On the cult classic animated sitcom The Critic, one of the half-dozen or so fake movie clips recycled in the opening credits throughout the series depicts a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-style black-and-white ballroom dancing scene suddenly interrupted by a full-color Tyrannosaurus Rex devouring the dancing couple. The show’s protagonist, Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz), responds with his usual catchphrase, “It stinks!” but every time this particular clip comes up, I can’t help but think he is dead wrong about it. That would clearly be one of the greatest movies ever made, because nothing can improve literally any movie like the sudden, unexpected appearance of a prehistoric creature or two. In other words: surprise dinosaurs!
One of the earliest, and still one of the absolute best, instances of the surprise dinosaur phenomenon has to be the original 1933 classic King Kong. This was basically the greatest special-effects spectacle of its time (in the US, at least; Fritz Lang’s Metropolis also set an early high-bar, but contains no dinosaurs, unfortunately). Kong remained the pinnacle of FX work for arguably three-and-a-half decades afterward, until 2001: A Space Odyssey (about as perfect a movie as you can find without any dinosaurs in it) came along in 1968.
Sure, the stop-motion dinosaur fights in Kong look stilted and unconvincing by today’s standards, but imagine being in an audience 85 years ago and seeing that. They would, of course, have been expecting an impressively rendered giant ape, but what an amazing surprise those dinos must have been! I have to assume minds were blown on a scale comparable to the legendary early Lumiere Brothers screenings, when audiences supposedly ran screaming from theaters to avoid being crushed by the train that appeared to be hurtling right toward them.
Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of Kong didn’t have the element of surprise at its disposal when it came to the introduction of its dinosaurs (though the fight with the two T-Rexes is arguably the best part of its three-plus hours), but six years later, legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick took full advantage of the dinosaur-rendering technological advances pioneered by the late, great Stan Winston on Jurassic Park in his masterpiece The Tree of Life. Detractors might say that the dino scenes are confusing and unnecessary, but they are, in fact, the heart of the movie, beautifully illustrating the themes of nature and grace that run throughout. The dinos aren’t just the best part of this great movie, they are the movie.
Even science fiction and fantasy movies can employ the secret weapon of surprise dinosaurs to great effect. Just because we expect certain supernatural or (currently) technologically impossible elements in a movie doesn’t mean we can’t be blindsided by unexpected dinosaurs. A great example of this is the underrated Luc Besson sci-fi action flick Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson’s titular character is dosed with a chemical that unleashes heretofore untapped mental abilities. It’s a cool premise, entertainingly executed by a great cast, but in the third act it gets exponentially cooler with the addition of the ability to transcend the current temporal reality. In other words, time travel, which leads to…well, you know.
Another movie that utilizes this greatest of all possible revelations is the ’80s classic WarGames, which has an animatronic pterodactyl unexpectedly flying above an open field about halfway through the movie. As it is basically just a high-tech kite and not an actual living, breathing dinosaur, this one is a bit of a stretch, but its sudden appearance is no less delightful for all of that.
Finally, for those disappointed by the much-maligned live-action Justice League movie (whether you’re eagerly waiting for the Snyder Cut to right all wrongs or not), I can’t recommend the animated Justice League: The New Frontier highly enough. Not only does it boast a staggeringly perfect voice cast (Kyle MacLachlan as Superman! Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman! Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash!), but by the end, all of the heroes are in combat with a plethora of dinosaurs unleashed on earth by an inter-dimensional rift. It’s thoroughly awesome.
After hearing about my underwhelmed response to Dunkirk, a friend of mine asked me if I would have liked the same kind of movie, but with dinosaurs or giant sea monsters as the antagonists instead of just human combatants. In a way, that movie already exists (it’s called Pacific Rim, and it rules), but the element of surprise would have made it that much better. Tell us about your favorite surprise dinosaurs in the comments below!