What is it about dinosaurs that make them so compelling? Why do people, and in particular kids, throng to dinosaur exhibits and collect all manner of ancient reptile paraphernalia? Other than the bubbly, purple Barney, these creatures are fearsome with their incredible bulk, jagged teeth and armor-like plates. Yet kids love them, especially the young ones. Long before pre-schoolers have mastered more conventional vocabulary they can rattle off the multisyllabic names of these beasts. Whatever the explanation for their popularity, dinosaurs attract audiences and the IMAX movie Dinosaurs 3D: Giants of the Patagonia is doing just that.
Playing at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the movie is pulling in streams of viewers eager to see a time when reptiles ruled the earth, and in particular when they roamed Patagonia in southern Argentina, a region where paleontologist Dr. Rodolfo Coria has been discovering the fossils of new dinosaur species. Narrated by Donald Sutherland, the movie focuses on the lives of simulated dinosaurs in their prehistoric ecosystem, with only passing reference to the painstaking paleontological spadework that led to the discoveries of these dinosaurs. The computer-generated images of the reptiles are impressive. The 3-D effects amplify the heft of these prehistoric creatures. And the featured dinosaurs are huge! The plant-eating Argentinosaurus, possibly the largest of all the dinosaurs, stretched 120 feet fully grown and the carnivorous upright Gigantosaurus was still imposing at 45 feet long and 8 tons.
Waiting to enter the theater, a young boy already sporting the 3-D glasses is barely able to keep still while sitting on a bench. Six-year-old Han from New Jersey has been enamored with dinosaurs since he was three and his favorite is the T. rex. “I know all about dinosaurs,” he says, “but some things I don’t know.” A sentiment the movie uncannily echoes when paleontologist Coria remarks that the number of questions about dinosaurs grows bigger than the number of answers. Apparently, Han is merely exhibiting the insight of a budding paleontologist. Coria’s work wins other converts. After a scene of the scientist examining a dinosaur footprint, a little boy stage whispers to his mother, “I want to become a paleontologist when I grow up.”
Dinosaurs 3D begins with a cosmic explosion that startles the audience, producing a group flinch. “I’m scared,” says a little girl. “You’re supposed to be,” says her older brother. The movie seems intended to elicit physical responses. There’s nothing like an immense dinosaur lunging at you to get the adrenalin surging. The 3-D heightens this effect. Flying reptiles zoom out at the audience. Younger viewers reach out to touch deceptively close dinos. An older man swats away a dragonfly hovering near his face despite knowing on some level that it’s only an image on the screen. Naturally, there’s a lot of teeth baring, tail whipping, foot stomping and aggressive roaring in encounters between species. The action even gets grudging respect from an older boy indifferent to the ancient reptiles—“That was almost cool.”
The movie ends with the arrival of an asteroid that sets in motion the extinction of the dinosaurs. “The movie made me sad,” said Jordan, age 6, from Houston, after seeing the demise of his favorite creatures. He’s not comforted by the upbeat, concluding note pointing out dinosaurs’ evolutionary connection to today’s birds. But if that’s small solace, at least the prehistoric creatures come staggeringly alive again onscreen.