Who doesn't love a dinosaur flick? Well, paleontologists have a few fossil bones to pick with Jurassic World, the latest in a line of dinosaur movies that once bragged about its scientific credibility.
The trailer for the new movie, a reboot of the popular 1990s Jurassic Park franchise, was released Tuesday and has already been viewed more than 14 million times on YouTube. Like the original movie, Jurassic World takes place in an island safari park, where tourists visit living dinosaurs cloned from ancient DNA—until one hybrid monster goes rogue.
Despite global fervor among fans, dinosaur scientists are not thrilled with Hollywood's treatment of their subject matter. (See: "Did The Real T. Rex Resemble the One in Jurassic Park?")
"Yes, we know 'it's only a movie,' " says paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., of the University of Maryland in College Park. "But Jurassic Park has a cachet that it borrows from science that is a lot different from Land of the Lost or Godzilla."
Experts see a number of science shortcomings in the trailer that range from out-of-date dinosaurs to hackneyed mad-scientist plotlines borrowed from Frankenstein. (Related: "The Joys and Frustrations of Jurassic Park.")
Back to the Future
"The original movies brought the dinosaur research of the 1980s to 1990s viewers," Holtz says. "And the latest one seems to bring the dinosaur research of the 1980s to the 2010s viewers."
The decades since the first Jurassic Park movie have brought a pile of dinosaur discoveries to center stage in paleontology.
Chiefly, scientists have learned that plumage of all stripes, shapes, and sizes, from insulating tufts to decorative barbs to fully developed feathers, adorned most dinosaurs dating back to the earliest ones. But the trailer's dinosaurs look either as smooth as grapes or as scaly as crocodiles. (Read "Evolution of Feathers" in National Geographic magazine.)
In addition, the velociraptors (actually dromaeosaurs) in the movie are shown too big, as is a gargantuan mosasaur, a marine reptile that looks as large as a 747 when it emerges from the sea for dinner.
The velociraptors also hold their "hands" in a posture that looks out of date, and scientists disproved the existence about a decade ago of a frill that the movie shows on the mosasaur.
"I'm just disappointed—as are many other scientists and researchers—that they've deliberately chosen to portray 'old school' dinosaurs designed to mimic those of the original Jurassic Park," says Darren Naish, a zoologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. "It's lazy and makes it look as if they wanted to stick to what they think is safe. Yawn."
Paging Dr. Frankenstein
Jurassic Park creator Michael Crichton made a career of repackaging the Frankenstein theme of a soulless scientist turning monstrous creations loose on the world, in thrillers about everything from nanoparticles (Prey) to epidemics (The Andromeda Strain) to robot cowboys running amok (Westworld).
Jurassic World returns to the theme of the dangers of genetics research seen in the first book, where ancient DNA led to the cloning of dinosaurs. The new film relies on the idea of a genetically souped-up superdinosaur on the loose at a theme park.
"This is the old trope that scientists are ultimately lacking in any kind of restraint or basic judgment and need others to stop them from destroying the world," says paleontologist Michael Habib of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Not All Bad
On the plus side, Holtz says a few facts in the trailer are right on the money. The mosasaur has interior "palatal" teeth inside its mouth (seen as it eats a shark) that most modern-day dinosaur documentaries haven't caught up with.
"That really shows an attention to detail," Holtz says. "Of course they are feeding it an endangered shark species, so that isn't so appropriate. I guess they figure they can always clone some more."
The original 1993 Jurassic Park is credited with reviving interest in dinosaurs and filling paleontology classes.
Movies give "an opportunity for scientists to discuss how accurate those depictions are, and what the science actually says," says paleontologist John Hutchinson of the University of London.
Almost all the paleontologists interviewed acknowledged they would see the movie when it is released on June 12, 2015, despite their reservations.
"I like a fun movie," Holtz says. "But fun, interesting, and accurate is even better."