Friday, May 30, 2014

Documentary Review: Flying Monsters 3D

I must admit to being as guilty as pop culture is in terms of pterosaurs. Pterosaurs have always played second fiddle to the dinosaurs. When they’re not actually mislabeled as dinosaurs themselves, they’re often passed over as inferior prototypes to avian dinosaurs.  Pterosaurs often seem to be token bit players in the world of dinosaurs-Pteranodon and Pterodactylus have an ocean and nearly 100 million years between them, but they’re synonymized in the public eye.
That’s why I was glad to finally see a pterosaur documentary. In 2011, this documentary, called Flying Monsters, hit IMAX screens in 3D. Despite the relatively short running time, this film was ambitious-David Attenborough was the host, pterosaur evolution and biomechanics was the focus, and CGI was used extensively. Does it do pterosaurs justice? Well, that’s what I’m going to talk about now.

The program begins fairly typically-Sir David’s familiar, pleasant Londoner tones narrate over the planet earth from orbit, transitioning into a montage of computer-generated pterosaurs later seen in the program.  The proper start is with Attenborough in a conservatory, with its rich flora and swarms of flying insects illustrating the Triassic’s tropical environment. The evolution of flight is discussed, with existing footage of Draco volans, the famed gliding lizard of Indonesia, transitioning into a beautiful CG rotation over its flight sequence.

