Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dinosaur Revolution review

Well, that was painful.  I decided to join the trend and review the show that's been so hyped- Dinosaur Revolution.  Little did I know my yearly allowance of eyerolls would be used up.  I only watched the frirst episode "Evolution's Winners" and frankly have no desire to sample more.

First the good.  The models were usually excellent, with non-pronated hands and all that good stuff.  I especially enjoyed the dilophosaurian snouts on the Cryolophosaurus, and the Mongolian mammals which weren't just shrews or mice.  I also liked the homage to Dryptosaurus and Ceratosaurus artwork in the Cryolophosaurus section (though I don't think they could really stand on their tails, given how most theropod chevrons look).  The Gigantoraptor's feathering was more problematic, as it seemed more like a naked theropod covered in feathers than an actual feathered creature like a bird, where body outlines are hidden and feathers interact and fold.  Its wings were always held out in front, which for a display is fine, but even the female who wanders up is posed this way.  The animation itself was a mixed bag.  Most moved smoothly, but the Saurosuchus looked unnatural for instance.  Similarly, the rendering was good for most, but the therapsids in the opening seen looked plasticy.  What's that you say?  My "good" paragraph's actually mostly full of criticisms?  Guess that prepares the way for the rest of the review...

What made Dinosaur Revolution most difficult to watch is the rampant anthropomorphism.  Basically none of the subjects actually behaves like a reptile, or a bird, or even a non-ape mammal for that matter.  They're chock full of human mannerisms.  You can always tell what they're supposed to be feeling, as if brains that size could even house such emotion.  But it's not just behavior.  My jaw dropped at the blatant 'sexy eyelash' marks on the female Eoraptors.  Why not just go the whole hog and give them real eyelashes they can flutter alluringly?  Then the male's heart (shaped like a heart of course) could project from its chest like a piston.  Would have been almost as realistic as the expectant smile he shows as she approaches in the actual program.  Even ignoring the behavior, the plotlines have so many "entertaining" improbable portions, like the Eoraptor unwittingly throwing a therapsid into Saurosuchus' mouth, that any illusion you're watching reality is destroyed.  And what was up with that swarm of hostile flies chasing the Antarctic fauna and killing the lizard... for blood!  Is this a 1950s horror movie or something?

Which would have all been excusable if the show at least taught us something.  Then it'd be a Dinosaur Train for adults, which wouldn't be my idea of a good program to watch, but would at least educate the part of the public that finds documentaries boring.  But no, I don't think there was any actual paleontological data contained in that hour, besides most of the portrayed anatomy and a few basic facts like "birds are dinosaurs" and "Cryolophosaurus is from Antarctica".  I say "most" because while the models were largely accurate, they sometimes contained some fictional aspect.  The rhamphorhynchoid tail fin on the female Eoraptors, for instance.  Or the highly elaborate wattles and soft horns on the male Gigantoraptor.  And when it comes to behavior, we have bower-building Eoraptors, color flushing Cryolophosaurus which killed the young of rival males, a stomping and twirling Gigantoraptor mating dance, Glacialisaurus which lived in harems (which we so know from the partial hindlimb...), etc.  It's not that these soft parts or behaviors are impossible, but Joe Public's only going to remember Gigantoraptor as "that goofy rainbow-colored thing that dances" or Eoraptor as "those raptors that cutely chirp and build mounds to select mates, and then care for their baby who adorably falls down, awwww".  So you're emphasizing the fictional aspects of these animals, while not going into any of the actual known interesting facts about them.

But maybe the show could have retained some use if all of this human-like/fictional appearance and behavior was there to illustrate some greater true scientific fact, that even network execs think viewers could remember.  Alas, no.  The implication of the Eoraptor portion was that dinosaur success was due to more complex parental care, but my impression has been that evidence for such care is limited to maniraptorans, supposed evidence for care in hadrosaurs (and thus Ornithischia) has been refuted, and that baby sauropods were too small to associate with adults and aren't apparent in herd trackways.  And even the mosasaur cares for its babies enough to get revenge on sharks for eating them (vengeance is such a widespread trait in squamates...).  As does the Cretaceous mammal, more realistically.  If you want to make the point dinosaurs were probably often brightly colored with display structures as the Gigantoraptor portion tries to, a far superior method would be to show say ten different possibilities for a few species in quick succession.  Changing colors and adding wattles wouldn't be that resource intensitive and would get the idea across to laymen without making it seem like we know they had definite soft features and patterns (I'm guessing the Yixian pigments were unknown when this was made).  The Cryolophosaurus portion taught us about the factual behavior... of lions.  The mosasaur segment taught us... er... "a mother's protective instinct is a force of nature than can change the world."  And the Glacialisaurus one taught us "a little bad luck goes a long way."  That's certainly scientific.  Maybe the next episode will teach us "the disadvantaged underdog can succeed with perseverance and faith in himself."  Sigh

To sum up, watch if you like largely accurate-looking dinosaurs acting like humans in zany situations and learning valuable life lessons.  If you want a show that clearly indicates which parts are based on paleontology, shows dinosaurs as they may have been, and teaches you something about them, keep dreaming.

16 comments:

  1. Creepily, your prediction about the second episode isn't that far off. It's arguably not the "main lesson", but it's a theme.

