There might be no greater difference visible when watching the latest film in the never-ending franchise that is Jurassic World Dominion and the documentary Prehistoric Planet, produced by the BBC and narrated by the one and only David Attenborough.
Then again, both productions could not be more different in their genres. One of them is a science fiction action-horror spectacle, and the other one is a documentary supported by the latest palaeontological discoveries and research.
However, both take the viewer into the same world and want to show and sell the viewer the same thing: A prehistoric adventure, recreating the most popular animals to have ever walked this earth.
A lot of the dinosaurs that feature in Jurassic World Dominion are also shown in Prehistoric Planet. However, they could not look more different. In the minds of most people, the images of a monstrous T-rex are ever present, and so is the image of the two-meter-tall Velociraptor, thanks to the creators of Jurassic Park and its five sequels. Its latest addition was gifted to us, or laid upon us like a curse this year, with the title: Jurassic World Dominion.
Someone who is not familiar with real knowledge of dinosaurs and the serious science that is palaeontology will be very surprised by what the dinosaurs in the documentary Prehistoric Planet look like and behave. They are nothing like the creatures of Jurassic World Dominion.
All the dinosaurs in Jurassic World Dominion are fast, aggressive, and simply monstrous in their behaviour. Even a lot of the herbivores act in destructive and terrifying ways, like the Therizionausurs. Only some herbivores, like Triceratops and the sauropods, seem to be friendly and slow giants.
Within the first minutes of Prehistoric Planet, the viewer encounters a very different Tyrannosaurus than they know from Jurassic World Dominion. A T-rex is swimming through shallow waters with its four young. Once on land, the giant predator does not appear as agile as in the Spielberg films, nor does it appear as aggressive. It looks out for its young and feeds on the carcass of a large sea turtle called Archelon.
Its features are not as bony and muscular as they always appear in the Jurassic films. In Prehistoric Planet, the T-rex walks slowly along the beach, cumbersome but elegant, authentic and is everything but a monster. It is a beautiful dinosaur, carefully balanced on its hind legs, and most importantly, a thin layer of feathers covers its large body.
In Jurassic World Dominion and all the films that came before, the T-rex is an enormously fast and aggressive predator, not caring where it runs or sprints to, a behaviour that is unlikely and one that is rarely seen among predators of today’s natural world. When a predator’s weapon is its agility and fastness, it would be very careful not to hurt itself and only choose to hunt when it knows it can kill its prey and recognises its prey being within its hunting spectrum.
Of course, a predator is always dangerous. Encountering lions, tigers, cheetahs, hyenas and others can always end deadly, but usually they would never attack instantly or immediately kill anything they encounter, especially humans, creatures they have never met before. Besides, most animals encountering humans or humans in cars are usually more afraid of us than we are of them. They would carefully consider what to do or attack out of fear, by mistake or misjudgement. The best example are shark attacks. These aquatic predators never hunt humans. They mistake surfers for seals. Once they bite into human flesh, they immediately know that this is not their typical prey, and usually leave it be. The same can be assumed of prehistoric predators such as T-rex and others.
A very stark contrast between the Jurassic films and Prehistoric Planet is how flying reptiles, pterosaurs are portrayed. In the documentary they are majestic flying reptiles, carefully flying through the sky but, if need be, they are agile and fast.
In Jurassic World, a Quetzalcoatlus, the largest flying reptile of all time, attacks a plane. While, of course, we do not know how fast flying reptiles really were, it is very unlikely that they were as fast as planes. Furthermore, considering how loud a plane is, a pterosaur would most likely be afraid of a machine made of steel moving through the sky. Especially if it has never encountered one.
In the documentary Prehistoric Planet, it is clearly shown that flying reptiles have to take good care of themselves. They must not harm their thin membrane that stretches from their arms to their hind legs, enabling them to fly. One wrong movement in the sky and they lose balance and crash to the ground.
So, how likely is it that a flying reptile will attack a plane? In Jurassic World, it is quickly explained: that they are aggressive creatures, and they attack. Considering how most birds behave though, especially around machines that move like cars and planes, they prefer to be out of their way. They are cautious and frightened of them.
