December 1998
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Bang a Gong for T-Rex

Elves and leprechauns are real, and they really do create some of your favorite snack foods.

Okay, so you don't believe it, but your reaction illustrates the public reaction to the discovery of dinosaurs in the 19th century. Imagine opening your copy of the Daily Mail or City Clarion one morning and reading that scientists had confirmed that real dragons roamed the Earth in the past. Some called it madness. Others proclaimed it proof of the Biblical story of Noah - since these animals were extinct, that proved they must have been left behind with the unicorn when the Ark sailed.

Today pretty much everyone (with the exception of the very, very paranoid) accepts the existence of dinosaurs as fact. One fantasy has dominated the thoughts of everyone remotely interested in dinosaurs since they first heard about them: to actually see them alive. This translates to: DINOSAURS = Big Box Office - and I'm not talking about the latest Rolling Stones tour. Though short on plot intricacy, at least the Jurassic Park films showed us living, breathing dinosaurs, more real than they've ever been able to fabricate them on film. This means that everybody wants to see them, no matter what inanity forms a backdrop.

But Marcel Delgado and Willis O'Brien's creations, which fooled the world in King Kong, were destined to someday be outdone by new technology. Now the totally convincing dinosaurs of Jurassic Park 2 have been outdone. Although the craft suffers slightly under the increased scrutiny afforded, the latest IMAX film T-Rex: Return to the Cretaceous outdoes every other dino flick by giving us state-o-de-art dinosaurs in 3D on the giant screen.

The plot of T-Rex isn't much brighter than any other dino flick. Liz Stauber stars as a cute teenager named Ally who, if she's seeing any dancing babies, is likely to fantasize about them being devoured by velociraptors. Ally's a latchkey kid of divorced parents, and big into fossil monsters due to the influence of her paleontologist dad, played by hunky Peter Horton of TV's... um... some show on Fox. She's so desperate for Papa's attention that she forms her own outlandish theories about kindly, attentive Tyrannosaurus parents nurturing their young - and not running off to the badlands of Canada to dig up bones with frisky, nubile grad students while their daughters have to stay at home.

So obsessive is young Ally that, after being exposed to the fumes of a cracked dinosaur egg one night, she wanders off into the museum and time-warps into the past to meet with paleontology's top celebs and eventually mind meld with a mama T-Rex. Horton is so concerned for his daughter's mental health after the incident that he agrees to take her along on his next dig.

If this sounds just a bit too much like something seen on PBS for your tastes, I can't blame you. The main fault of these IMAX 3-D films so far, such as Mark Twain's America and Into the Deep, is that they're being put together as family-fun tourist attractions first and legitimate entertainment second. Not surprisingly, they're mostly sponsored by schoolie outfits like Discover magazine and Britannica. This may not be too bad a thing - just think of what the first IMAX 3-D horror and porn features will be like. In the wrong hands, the format could be used for great evil.

The dinosaurs of T-Rex are incredibly realistic, lagging behind the Speilberg pictures' only in the way they are "photographed" - these showing hides that are a bit too clean. It's getting so that even the special effects creators are having a rough time what's real and not real in their own movies. Artificial reality in movies is here to stay, and it's only going to get spookier in the years to come. Already, animated features like the twin insect comedies Antz and A Bug's Life are taken almost for granted. Fittingly, Universal Studios has announced plans to revive their Frankenstein series with an all-new, all-CGI film - using artificial reality to create a vision of artificial life.

Computer Generated Imagery has its limits, though. The surface of a real object reflects light from infinite points in space. The only way CGI could match this is to plot light sources faking reflected light across the entire surface of every object, which is a math problem even today's best computers would take forever to solve. However, the human brain is used to filling in the blanks between symbols and shorthand. Our ability to take in reality can be used to fool us.

The IMAX 3-D format is at it's best in more mundane situations. A dialogue scene shot in a suburban kitchen is more astonishing than that of a spaceship dodging asteroids because I've been there and done that, and the depth of the simple illusion is both amazing and easier to grasp. I can't tell just how realistic the dinosaurs are in the movie because I don't have any in my neighborhood. Every IMAX 3-D movie has had scenes with the camera soaring through the air, and the audience loves it. This takes that sense of the familiar a bit further - since most of us have been in an airplane or on a roller coaster, our brains can easily match up the illusion with a memory.

That's why the spaceships in movies act more like airplanes than real spacecraft would - our grasp of the familiar makes the phony action seem more acceptable than reality would be. We probably won't start to really believe in spaceship f/x until we all start travelling in space ourselves - but at that time, we'll just be shooting space operas on location, so what's the point. The paradox of special effects is in the fact that they're only really needed to show us things we already know are fake.


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