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  2. I have to agree with most of what you have written Mickey and say that I found the first episode to be fairly poor as well. And yet, strangely, I did quite like the second episode but for all the wrong reasons, which you have so perfectly described - "human dinosaurs".

    Shame on me!

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  3. "What made Dinosaur Revolution most difficult to watch is the rampant anthropomorphism."

    Well, that was a major part of what Reign of the Dinosaurs was supposed to be. But I agree with the lack of science in Dinosaur Revolution.

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  4. David MarjanovićSeptember 13, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    What's that you say? My "good" paragraph's actually mostly full of criticisms? Guess that prepares the way for the rest of the review...

    I just love that.

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  5. "To sum up, watch if you like largely accurate-looking dinosaurs acting like humans in zany situations and learning valuable life lessons."

    I find myself agreeing completely with this point. As was the rest of your review.

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  6. My suggestion is to loosen up on the "discovery-channel-fueled-expectations" and watch the whole thing again with an eye to letting it do what it does. It might grow on you. Plus there's a new version of the best stufff that's been cut together with NO annoying pedantic narration at all which plays so much better. Blu-Ray release etc forthcoming but I can't comment too much on that right now. As Dan Varner say this is not Dinosaurs 101. We wanted to tell you stories with visuals that portrayed up to date and reasonable speculation as to behavior and apperance BUT you had to be able to relate to the characters and give a damn about them - without being told that "Dinky Claw is hungry and misses his mom. Awww"... or
    Spikey Nose feels the need to mate" and the usual BS. It was a challenging job but I am very proud of what worked. Would Fantasia have been better if the Tyrannosaurs had two fingers and didn't meet a stegosaur? We, at least I, hope the show will be fresh and fun to look at and get some kid somewhere fired up about paleo and dnosaurs- make someone want to learn more and they will find the factual stuff- which is ever-changing and full of controversy anyway. I hope people can get past whether the phalangeal pinfeathers on the sixteenth metacarpal hypothesis ginglymoid is right and enjoy the gorgeous colors and settings and get some emotional connection- and just let it be what it is. Not what marketing folks and a network have tried to make it. Nuff said.

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    1. My sentiments exactly! I believe that the talking heads ruined what could have been an awesome show.

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  7. Thanks for the replies everyone, especially Pete. I think most of my problems with the show would have been negated to some extent if the packaging were different. Instead of being presented as a documentary reporting on the exciting new discoveries that have caused a revolution in how we think of dinosaurs, with stereotypic deep voiced narration and talking heads, it could be...

    "What would dinosaurs be like if they were people? We'd like to think it might go something like this..." Then after each segment a paleontologist could come on and say something like "Eoraptor there was one of the first dinosaurs, living 225 million years ago in Argentina. Since birds are dinosaurs and often have bright display structures and elaborate courtship rituals, the same might be true for dinosaurs like Eoraptor. We don't know what those structures and rituals were in this case, but the bower building and tail fans are a fun guess."

    Maybe that was your original intention, and the network execs thwarted it. If that's the case, I redirect the appropriate portion of my criticism to them ;)

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  8. Pretty much! There was an effort to shoe-horn the thing into a more typical dino-doc format that they felt was needed to fit their network. But that was not really the total intent of those of us who created the stories. You can't tell thirty or forty stories just about mating, courting and eat-or-be-eaten so we wanted to one as a western, one as a comedy short, one as a horror movie, one as an epic community story a la Deadwood etc etc etc to keep it interesting. AND to keep the science and fauna as right as possible at the same time... We are science or paleo flouters, we all love the reality of dinosaurs too... Well, you get it. Your method of introducing the stories would have fit better. Direct your wrath as you will!

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  9. Doh! "That sentence should have read: We are NOT science or paleo flouters, we all love the. reality of dinosaurs too... etc" Yeesh.

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  10. I was initially bothered that the whole of Ornithopoda had been written out of the script, but after watching the highly mammalized saurischian death-fest..... maybe they did them a favor.

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  11. I don't have cable anymore so haven't seen it, but after WWD, Chased by, Prehistoric Beasts, JFC, et al, I don't feel I'm missing anything. It appears that the drive-for-ratings supercedes science. I'll rent the DVD I guess when it comes out . . .

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  12. As Pete said I think what some are missing here is that this was not intended to be a WWD-style documentary, it was attempting to do something new and artistically interesting. That the show had to adapt the original concept to partial narration and was marketed as a pure documentary didn't do anyone a favor in my opinion.

    @Mickey - I take no issue with your preference, but I think you're underselling the difficulty in getting the dinosaurs physically accurate. No one else has gotten this level of accuracy into their dinos yet. And since most viewers learn from their visual impressions rather than what is said, I actually think this may be the single most important thing a documentary can do.

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  13. Sorry for the fans... but Dinosaur Revolution SUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  14. It's actually kind of funny, when I watched half of the first episode, everything I thought during those first 20 minutes are written right in this review.
    I still don't know if I was laughing out of misery, because I actually thought I would learn something, or because I was watching a romantic comedy with elements of action.

    But if you like to see an artistic point of view on the life of dinosaurs and some great images, I think it's nice to watch.
    Just don't start with the thought you'll be watching a documentary.

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