 nights by looking at fossil blood vessels under a microscope. A maiasaura would have reached three-and-a-half feet in as many weeks, well within the capacity of a 300-cubit Ark.

The maiasaura, discovered in 1982 by Dr Jack Horner (the prototype, we are assured, for Sam Neill's character in Jurassic Park), is a pivotal figure in modern dinosaur culture.

Nineteenth-century palaeontologists called their fossils 'terrible lizards' or 'thunder lizards'. Maiasaura means 'good mother lizard'. The caring lizard and the relatosaurus cannot be far behind.

The new spirit of generosity in science - also evident in contemporary scientific attitudes to humans, both extinct varieties and living indigenous ones - has certainly helped stoke the fires of dinomania over the past few years. But the lovable saurian has been around since 1909, when Gertio the Dinosaur starred in an animated film. She evolved into the cartoon brontosaurs domesticated by caveman Alley Oop in the 1930s, and later the Flintstones, who are set to make a movie comeback.

Perhaps the key to the popularity of dinosaurs lies in the emergence of these opposites: big and fiercer, small and cuddly. While children may enjoy being frightened, they need that sensation to be followed by one of safety. After the sight of the museum tyrannosaurus, the awed child can be reassured by the sight of the little green furry tyrannosaurus that seems to have a smile on its face. Anything can be tamed, it implies, and anything can be reduced to a safe size; everything has a little

nucleus of niceness hidden away inside it. The image of the hatching dinosaur offers an alternative to the acrylicosaurus with a nod to realism.

Even before reincarnation in velour, dinosaurs were inherently reassuring creatures. Not one of them ever hurt a single hair on a human head, after all. They were huge and dumb, and now they're gone; we're small and smart, and now we're in charge. There is also the question of guilt. Dinosaurs are one group of animals for whose extinction we cannot be blamed - except by the Creationists, who consider that despite Noah's rescue efforts, man's sinfulness led to the demise of the dinosaurs in the times that followed the Flood.

Dinosaurs are the giants that walked the earth in legendary times. Their bones, re-erected in the great cathedrals of science, are massive mementos mori. One of the most interesting contributions to Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs comes from the American sculptor Allan McCollum, who covered a museum floor in replica dinosaur bones as a 'monument to grief'. McCollum saw in palaeontology a parallel to the work of mourning that he had undertaken after his father's death. Mourning, he felt, was essentially the compulsive and exhaustive examination of memory; like the labours of palaeontologists, painstakingly reconstructing the traces of things that were once alive.

For McCollum, the point is that a reconstruction can never recreate the original, and therefore entails loss. Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park around the same idea. In the book, the entrepreneur John Hammond cannot grasp what his chief scientist

tells him, that the park dinosaurs are not real. As with memory, the gaps in the information have been filled from other sources, which are then forgotten (a subtlety dropped in the film). The use of frog DNA as genetic filler allows the animals to

breed, undoing the park's principal safety precaution.

Although Jurassic Park is a tale cautioning against the dangers of genetic engineering, it cannot help but stir up excitement about the very thing it is warning against. The centrepiece of Channel 4's weekend is the Equinox documentary devoted to the question of whether Jurassic Park could really be built. Crichton warns that the implications of the genetic revolution have not been grasped. The real danger is that when they are, they may be too seductive to resist.

Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of Jurassic Park is the way in which it has created a vision of reincarnation around a prime cultural symbol of extinction. No matter how catastrophic the outcome, there is a profound attraction in the idea

that, just at the point where its activities are wiping out other species in swathes, humanity may be about to acquire the power to bring them back again. Like John Hammond, we're inclined to overlook the point that what is gone can never really be brought back.

Hammond's team recreates forms of life, but it is a series of unpredictable interactions - or to put it another way, forces of nature - that give the dinosaurs the power to lay their own eggs. It's the eggs as much as the excellence of the special effects that invest the dinosaurs with life. Up to now, fictional dinosaurs have always seemed inorganic; merely animated rock and clay.

Now they are convincing organisms, albeit in an unsympathetic, scientific fashion. Even if they really were warm-blooded, as some scientists argue, they still come across as reptiles. But dinosaur romantics need not be disheartened. In the velociraptors' wake, great herds of lovable cinesauruses will undoubtedly follow.

Channel 4's 'Dinomania' weekend runs from 16-28 July. 'Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs' will be shown on Saturday between 8.30pm and 9.30pm; 'The Real Jurassic Park - An Equinox Special' on Sunday between 7pm and 8pm.