Avatar and the Riddle of the Space Dinosaurs

Avatar and the Riddle of the Space Dinosaurs

A very pterosaur like Banshee by Wayne Barlowe

With James Cameron’s newest opus clearing huge amounts of money at home and overseas, many people are being introduced to the lush jungle moon of Pandora. Chief amongst that celestial body’s fauna are the Banshees and the Leonopteryx, huge pterosaur-like flyers of the skies. In several scenes the creatures swoop and climb and tear each other to bits in a manner reminiscent of old movies with prehistoric life. As it happens, the resemblance is not unintentional. Wayne Barlow, one of the creature designers, pretty much said as much in an interview with Io9.

…yes, being a huge paleontology buff did make me think of the vast variety of relatively little-known pterosaurs and plesiosaurs with their many, unique aerodynamic and hydrodynamic solutions.

And he’s not the first to take cues from prehistory in his alien creature designs. Not by a long shot.

Avatar and the Riddle of the Space Dinosaurs

Ray Harryhausen's Ymir

Possibly the first “xenodinosaur” (a term Allen Debus came up with and I am stealing for this article) to lurch across cinema screens is the Ray Harryhausen creature known as the Ymir. A creature from Venus, it was essentially a theropod dinosaur with a forked tail and a mustache. It went on an accidental rampage through Italy and was subsequently dispatched by the surprisingly effective Italian army. Pity it took the Coliseum with it.

It was followed by innumerable films where “real” dinosaurs were found alive and well on a distant planet. More often then not, any alien features these Xenodinosaurs possessed were distortions made out of ignorance by the producers. Lizards adorned with fake fins were popular in early films, especially the god awful King Dinosaur, where the titular beast was an annoyed iguana uncomfortably propped on its hind legs. Others, (Tom Corbett and Flash Gordon) produced chimerical abominations of herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs. Even dinosaurs that were basically accurate became alien beasts in the race to churn out low budget sci-fi, often through the magic of stock footage. Then franchises got in the act, contributing odds and ends that clearly evoke, if not dinosaurs, then prehistory in general. Creatures such as the Ronto, Tauntaun, and Bogwing of Star Wars, The Silurians of Doctor Who, and innumerable Kaiju from the Godzilla films all are inspired by prehistory.

Avatar and the Riddle of the Space Dinosaurs

Worse the it looks.

Alien dinosaurs show up even earlier in the pages of numerous pulps and old science fiction stories. Most of them are centered on Venus, as for a long time the constant cloud cover on that most inhospitable was considered evidence of vast rainforests. Since rainforests meant jungles, and jungles meant dinosaurs, soon the planet was crawling with prehistoric creatures. Anne McCaffrey wrote a trilogy of books called, appropriately enough, Dinosaur Planet. Edgar Rice Burroughs feature dinosaurian creatures in several of his worlds, including his John Carter saga.

There are few general connections to be made here. First, alien dinosaurs tend to appear on two types of world: the steaming jungle/swamp or the desert. There’s a fairly simple reason for this. Jungles equal old for most people, and movie producers, believe it or not, are people. Secondly, the stark landscape of a desert looks alien to us in a way even the best of jungle planets do not. Plus deserts are all over California and as such are mighty convenient places to shoot a film.

Avatar and the Riddle of the Space Dinosaurs

Loathing. Un-adulterate-ed loathing.

Secondly, the age of planet becomes the explanation for prehistoric life. Movie makers are taken in by the old canard that the evolution of life progresses through distinct stages. Thus, they reason, a young planet must have “primeval” fauna. As such, it must be civilized. “We’ve done it…brought civilization to Planet Nova,” a typically bone headed character from King Dinosaur says in the wake of an atomic blast that has fried the unfortunate iguana. (I cannot tell you how much I hate that film.) In a somewhat better example, Planet of the Dinosaurs allows its shipwrecked astronauts to civilize the plateau they live on by, again, dispatching the Tyrannosaur that lives there.

Finally, dinosaurs strike a chord in us. Things that look prehistoric just seem more impressive to most people, even if they can’t quite say why. A flying reptile should look like a pterosaur, or failing that, a dragon. A big bipedal predator is going to look like a theropod. It’s not a matter of unoriginality, although alien creatures almost certainly will look nothing like dinosaurs. But it’s what the audience expects, deep down. Dinosaurs are alien to us in the most fundamental of ways, even when they seem familiar.

A good creature designer like Wayne Barlow or Nemo Ramjet knows that. They take cues from prehistory to build a better, more memorable monster. They often fail. Sometimes, as in Avatar, they succeed brilliantly.

Asher Elbein has been writing about dinosaurs in one capacity or another for five years, most recently in the magazines Prehistoric Times and Teen Ink. He’s collaborated with Fernbank Museum of Natura ...read more

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