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The T. Rex Still Rules Over the Rest

No matter how big the dinosaurs in the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise get, they’ll always be in the shadow of the original

Ringer illustration

Ahead of the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, join us as we pay homage to the franchise and the beasts who dominate it. Welcome to Dinosaur Day!

There’s a new alpha predator stomping into town this weekend—a real-life species of eating machine set to make its big-screen debut in Jurassic World: Dominion. It’s called the Giganotosaurus, an appropriately descriptive name for what two separate characters identify as the biggest carnivore the world has ever known, lest we doubt its fearsome bona fides. Down the reptile’s spine is a line of spikes nearly as jagged as the teeth crowding its hungry maw. Man and fellow dinosaur alike tremble at the rumble of its advance …

Like any actual amusement park, Jurassic Park remains in constant competition with itself, always under pressure to add a taller and scarier new attraction to lure in the summer crowds. Giganotosaurus is just the latest addition to a list that’s been growing in size and menace since Steven Spielberg flung open the gates in 1993. The franchise just keeps pulling more threats from the history books or inventing them out of whole cloth: designer hybrid carnivores, finned behemoths of paleontological lore, sea beasts big enough to swallow a dozen Dennis Nedrys in one bite.

Of course, every one of these creatures hails from the same gene pool, conceptually if not biologically. They’re all descendents of the Tyrannosaurus, Jurassic Park’s first and finest provoker of lizard-brain terror. But no matter how much bigger they grow, they lurk forever in the shadow of the queen.

The T. rex is still the Coca-Cola classic of multiplex dinosaurs, racing out of the prehistoric past and into every kid’s imagination. It’s instantly recognizable in silhouette, as iconic as the Jurassic Park logo itself—which, of course, is just the T. rex stripped down to its skeletal framework. The rex is a marvel of design, in both the evolutionary sense and as a special effect. And it has a behavioral identity that its next-gen imitators simply can’t boast. Add some extra weight, a longer snout, or the intellect of T. rex’s cross-park rival, the velociraptor—none of it matters. There’s just no improving on what Spielberg and his technicians unleashed 30 years ago.

Every great movie monster deserves a great entrance. Some of the T. rex’s enduring popularity comes down to how masterfully the director introduced his multi-ton heavy. The attack in the pouring rain is among Spielberg’s ultimate achievements as a conductor of blockbuster thrills—a gauntlet of horror that plays out through a carefully storyboarded sequence of unforgettable images, with a focus on helpless perspective and without a note of music. Spielberg builds up the beast like the announcer at a wrestling match. The scene plays all kind of games of brilliant associative foreshadowing: that famous cup of water, rippling more and more with each thunderous footstep, an approach portended in literally elemental terms; the effortless snap and release of the de-electrified fence, buckling under the weight of something awe-inspiring we’re about to see in full; the wet plop of the dead lamb’s leg on the sunroof, followed by a tilt upward to finally reveal the source of the carnage in closeup. We see the T. rex in our mind before we see it for real.

Remarkably, the payoff lives up to the build. To this day, the T. rex remains one of Hollywood’s greatest special-effects triumphs. Spielberg famously deployed a mixture of techniques to bring it to life, seamlessly alternating state-of-the-art CGI from Industrial Light & Magic with one of the largest and most ambitious animatronics ever constructed, courtesy of the legendary Stan Winston and his team. The practical, mechanical rex has weight and presence, which is why the shots featuring it haven’t aged a day. It looks real. And it sounds just as remarkable, thanks to a roar created by blending the cries of an elephant, a tiger, and an alligator (never mind that the Tyrannosaurus of history probably couldn’t make such a sound).

Part of what’s so convincing about the T. rex, as an effect and maybe even a character of sorts, is that it seems to operate with a certain idiosyncratic sentience—the hint of a personality we associate with actual animals. There’s something canine about the way it lurches after a tossed flare or tilts its head with curiosity before chowing down on the cowardly lawyer. While some of the dinos of the Jurassic World movies scheme and attack with the killer precision of the Terminator, the original T. rex is more unpredictable in its hunting habits, a giant driven by pure appetite.

Spielberg shrewdly supplies the T. rex with exploitable weaknesses. Jurassic Park completely invents the notion that its vision is based on movement. (How could Dr. Grant even know that from fossilized remains alone?) But it’s an ingenious device of suspense, forcing the petrified prey to be perfectly still in the towering, snorting presence of the predator. Meanwhile, the film plays the rex’s impossible physiology for both scares and a hint of absurdist humor. The monster moves with a terrifying horizontal velocity when giving chase, yet it also drunkenly stumbles when sniffing around for a meal, flailing its amusingly tiny arms for faint slapstick value.

What the original Jurassic Park does is make viscerally real a creature that has lived in imaginations young and old since scientists discovered its bones in the dirt of Montana circa 1902. That’s always been the simplest, purest draw of the series: It taps right into the world’s enduring fascination with dinosaurs as the ancient mythological rulers of our planet, the old gods of Earth. Spielberg didn’t invent the T. rex, but he did seem to bring it back from extinction, just like the industrialist John Hammond.

He was not, of course, the first filmmaker to exploit a childlike obsession with this impossible animal. For almost as long as we’ve known about the T. rex, he’s been making appearances in movies—lumbering around silent classics like The Ghost of Slumber Mountain and The Lost World, battling King Kong a few years later, making an animated dry run to infamy as the villain of the Spielberg-produced The Land Before Time. And of course, the T. rex is the model for any number of rampaging kaiju. Who is Godzilla but the Tyrannosaurus radioactively expanded to skyscraper scale?

Maybe we believe in Spielberg’s version most because it never wears out its welcome—at least in the original Jurassic Park. The director and his screenwriter, David Koepp, confine the rex to just a handful of scenes, repeating the old Jaws trick of enhancing the fear factor by keeping the threat ominously out of sight until it’s suddenly not.

Of course, The Lost World: Jurassic Park would, in a classic sequel move, literally double the exposure for its ravenous star attraction. There are two T. rexes in Part 2, gobbling up a much larger cast of expendable supporting characters. The Lost World is almost like a slasher movie with rampaging dinosaurs in place of Jason or Michael Myers. That is, until it becomes a bona fide kaiju flick in the last act, with Spielberg going full Toho on San Diego.

Perhaps this was as far as the series could really take an audience’s love for the rex. Once Spielberg had set it loose on a major American city, what was there left to do? The Jurassic films since have largely reduced the dino’s screen time. He appears for a meager 90 seconds or so in Jurassic Park III before having his scaly hindquarters handed to him by the film’s new-fangled, many-fanged, even larger replacement villain. And he shows up periodically in the Jurassic World films like an aging movie star cashing a check for a cameo appearance. Sometimes, the franchise deploys the rex as a mini-boss to be toppled by the new big bad. Other times, it builds on the heroic last-minute reversal of the original movie, letting our series’ flagship mascot periodically save the day.

And yet however much the sequels have diminished the T. rex’s role and power, they can’t deprive us of our memories of that first movie and the heart-stopping wonders Spielberg worked with a monster built from a combination of fossil records, childhood dreams, ones, zeroes, latex, and elbow grease. And however much the Jurassic World movies have tried to substitute a new generation of smarter, larger, and toothier offspring, they all feel like pretenders to the throne, destined to be vanquished by the end credits. You could say that the T. rex walked so the Giganotosaurus could run. But the T. rex ran too, and it’s that beast’s snarling jaws in the rearview mirror that haunt our nightmares still.

A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.