The University of Chicago Magazine

October-December 1996

The Strange Laboratory of Dr. LaBarbera


Hollywood occasionally does get it right. The 1957 film 20 Million Miles to Earth has a spaceship return from Venus bearing the egg of some Venusian creature. The egg hatches and, we are told, under the stimulus of the higher oxygen content of Earth's atmosphere, the hatchling grows to gigantic size (15­30 feet, depending on the scene) in a few days. The superb special effects are by Ray Harryhausen, and his biological insight is apparent. In one sequence, the reptilian creature breaks into a zoo in Rome and does battle with an elephant. Side by side, you can see that Harryhausen has given the monster the same limb proportions as the elephant and a posture appropriate for a large, bipedal creature. Even without other objects for scale, your instincts tell you that this is a big animal.

Harryhausen also created one of the most convincing, if completely imaginary, dinosaurs in movieland, the "Rhedosaurus" in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), inspired by the 1951 Ray Bradbury short story "The Fog Horn" (a chilling tale not to be read within twenty miles of a coast). Back in the 1950s, dinosaurs were considered to be stupid, clumsy, lumbering beasts, and Harryhausen, in designing the dinosaur for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, is reported to have said that no real dinosaur was fierce enough for the role. If Velociraptor or Deinonychus had been discovered 30 years earlier, things would undoubtedly have been different, but Harryhausen had to go it alone.

Harryhausen's construct is unusual in that it walks on all fours (dinosaurs were basically bipedal; the quadripedal forms were derived from the bipedal forms and were all herbivores), but his rendition of the Rhedosaurus' behavior is prescient: The animal is agile, quick, and clearly no incompetent brute. In short, it's much closer to the vision of dinosaurs we have today.

But it's all downhill from there in terms of consistency and accuracy, beginning with the movie's title. The Rhedosaurus is supposed to have been locked in the Arctic ice until released by an atomic-bomb test. (Remember, this is the 1950s, when the bomb haunted our collective psyche.) Unfortunately, the Arctic wasn't ice-covered in the Mesozoic. The monster takes up residence in the Hudson River canyon, the depth presumably referred to in the title. A fathom, you'll dimly remember, is 6 feet; 20,000 fathoms is 120,000 feet or about 23 miles. But the deepest spot in the oceans is the Marianas Trench--at a bit less than seven miles; thus, the poor Rhedosaurus' home is about 16 miles into the earth's mantle. If it could survive those temperatures and pressures, no wonder bullets don't have much effect.

With only a few ships, a lighthouse, and a diving bell to slake a 65-million-year appetite, the Rhedosaurus comes ashore in New York, devouring policemen and autos. The National Guard just makes matters worse when soldiers wound the creature. Its blood, we are told, carries some Mesozoic germ, deadly to mammals that "have never been exposed to it"; the creature must be killed in such a way as to sterilize the carcass. The solution? Why, a radioactive-isotope-laden bazooka round, of course. (The atom unleashes the horror; the atom will save us. Is this getting too thick for you?)

The grand climax occurs when the Rhedosaurus gets entangled with the rollercoaster ride at Coney Island; courage and a hot bazooka shell vanquish the brute beast. The film ends there, but I can easily imagine the next scene. A team of irate paleontologists arrives from the Museum of Natural History to point out that mammals and dinosaurs coexisted for 150 million years; whatever the beast was carrying, mammals had been exposed to for two-thirds of their evolutionary history. Besides, how were the paleontologists supposed to work on a radioactive corpse? The guys with the bazooka must have looked pretty sheepish.

Then there's the best of the best: the 1994 Steven Spielberg classic, Jurassic Park. If Ray Harryhausen had seen these Velociraptors, he never would have have doubted the ferocity of real dinosaurs. If you want to see our current best guess as to how dinosaurs moved and behaved, see this film. Spielberg had a number of vertebrate paleontologists as consultants, and he listened to them.

I have only two quibbles, both minor. First, the title, although Spielberg was obviously stuck with the one Michael Crichton used for his novel. Except for the Brachiosaurus (and the Dilophosaurus, which was a complete fiction), all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park actually lived in the Cretaceous period, but what's 100 million years among friends?

My second quibble has a little more substance (in several senses), for it concerns the posture of the Tyrannosaurus rex. For most of this century, Tyrannosaurus has been reconstructed as standing with its body vertical, crouched on its hind limbs. The Tyrannosaurus in Disney's Fantasia (1940) is a good example of this "classical" view, one probably unconsciously modeled after our own bipedal posture. More careful consideration of the biomechanics of large carnosaurs--the position of the center of gravity, the widespread presence of calcified tendons in the backbone, the massive tail--led in the 1980s to a radically new vision of the carriage in these animals, one where the body and tail were held horizontally and more or less rigidly, balanced over the hind legs.

At first sight, this reconstruction is jarring--rather like an ambulatory seesaw--but a bit of reflection will convince you that this posture is more, not less, stable than our own precarious position perched above our hind limbs. This is the view portrayed in Jurassic Park, and the posture's efficacy is apparent and seems quite natural when the T. rex in the film is seen in motion. As Andrew Biewener's research has pointed out, to avoid fracturing their own bones, very large animals must keep their weight-bearing limbs straight, with all of the long bones in a single line. Here's where Jurassic Park goofed.

Watch the climactic final scene in the lodge's lobby, where the Tyrannosaurus and the Velociraptors settle their differences. The tyrannosaur keeps his knees bent and the upper portion of the leg (the thigh or drumstick, depending on which analogy you prefer) is always at least 30 degrees off the line defined by the leg's lower portion--more like the posture of a large bird than a mammal. Given Biewener's results, it's much more likely that an animal the size of this beauty would have kept the upper and lower portions in line when that leg was weight-bearing. Such a posture would have given Jurassic Park's T. rex another foot or two of elevation, and made it even more intimidating. Both the biologist and the moviegoer in me would have been delighted.

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