Great Movies About Prehistoric Animals, Rated for Scientific Accuracy

Illustration for article titled Great Movies About Prehistoric Animals, Rated for Scientific Accuracy

What does the Pachyrhinosaurus say? That was the question the writers behind Walking With Dinosaurs 3D asked themselves, and they figured that the ornately-decorated ceratopsids would have been constantly spewing poop jokes. The critical response has been unanimous: it'd be more fun to walk with dinosaurs if they would just shut the hell up. But never fear, prehistory fans. Here's a list of movies that'll provide better enrichment for your Mesozoic mind.


Prehistoric Beast

Special effects master Phil Tippett's Prehistoric Beast runs only ten minutes, but the 1984 short is one of the best dinosaur films ever made. There's no narration and no dialog, just a Monoclonius who has the misfortune to get lost in a forest ruled by a sneaky tyrannosaur. Wait until dark, shut off the lights, turn the volume up, and be glad that there's not Tyrannosaurus right behind you. And if you can't get enough of Tippet's gorgeous work, track down a copy of the 1985 documentary Dinosaur! which features additional stop-motion dinosaur scenes hosted by none other than Superman.

Scientific Accuracy: Aside from some nitpicks – Monoclonius, if that's even a valid name for the dinosaur, lived about seven million years before Tyrannosaurus; the spike-nosed dinosaur's tail wouldn't have dragged along like a cooked noodle; etc. – Prehistoric Beast still holds up. More stop-motion dinosaurs, please.

The Land That Time Forgot

There are three ways movies put humans in peril at the claws of prehistoric creatures: genetic experiments gone awry, time travel, and lost worlds. The Land That Time Forgot, a 1975 adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of the same name, is a classic of the third sort, pitting the crew of a WWI German U-boat and their British captives against an undiscovered subcontinent's-worth of hungry ancient creatures. The puppet dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine reptiles look like ungainly lumposaurs by modern standards, but they still get plenty of screen time. The destruction of the Styracosaurus still makes me tear up.

Scientific Accuracy: A lost subcontinent brimming with animals mixed together from millions of years of Earth history is going to lose a few points on the accuracy scale. But at least the story tries to throw some science into the mix, with creatures "evolving" according to their location on the island rather than time.


Pterosaurs are often window-dressing for prehistoric scenes. Need something to look Mesozoic? Put a pterosaur on it. But Rodan is a kaiju classic that puts an enormous, mutated flying reptile front and center. Don't think too hard about the biomechanics of how the monsters could fly. Just enjoy the slow-build of the paleo-mystery featuring ravenous prehistoric insects and supersonic pterosaurs.


Scientific Accuracy: Look, do you want accuracy or a giant flying reptile for Godzilla to fight? Prehistoric forms of insects would probably stand a better chance of persisting to the modern day, anyway. The last pterosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but insects such as living earwigflies, moss bugs, and wood wasps closely resemble their Mesozoic relatives. Too bad that modern oxygen levels are too low for insects to get anywhere near the size of the movie's grub-like Meganulon.


In this creature feature, little alligator Ramon is flushed into the sewer only to get plumped up to giant size after eating the discarded corpses of dogs injected with growth hormones. It's a smart scifi setup, but with an echo of the past. The insatiable, 40 foot long monster resembles a real Cretaceous alligatoroid named Deinosuchus that lurked among the shores and marshes of North America 75 million years ago. The movie's pool scene – which has given me recurring nightmares since I was five – is a reflection of what dinosaurs had to worry about when they went down to the water for a drink.


Scientific Accuracy: I could simply say "Gigantism does not work that way! Goodnight!", but the science-inspired John Sayles storyline was much improved compared to the previous version which imagined brewery runoff fueling Ramon's growth spurt. A monstrous alligator created by quaffing Miller Lite suds sounds more likely to put on the game and fall asleep than terrorize Chicago.

Jurassic Park

If you don't know why this movie is on the list, stop what you're doing and watch it now. And follow it with the two sequels as penance for waiting so long.


Scientific Accuracy: For their time, Jurassic Park's dinosaurs were the most accurate ever created. Twenty years later, they're looking increasingly dated. The next time you break a wishbone – an ancient feature invented by non-avian theropods and inherited by their bird descendants – hope that the upcoming Jurassic World shows us the feathery dinosaurs we've been waiting for.

