No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that one day man would be able to watch the beasts of the New Victorian Creation Story in three-dimensional, full-colour kinematography and find it dull. Certainly, no-one of the 1970s generation – a time when it seemed perfectly natural for children to recreate the Cretaceous in any medium from fuzzy-felt to poo, and when it wasn't unknown for a family with a single (boy)child to spend their one-holiday-per-year on the Isle of Wight purely because it had a park full of 1:1-scale plaster triceratopses – would have predicted that in adulthood, they'd be capable of looking down a carnosaur's throat with a sense of ennui. Not because of middle-age, or because of a crippling bout of Adults' Disease, but because our culture has spent twenty years arranging for a tyrannosaurus to be the de rigueur way of advertising bottled water and Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes.
Easy to blame advertisers, just because they're evil and their filth pollutes everything good and decent in the world. But when the technology's capable of dropping something huge and predatory into the picture for less than it costs to hire David Tennant for the voice-over, advertising is just the inevitable end-point: cinema post-CGI has made all monsters seem casual, and dinosaurs have an (economic) advantage in that film-makers don't even have to design anything new. Two decades ago, you could rightly assume that if a movie featured prehistoric animals then prehistoric animals would at be the heart of the story, even if you had to suffer a gauntlet of exposition and child actors to get to them. Dinosaurs are now so easy to mass-produce that they've become supporting artists and/or pretexts for throwaway gags, like the big angry guy in a Laurel and Hardy movie whose job is to have a piano fall on his head and then chase the leads around with his sleeves rolled up. We consider 2009's Land of the Lost, in which scenes are constructed so as to ensure that the allosaurus is always playing second-fiddle to Will Ferrell's gurning. And having considered it, we trust we're never going to have to consider it again, ever, for any reason.
The problem is one of context. Anyone who ever had a saurian crush as a child will, as a grown-up, have experienced the Naked Lunch moment when they realise that the creatures they've been secretly mooning over for most of their lives are just big lizards. Big dead lizards. The giant frilled reptiles of Australia, with their startling habit of getting up on their hind legs and running towards humans while waving their “arms” and hissing, are as close to dinosaurs as makes no difference. Crocodiles would, if capable of understanding cultural nuances, be seriously pissed off that we don't give them as much attention as the animals they managed to outlive. As with self-destructed rock stars, extinction bestows a kind of glamour that's hard to justify. The dinosaurs were so big they just burned out, man. And this never-confronted disappointment with our dead heroes is, we'd suggest, far more prevalent in the twenty-first century. Part of the reason is sheer dinosaur proliferation, but just as big a factor is that thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, the best monster-wranglers knew how to put their creations in a context that seemed to mean something.
You knew this would get round to Ray Harryhausen, and he's our paragon here. The Valley of Gwangi isn't his most-lauded work – it's not even his most-lauded work that actually involves dinosaurs – but its climax has a sense of the bestial that most digital-age set-pieces lack, even though modern TV screens make it harder to pretend there are frames-between-the-frames that smooth out the stop-motion, and even though there are occasional close-ups which make it clear that what you're watching is really just a highly-evolved form of plasticine. Like Jurassic Park, it's a film of unendingly tedious “human” scenes, occasionally interrupted by hot saurian action; like Jurassic Park, it ends with an extended tyrannosaur showdown. The conclusion sees the King Lizard, known as “Gwangi” by the superstitious and occasionally deformed Mexican peasants, meet its end in a burning cathedral. It's memorable not just because a cathedral is the best possible place for a tyrannosaurus to be, but because the rest of the film has been pushing home the idea that Gwangi is literally Satan. To the locals, the Great Beast is the absence of God, his valley a domain forsaken by time, goodness, and the Baby Jesus. In his final minutes, Gwangi attacks a gigantic church-organ as if it's a rival behemoth. The last time we see him, he's the heart of an inferno.
Not the last time a dinosaur would stand in for the Devil, either.
In contrast, skip ahead by 36 years and experience the cruel and unusual punishment of Peter Jackson's King Kong. In Jackson's version, it's assumed that putting virtual theropods in front of the virtual camera is a noble enterprise in itself, and before long they become the victims of Kong's Mortal Kombat special moves (“tail-swing combo, Kong win!”). For the Great Beast to become a video-game opponent was inevitable on this occasion, given that this comes from the man who turned the Balrog into an end-of-level monster, but his assumption is almost universal in both modern cinema and modern TV. It's a dinosaur, isn't that enough...? It isn't, as Harryhausen knew, and it means there's nothing to support your childhood fantasies when your sense of “just a big lizard” kicks in. If Harryhausen's dinosaurs are David Bowie dressed as Ziggy Stardust, Jackson's are David Bowie in a suit at the Brit Awards. If it's reptiles you want, you'd honestly have more fun visiting the zoo and going “Jesus, are they real?” at the skinks.
