The wait is over. Lo these many years since Deep Impact and Armageddon, Hollywood has finally answered America’s deafening plea for another movie about asteroids striking the Earth. Dinosaur, Disney’s first summer outing, is a meteor movie with a twist, though it’s set 65 million years before Tea Leoni was even a mutter under her parents’ breath, in a period when dinosaurs held dominion over our prehistoric planet. Maybe because the millennium is now behind us (and has taken along with it whatever fear of imminent and random apocalypse accompanied the decade spanning the end of the Cold War and the end of the 20th century), world-destruction fantasies now seem distant again. Populated by CGI animals with human voices and thus bereft of people in the way we, er, people have come to understand them, Dinosaur‘s disaster is conspicuously remote, more like a cosmic collision viewed through the Hubble telescope than a false scare about tsunamis battering the East Coast. In contrast to its realism-aspirant predecessors (or predecessor, anyway; Deep Impact is really the only recent asteroid movie worth talking about), Dinosaur is equal parts anthropomorphic fable and lush image, using bleeding-edge CGI technology to tell an ancient story in an ancient way.
Hopefully it isn’t revealing too much to point out that Dinosaur broadly predetermines its own outcome by setting itself in the historical period that it does. The movie adapts one of paleontology’s more gripping stories, the mysterious passing of global dominance from the Great Lizards to mammalian forms of life after some cataclysm presumably altered the planet’s climate in the latter’s favor. Said cataclysm is here claimed to be a barrage of asteroids that drain the Earth of water and, in the movie’s first ten minutes, turn the teeming rainforest home of our Iguanodon hero, Aladar (D. B. Sweeney), and his adopted family of lemurs into something resembling the deserts of the American southwest. It’s cute that Aladar and his lemurs can see past that whole lizard/mammal thing and find a way to get along. But since the movie is really about the quest of Aladar’s dino-herd for “The Nesting Ground” an Edenic oasis where the dinosaurs can do all the fucking, eating, and drinking that they want the movie really wants you to care not about what happens to the mammals, but what happens to the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, anyone who paid attention in fifth grade knows that whatever the outcome of the dinosaurs’ quest for The Nesting Ground, the asteroid strike has set in motion the mechanisms that will ultimately lead to their extinction.
Yes, my complaining about this is paste-eatingly geeky, like protesting that the last battle in Star Wars should have been silent because there isn’t any air in space. And the movie certainly doesn’t devote much screen time to the dinosaurs’ long-term fate, instead being content to follow along as Aladar tries to get laid without getting eaten you know, the way we all do. Nevertheless, the association of dinosaurs and asteroids with extinction isn’t too hard to come by, so it’s fun to watch the movie try and make its audience ignore the fact that all of its protagonists are doomed.
Take, for example, Kron’s (Samuel E. Wright) measured orations on Darwinism. The dinosaur herd’s single-minded and ruthlessly pragmatic leader, Kron repeatedly voices survival-of-the-fittest ethics by ordering individual members of the herd to keep up or be left behind, and answering Aladar’s imputations to wait for stragglers with sarcastic comments about the futility of “let[ting] the weak set the pace.” This makes Kron look appropriately dastardly as a minor antagonist (the major ones being T-Rex-like Carnotaurs who doggedly pursue the herd; the Carnotaurs are mindless and speechless devourers). But it ignores one of Darwinism’s basic tenets: survival of the fittest is what happens in the absence of organized societies, so Kron, by expressing such Darwinist sentiments out loud, simultaneously provides the means to transcend them. After all, you don’t need to tell a pokey herd-member that she’s going to die if she doesn’t keep up; a hardcore Darwinist will just quietly let her die.
Aladar seems to recognize this when he exploits the herd’s stunningly sophisticated knack for communicating in English to organize collective resistance against the attacking Carnotaurs he implores the herd to “stand together” and assail the Carnotaurs with a kind of mewling, yarbly howl which, luckily, the Carnotaurs are high-strung enough to find frightening. The movie’s Darwinism vs. Collectivism debate has its most troubled moment earlier on, though, when the Carnotaurs set upon and wound Kron’s lieutenant, Bruton (Peter Siragusa). Aladar and his soft-hearted compatriots lead Bruton to safety and try to heal him with folk remedies, but Bruton, at least initially, would rather suffer while asking why Aladar’s clan doesn’t just accept their fate. Having thoroughly assimilated Kron’s way of thinking, Bruton believes that he is destined to die because he has fallen behind the herd, and it takes an impassioned speech from Plio, the world’s first humanist lemur (Alfre Woodard), to change his mind. After Plio insists that accepting death is a matter not of fate but of personal choice, Bruton develops a love for the collective good and subsequently sacrifices himself to hold off the Carnotaurs while Aladar and the gang make their escape.
If, while watching the herd in its inexorable march, you happen to remember Disney’s first treatment of the subject Fantasia‘s elegiac dinosaur caravan, wandering amidst the pervasive doom of a suddenly poisoned landscape then this will be your “Hey, wait a minute” moment. Passionate speeches about choice and collectivism are all well and good, but in this context they take on a particular irony. The sad story of the dinosaurs is one of the few Walt Disney got right the first time: on a toxic planet, exodus means nothing. And the route you choose won’t matter. Of course, Fantasia was released in the depths of the Great Depression, and it shows. As a sign of its times, then, maybe Dinosaur‘s love-will-conquer-all apocalypse could be thought of as a collective sigh of relief over the fact that the millennium has passed without incident. Sure. Though if you’re as nervous as I am, then you may have a pretty clear recollection of March 11, 1998, when the International Astronomical Union reported the considerable possibility that an asteroid, 1997XF11, could hit the Earth in October, 2028. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory refuted the story several hours later, but those were a few strange hours for me, as I pondered which of humanity’s projects might be just as well discarded for taking more than three decades to complete. When JPL loudly poo-pooed the IAU’s findings, the office where I was working lost the gloomy mood that had pervaded it a few moments before, but I still recall what it felt like. And if I prod the people around me, I bet I’ll find that I’m not alone in this.
Such are the ups and downs of apocalypse anxiety, one of Western society’s more ridiculous but durable fears. Even now it rumbles anew, somewhere off the coast of the Carolinas where geologists are musing about the possibility of submerged fault lines sparking a cataclysmic tidal wave. So enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts. And the next time it’s convenient, hug a lemur; thirty years from now, you might not have the chance.