I’ve been a geologist now for over fifteen years and during that time, as in most sciences, things have changed. Be it grand seismic shifts (see what I did there?) in logical thinking to the unearthing of new species of fossil, it may be a science that is locked in the past, but there is always something new happening. And that can be a problem when making a film about an up-to-date process or idea; it’s only new at the time of filming, even becoming dated upon its release! However, revelations, when captured, can become something of posterity, even when, as is often the case in science, a new theory is just around the corner to force progress once more. Palaeontology, the study of fossils, should never be disregarded as a science, for without it there would be no geological time scale. And that in itself is as much a reason to look into it as anything. Of course, when thinking of fossils, most people’s minds turn to the exciting - dinosaurs, ‘terrible lizards’ that ruled the Earth for two hundred million years, one of the greatest life success stories ever, dwarfing our paltry human existence by over one hundred and ninety nine million years! The reality, as is normally the case, is somewhat different – fossils come in all shapes and sizes, from bacteria to bones, but the study of them can shed new light onto our own living world.
Dinosaurs Alive attempts to give us the best both of these worlds, by combining CG dinosaurs and paleontological digs in what becomes a bit of a mish-mash of ideas without any definite focus. By attempting to be everything for everyone any message gets lost in a meandering script that covers ‘new’ discoveries and dinosaurs fighting. The main idea is to follow palaeontologists Mark Norell and Mike Novacek, together with their team of graduate students as they explore sites of exceptionally fossiliferous strata, from China's Gobi desert to New Mexico's Ghost Ranch. Unearthing various bones, covering them and transporting them back to the lab. Much is made of work in the lab too, fossils unearthed waiting to be worked on normally lay in storage for years before anyone looks at them (happens in my university!) and they can often contain untold treasures, such as the specimen new to science examined in the film. As important as that is, it is always the field where the glamour is and this film tries very hard to exploit that. Vivid landscapes and epic sceneries combine to give a grand scale to the projects, when in reality digs are often confined to tiny portions for only very short periods of time. Time, as always, is money, and most time is spent in preparation for the exploration, not out there, something that is not even touched upon in the film.
Intercut with the ‘science’ are CG rendered scenes of dinosaurs going about their lives, but being a film are given that extra spice, such as battling with each other, stalking, egg stealing; as if the makers were acutely aware that this film was to be shown in museum theatres and thus needed to be entertaining as well as informative. And I can see in that environment the film probably works, especially in its 3D guise. However, in the home environment, the balance doesn’t quite work and to tell the story in just forty minutes, even with the odd bit of spice, it just isn’t enough time. The BBC have done magnificent series’ with ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ or even Attenborough’s ‘Lost World Vanished Lives’ series which explore much the same ground as Dinosaurs Alive tries to. They, of course, had the luxury of entire series’ to dedicate to specific ideas. Dinosaurs Alive simply doesn’t, but where it really falls down is its lack of actual engagement and focus, which is a shame, because much of what is presented is done very well. The new species, the ideas behind the dig, the archive footage of previous explorations, famed palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews is featured, and it’s all well narrated by the stalwart tones of Michael Douglas, who manages to get the emphasis just right. Perhaps a better approach would have been to show all the digging at the beginning, formulate ideas on the lives then show the dinosaurs ‘alive’, putting those ideas forward, as a separate film at the end. Because as it is, the backwards and forwards through time, the over scripted dialogue between the participants and the lack of any direction just means a rather meandering film with a few glorious highlights that are simply not enough to pull the weight of the film up. I’m sure it will find a home, particularly in this its 3D debut, but sadly I can see it becoming a fossil itself ....
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