A flyover over the Jurassic stone of Dorset sets the stage, as the great fossil collector Mary Anning is introduced as the discoverer of pterosaurs. Her 1828 find of Dimorphodon is showcased, as we see David with the type specimen at the Natural History Museum where it was first described. As he explains the anatomy of the fossil, CGI bones fly from the slate and assemble themselves into a full-size Dimorphodon skeleton.
Dimorphodon is then shown in its natural habitat-flying over theropods (perhaps Sarcosuchus?) in the early Jurassic jungle and devouring dragonflies and other flying insects. A swarm of the reptiles swoop around a swarm of insects. One is brought down by a midair collision and sinks into the lagoon, where it fossilizes and transitions to the previously discussed fossil.
A trip to the Solnhofen Plattenkalk limestone quarry introduces Pterodacytlus, and we see Attenborough with a specimen (unfortunately, the location is never specified) as he explains the mechanics of pterosaur flight.  It’s a pity that the look at the mechanics of the amazing wing membranes is very brief. Instead, it’s used to transition from Dimorphodon to the far more sophisticated Darwinopterus.   Darwinopterus is described as a more agile, more complex, and more efficient flier, navigating through the thick forests of late Jurassic China. It even swoops down on a pair of Anchiornis and takes one as a quick snack. 
 The next scene has our host and Dr David Unwin at an computer lab (possibly at his base in Leicester), Unwin explaining locomotion mechanics in pterosaurs. Wireframe models on the computer monitors illustrate his points. He says that pterosaurs first conquered aerial locomotion before ground movement, and that the wing-membranes attached to the hind limbs made walking on the ground very difficult. A wireframe pterosaur flees the monitor and the Davids interact with the model as it clumsily crawls on the desk before taking flight and lodging on a coat holder. 
Wireframe models continue the story- as time went on, the descendants of Pterodactylus evolved shorter and shorter tails and leg membranes so they could walk far more efficiently. To illustrate this, David goes to Pterosaur Beach, a stretch of stone near Crayssac where footprints of pterosaurs have been discovered.  The unique pattern of pterodactyl locomotion is illustrated as Pterodactyls apparate to walk over the ancient tracksite.  Sadly, their discoverer Jean Michel Mazin does not make an appearance. 
The apex of pterosaur evolution is placed in the Cretaceous. First, we see a pair (perhaps mates) of Pteranodon flying over the clouds over North America. Sadly, that’s the only thing we see of them. Pteranodon, perhaps the most iconic pterosaur, is just here for make a cameo.  A brief digression about Archaeopterix and Anchiornis places birds as a rising competitors to the pterosaur dynasty, but we quickly return to the pterosaurs. This segment features Tupadactylus, called Tapejara in a common taxonomical mess that also plagued Walking With Dinosaurs 12 years earlier. One would think they’d have figured it out, but the confusion remains
The magnificent crest of the “Tapejara” is described and shown to have three possible uses, demonstrated by the animals- as a rudder for midair turning, a sail used to sail on the surface of the ocean, and as a sexual display to lure mates.
The last pterosaur, as you might expect, is Quetzalcoatlus. Attenborough meets with Doug Lawson in New Mexico for Lawson to show him the type specimen of the giant pterosaur.  Doug sadly doesn’t say much-a problem with the running time-and we cut to the animal in life. A pair of Quetzalcoatlus scavenge on a Parasaurolophus and eat a Palaeosaniwa that tries to get its own scavenging in. This is a clever compromise between the old and new models of Quetzalcoatlus behavior. Ever since its discovery, the idea was that the inland-living Quetzalcoatlus was primarily a vulture like scavenger.  Recently, the model of it being a predator that stalks prey from the air before running it down on land has replaced it in paleontology circles.
The type specimen, a humerus still at the Texas Memorial Museum, is taken though a cat scan to look inside the structure. The audience is flown through the wireframe interior of the bone, showing the hollow bone architecture that keeps the bone strong enough for walking but still light enough for flight.  The animals, as Michael Habib and Mark Witton have argued, took off with a leaping flight-a strong four-footed jump followed by strong flapping to get the animal off the ground and quickly achieve the altitudes required to catch the thermals.  A  Tropeognathus skeleton illustrates the concept.
The climax of the film is David Attenborough being taken for a glider flight, flying alongside a CGI Quetzalcoatlus the size of the craft. They soar far over the landscape as Attenborough explains how gliders work and how the same principles could apply to giant pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus.
The Cretaceous extinction is finally discussed, but the meteor is downplayed. Instead, David states that it was the more sophisticated, more adaptable birds that drove pterosaurs to extinction, competing them out of existence.  The Pterosaur vs Bird debate is still fought over today as their experts take sides over which was the ruler of the Cretaceous skies. I guess even in their own program, pterosaurs are still playing second middle to dinosaurs.  A  montage of modern birds in their vibrant glory gives way to the climactic scene of the CGI Quetzalcoatlus flying over and among its successors before diving at the audience in a 3D shot.
This is really the Walking With Dinosaurs of Pterosaurs. The animals are beautiful and realistic, there are many minor errors that experts can nitpick to death, and viewing audiences are stunned. Attenborough’s biological knowledge and veteran presenting style, as always, creates a reasonable, not too formal but very informative and enthusiastic hosting.  His skill has always been to take audiences to see the wonders of nature, showing love of the subject but also a great deal of knowledge and authority. The CGI is quite decent. The idea of using specific species to illustrate a tale of evolution is excellent, and the short segments are entertaining, as are the moments where the animals come to life and interact with the host.
Of course, there are many problems. The scientific problems are well explained by pterosaur authority Mark Witton in his review of the program , but there are a lot of problems inherent to the running time. We miss a great deal of animals-what about the tiny bug-catching Anurognathus or the first pterosaurs from Triassic Europe, both making appearances in Walking With Dinosaurs?  The legendary Rhamphorhynchus is nowhere in sight, and Pterodactylus is barely in it. How could they resist the Brazilian greats Treopeognathus, Anhanguera or Cearadactylus, or the bizarre Dsungaripterus or Ludodactylus?  You can’t talk about pterosaur diversity without using Pterodaustro’s flamingo mimicry as an example. Why miss an opportunity to see Hatzegopteryx devouring tiny sauropods and terrorizing dromeosaurs?  
There’s also a missed opportunity in terms of talking heads. While Sir David can clearly host a program using his own knowledge, talent, and personality, it’s a shame that pterosaur experts like Unwin and Lawson make only cameos  and most others don’t appear at all.  Finally, the segments are incredibly short.  Each genus only spends about a minute onscreen except for Dimorphodon and Quetzalcoatlus. Poor Pteranodon, the Tyrannosaurus or Apatosaurus of Pterosaurs, is reduced to a cameo. The IMAX format provides spectacle, but it’s a massive drawback in terms of time for content.
I give it 73 out of 100. Definitely worth a watch, and a step in the right direction, but it’s not a genre-breaker and not even worth considering as the last word in pterosaur documentaries.  Without Attenborough, it would be a low score; he really make the most of the short time frame allowed.

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