Yet for all its 187 faults – we haven't counted them, but let's assume an average of one per minute – the digital King Kong had one thing to its credit, at least at the planning stage. The majority of dinosaur productions use known, familiar species: when “aberrant” dinosaurs appear, it's usually because the film-makers had a general contempt for research, or because the monster suit had to be modified to fit the actor, or because known dinosaurs just don't have enough horns. (Or all three. We're looking at you here, At the Earth's Core.) Pre-CGI, the most notable deliberate “aberrant” was Harryhausen's rhedosaurus in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, devised simply because no known carnivore was big enough to hump lighthouses and tread on New York taxis.
But for twenty-first-century Kong, a conscious decision was made that the dinosaurs should be descended from known species, acknowledging that life on Skull Island has been continually evolving in the 65 million years since Cousin Sue in Dakota died of comet-shock. None of the characters in the film bothers to comment on this, even though it's the one piece of scientific exposition which might actually have been interesting. Few other productions have gone out of their way to suggest that prehistoric throwbacks might not look exactly like fleshed-up museum specimens, although occasionally there's a hint that a surviving organism might have been tinkered with by human(ish) agencies. C.f. The guard-lizard in “Doctor Who and the Silurians”, described by the Doctor as “like nothing I've seen”, and that's from a man who's apparently been hanging around the Cretaceous between episodes.
The moral would seem to be that if you do have a good idea to back up your Lost World, then it's probably best to make it part of the plot rather than turning the film into its own Xbox tie-in. Clearly it's not impossible to do modern dinosaurs properly, provided you've got something worthwhile to do with them. “Let's have them fight ghosts, that'd be a cool” doesn't count, but nor does “worthwhile” necessarily mean anything terribly clever. Ponder this question, for example: when was the last time you saw anyone in a filmed medium riding on a pterosaur?
Yeah, it's annoying, isn't it? You're absolutely sure you've seen it, probably more than once, but you can't immediately think of an example. Someone being carried off by a pterosaur, yes. Someone racing a pterosaur in a biplane, possibly. Riding on one, though... it happens all the time in comic-book and pulp-SF culture, yet on film, it's elusive. But the idea remains thoroughly lickable, which might help to explain why the closest we've come to witnessing it in the modern age – Avatar, the success of which seems otherwise rather baffling – was a bigger hit than any other product of its oeuvre. Picture a modern-day reboot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs continuum (Earth branch, not the Martian one), with a feral, ochre-smeared Tarzan dominating the underskies of Pellucidar at the head of the pteranodon cavalry. Even those of us who've grown cynical in the era of Crunchy Nut Carnosaurs might show a little twitch of excitement. It has a definite edge over someone, man or ape, facing off against a land-predator. Why?
Because, again, the context is greater than the fossil. The notion of a human being riding on the back of any winged animal is gut-level wish-fulfilment: it's not something anyone's ever managed in the real world, and it's been a key what-we-now-call-trope of mythology for millennia. Harryhausen knew this (natch), and with Pegasus in Clash of the Titans, he completed a process that began with Raquel Welch dangling over a nest of reptile-chicks in One Million Years BC. Putting an army of tribesmen on the backs of wing'ed beasts is endearing because it'd be a primal human fantasy even if neither dinosaurs nor aliens were involved. Replace the pterosaur with a roc, or a giant bat, or the mother of all budgerigars, and it still works.
(As has been noted elsewhere, one of the heroes in Arthur Conan Doyle's original The Lost World was based on Roger Casement, AKA Sir Roger Casement until his conviction and execution for treason. The novel ends with said character preparing to return to the plateau in search of more pre-human loot, and this was published in 1912. Four years later, the historical Casement backed the Easter Rising, and would have participated if the British hadn't caught up with him. Firstly, the idea of the Rising being led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood on pterodactyls sounds like a Hell of a sequel. Secondly, note how much less compelling it would've sounded if we'd said “the Irish Republican Brotherhood riding on dinosaurs”. What tactical advantage would dinosaurs have over horses? That's just silly.)
Nor, it seems, is it difficult to stumble into great prehistoric scenarios without expecting it. The 1976 remake of King Kong is widely regarded as an abomination – often by critics who find the 2005 version perfectly acceptable, which shows you how far critical standards slumped in the intervening three decades – yet one overlooked detail is that according to Jeff Bridges' all-knowing hippy adventurer, the Vatican knew about Skull Island as long ago as the 1600s, but suppressed it.
A Papal S.H.I.E.L.D. unit of inquisition-era priests who hunt down giant gorillas... that's how you set up a Lost World story. Instead we got Primeval and 800 identical velociraptors.