When watching Prehistoric Planet, one gets a similar feeling about the flying reptiles of the Mesozoic era. The elegant and agile rulers of the sky would never attack a plane. They, like birds today, know that they will most likely harm themselves. They would simply be frightened of a strange machine they have never seen before.
Another excellent example to compare and contrast between Prehistoric Planet and the latest Jurassic film is Therizinosaurus. It is one of the most peculiar-looking dinosaurs. It possibly possessed the largest claws, which could have been formidable weapons, and had a very long neck to reach the nutritious leaves of high trees. While this dinosaur looked fearsome, it was actually a herbivore.
In Prehistoric Planet, it is a slow-moving giant, and while it could use its long claws to defend itself, it mostly uses them to pull branches towards it and eat leaves. It is also assumed that this dinosaur used its claws to scratch open the bark of trees in order to reach nutritious tree sap.
In Jurassic World: Dominion, as you might have guessed, this herbivore is very aggressive and kills everything that moves in front of its huge claws. Herbivores of today’s ecosystems that can defend themselves in similar ways, like elephants with tusks, or bulls and cows with horns, usually only attack and defend themselves if they feel threatened. Cow attacks are common, but they are usually down to the stupidity and carelessness of humans rather than the aggressiveness of the cow.
And while herbivores can attack, Therizionsaurus attacks intentionally, whenever it can. In real life, millions of years ago, it was very likely that a fully grown Therizionsaurus probably did not bother with anything moving around it, as size gives every large animal the luxury of feeling safe. And so it does in Prehistoric Planet. Usually, elephants and giraffes don’t mind other animals moving around them too. They know that their size is intimidating and is a defining factor of their survival. Once again, while a dinosaur in Prehistoric Planet appears authentic, it appears like a monster in Jurassic World. The only thing that both creatures in the two productions have in common is that both versions of Therizinosaurus are feathered.
Talking about feathers, in this latest Jurassic film, the producers finally gave Velociraptor a feather dress. It is still too big, as in truth, the Velociraptor they refer to in the films was originally not larger than a turkey, but it is nice to see the feathers applied.
In contrast, in Prehistoric Planet the Velociraptor is feathered, the size of a turkey and shown as a fearsome and smart predator. However, it would never hunt humans which is a necessity for the Jurassic films of course. One could argue, if a dinosaur in Jurassic World is not killing humans or feasting on human flesh, is it really a dinosaur?
This reality of Jurassic World is probably what happens when a storyteller repeats the same story six times over. It is also the reason why the original film, Jurassic Park, is so great, and why its latest instalment is so bad. The contrast is particularly strong when the first and the last Jurassic films are being compared.
In the original Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs get a screen time of 18 minutes, which is not that much considering it’s a two-hour film. While at the time, in 1993, the computer-generated dinosaurs were much more costly to produce, their brief appearances have a meaning for the entire film, not only regarding expense and effort.
In the first film, there is a build up to every dinosaur appearing on screen. It is the shaking of the ground, the ripples in a glass of water, or the sound of something strange advancing. The characters in the film and the viewer hear and literally feel the dinosaur coming before it is revealed on screen.
This choice of revelation creates a fantastic build up for every scene with a dinosaur. The prehistoric animal actually appearing on screen feels even more exciting and juicier than imagined. Through this story telling, the viewer is hooked and seeing the actual dinosaur is a release of excitement that doubles the effect of the scene.
This is the very thing that was forgotten in the later Jurassic films. Here, the dinosaurs themselves are the spectacle. Like eating fast food, they are being served one after the other, bigger, more colourful, more dangerous than the one before. While Jurassic World pays tribute to the history of dinosaur films, such as a Brontosaurus bathing in a misty pool (The Lost World, 1925), a Dimetrodon attacking in a cave, or recreating iconic scenes of the earlier Jurassic films, turning scenes into easter eggs, such as the one with the Dilophosaurus. Every scene feels like it has to top and slay the one before it with even bigger teeth.