King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic is a deeply flawed film that borrowed the wrong parts of the original, but, nevertheless, the WETA workshop served up a feast of spectacular creatures unstuck in time. Playing off of the lost world conceit, the special effects team dreamed what dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters might look like given another 66 million years to evolve in isolation. Make sure to watch the extended edition to see them all, but even the theatrical cut is brimming with tyrannosaurs turned up to 11 in the form of Vastatosaurus and neo-retro sauropods. Brontosaurus lives!


Scientific Accuracy: An additional 66 million years of evolution probably would have created dinosaurs even stranger than the roughly familiar Skull Island fauna, but at least the film recognized evolution as a reality. Any special effects group that uses evolutionary logic to create carnivorous worms descended from tyrannosaur gut parasites is ok by me.

Pacific Rim

Forget Dr. Newton Geiszler's mistake about dinosaur butt brains. (There was no such thing.) Pacific Rim taps into the same part of our imagination that thrills at dinosaurs and has no shortage of roughly reptilian creatures. On a purely visual level, Guillermo del Toro skillfully gives the kaiju a sense of weight and menace that we often imagine giant dinosaurs carrying. And, really, who hasn't pitted their favorite dinosaur toys against squads of plastic robots and soldiers?


Scientific Accuracy: Trying to tackle the scientific accuracy of Pacific Rim would be about as fruitful as fighting Otachi with nothing but a butterknife.

The Valley of Gwangi

If you need a giant carnivorous dinosaur for a film, you'd traditionally call the agent representing Tyrannosaurus. But 1969's The Valley of Gwangi let the late special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen direct a different superpredator – an ornery Allosaurus. The cowboys and dinosaurs schtick is what further sets this film apart from similar stop-motion spectacles. Instead of lumbering through steaming jungles, Harryhausen's dinosaurs inhabit a gorgeous red rock canyon that recalls the places where the bones of dinosaurs are found today.


Scientific Accuracy: Gwangi snuck in just before the Dinosaur Renaissance overhauled the animals, so Harryhausen can be forgiven for creating a tough-scaled, tail-dragging Allosaurus. The question of how many cowboys it would take to effectively capture such a huge theropod remains an open question that awaits future study in the peer-reviewed literature.


Dinotasia is little more than a shortened, re-cut version of the Discovery special Dinosaur Revolution. That's a good thing. The prehistoric mixtape is more Prehistoric Beast than Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, with the ominous and creepy narration of Werner Herzog setting up each scene before turning the show entirely over to the dinosaurs. (Seriously, the guy could read a grocery list and make it sound foreboding.) Running from dark to comedic, the vignettes in Dinotasia are gorgeously-rendered Mesozoic visions that are best left to speak for themselves.


Scientific Accuracy: Dinotasia is paleo porn for hardcore fossil nerds. Purists could quibble about this or that, as purists are wont to do, but Dinotasia is the most accurate look at the Mesozoic yet. Just beware of watching the film with a diehard dinosaur fan, lest they start citing chapter and verse from technical papers as recent discoveries are brought to life on screen.

You Are Umasou

Yes, yes, The Land Before Time is the animated dinosaur film. But the more recent You Are Umasou is an underappreciated gem that's simultaneously weirder and more meaningful than the Don Bluth classic. Based on the Tatsuya Miyanishi picture book series, the movie follows the trials of Heart – a tyrannosaur raised by a herd of herbivorous Maiasaura only to suffer an identity crisis when he discovers that he'll grow up to be one of the fearsome "Big Jaws." Heart runs off only to wind up raising a baby ankylosaur that he can't bring himself to eat. The end result is a movie about family and identity that is the most heart-warmingly weird dinosaur movie you're likely to see. When these dinosaurs talk, they've actually got something to say.


Scientific Accuracy: "Repeat to yourself 'It's just a show; I should really just relax.'"

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, and creator of the paleontology blog Laelaps.



F'mal DeHyde

Speaking of Herzog, he commented on the jungle while filming Fitzcarraldo that makes me giggle hysterically every time I see it.

"Kinski always says it's full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It's just - Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and... growing and... just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they - they sing. They just screech in pain."

What a fruitcake.