After half an hour, there is no more genuine excitement to be found. Every scenario has been played out, every dinosaur has been seen, every prehistoric monster has been vanquished.
In contrast, returning to Prehistoric Planet, where the viewer encounters just as many dinosaurs in a colourful setting, we are shown a completely different story. It is one of the fragile ecosystems where dinosaurs used to live, some dressed in feathers, much more bird-like than we would ever imagine. Others are portrayed as slow and somewhat lazy animals, not at all the beasts of the past. But this is exactly where the viewer gets hooked. It feels as if a film crew really travelled 66 million years into the past and filmed dinosaurs in their natural habitat, making discoveries that are told so truthfully and authentically that it feels absolutely real.
It is a similar sensation to the build-up of first feeling the prehistoric creature coming before actually seeing it. Every scene features a new scientific discovery of a dinosaur we thought we knew, or a meeting with one we have never seen before. This is mixed with the most beautiful cinematography and landscapes that truly take one to a world that is untouched by humans, a world of millions of years ago. In combination with David Attenborough’s voiceover, explaining the ancient world of dinosaurs, the viewer is glued to the screen.
This format is also a hit and directs the prehistoric past into a hopeful future. Dinosaur lovers and a general audience who have watched Prehistoric Planet Season one already hope for a second season. Considering the success of the show, they will probably get one.
In opposition to Jurassic World stands the seemingly never-ending franchise. Criticism and box office revenue have not been as good as earlier films. It appears as if the magic of the science fiction spectacle of 1993 that was Jurassic Park has finally faded, gone extinct. Time will tell if there will be a seventh film in the franchise, but it is already clear that it will be the same story all over again.
A story that, when it is told once or twice, will resonate with the viewer. The first Jurassic Park and Jurassic World were good films because they stayed true to the original idea of the novel. After all, it is a universal idea, well established within literature, one that has been coined by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and stands for so much more than just seeing dinosaurs on the big screen. Should humans become creators like gods, and if so, can they control their creations?
Literature, whether it is Frakenstein from the 19th century or the novel Jurassic Park from 1990, gives a definite answer: There are some forces of nature that should better be left untouched. Otherwise, the creator might face deadly consequences. Furthermore, once something is created or brought back to life, how can the creator presume to have control and possession over their creation, not even beginning to think about whether the resurrected creature is happy with where they find themselves at.
However, this message, though six times repeated, still comes through in the last instalment of the Jurassic films. Once again, humans leave the island, in this case a valley, because they cannot coexist with dinosaurs, leaving them with an untouched ecosystem to thrive and live in.
Dinosaurs and humans are not meant to live in the same time period because they did not evolve at the same time. By bringing them back to life, humans have created an ecological disaster, one that could bring them towards the brink of extinction. Therefore, the only solution is to give dinosaurs another chance on their own, in an ecosystem of their own, far away from humans.
A similar message can be found at the end of Prehistoric Planet, although it is much more relevant regarding our current climate crisis.David Attenborough links the extinction of dinosaurs to our own time. We stand at the beginning of a mass extinction just like the dinosaurs faced one 65 million years ago. Our troubles are man-made, whereas dinosaurs died out because of an unstoppable force of nature. However, it is clear to see in the documentary that dinosaurs thrived for millions of years because they lived in stable and sustaining ecosystems until those ecosystems were destroyed.
Stable and sustaining ecosystems such as oceans, forests, rivers, or jungles are just as important for humans to thrive as they were 65 million years ago. The laws of life and nature have not changed. How would they, the laws of nature are always the same. The message of dinosaur productions such as Jurassic Park and especially Prehistoric Planet, could not be clearer: for humans to survive the coming mass extinction, the natural world must be understood and remain intact. Ecosystems and their animals must be left alone and preserved so they can thrive. Otherwise, we will share the fate of our most beloved extinct creatures. We will become fossils in layers of stone, remnants of a world that will never return.
Prehistoric Planet can be streamed on Apple TV+.
Jurassic World: Dominion is in cinemas now.