polycotylid

We are the night by Hyrotrioskjan

Scapanorhynchus is a night feeder, hunting in the dark, when the ocean is black and shimmers with cold reds and blues or unearthly greens—plankton and jellies become bioluminescent stars. The shark pays these no mind; her eyes are weak. Instead her nose knows. It’s a sensor-loaded snout searching for dull impulses—fields of electricity that leak from the flanks of fish and squid and tell Scapanorhynchus to bite. Her mouth dislocates from her body to do this, popping from below her nose like an umbrella opening under an awning. Because Scapanorhynchus drifts instead of swims, the fish never feel her coming.

A bigger impulse slides near, too big for Scapanorhynchus to consider it a meal. It’s a polycotylid, a long-beaked plesiosaur, nature’s cross between penguin and dragon. Scapanorhynchus knows her place, knows to glide away. It just takes the twitch of a tail to move and slide away unnoticed. Being unseen is the advantage of hunter and prey.

Prehistoric documentaries generally fit into two categories: the JFC “kewl” fights that try to be passed off as documentaries, or story telling mediums. The only dino-doc that I think attempted to actually be a documentary was Planet Dinosaur, and look how well that went.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I favour the story telling docs, being both a story teller and a hater of the trashy “kewl” docs. I grew up with Walking With Dinosaurs and Walking With Beasts, so prehistoric story telling brings a nostalgic warmth.

This particular documentary, the 2007 IMAX production Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure, is of particular interest for a number of reasons. First, it’s one of the rare prehistoric documentaries in which dinosaurs are irrelevant to the plot, instead focusing on the Upper Cretaceous plesiosaurs and mosasaurs from the Western Interior Seaway, with the relatively poorly well known polycotylid Dolichorhynchops as the “protagonist species”. Second, it has a female protagonist. Third, it attempts to reconstruct several key 20th century discoveries about Upper Cretaceous marine fauna. Fourth, Richard Evans, David Rhodes and Peter Gabriel composed the soundtrack.

Yeah, I like this movie.

In my sincere opinion, this is the best example of how to write a documentary in a story telling format. The plot is straight forward: “Dolly” is born, grows up, migrates across the inland sea, a lot of crap happens in the journey, she survives and lives to old age, but of course very much enriched as in any well written story.

Most importantly, unlike Dinosaur Revolution/Dinotasia and March of the Dinosaurs, Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure does not need to resort to anthropomorphism to be entertaining. The animals are animals; we don’t see them with exaggerated facial expressions, human body language or even obvious extreme coognition. They behave reasonably as aquatic sauropsids should. Yet, we don’t feel detached; much like in any documentary following meerkats or what not, we follow the protagonist so closely that we can’t help but feel connected, as if she was a pet.

The science is for the most part good. The plesiosaurs are ostensibly the most accurate ones ever put on cinema, with an accurate swimming style and even vivipary – well before the Polycotylus specimen. Granted, the Hesperornis and the mosasaurs aged very badly, but for the time, it was very spot on. My only complaint is on Pteranodon longiceps, which looks disgracefully seventies, and it doesn’t even serve any story telling function. It’s just there to remind me how awful pterosaurs are portrayed.

To me, one of the greatest strengths of this movie is the soundtrack, which is just beautiful to hear, true to the musicians’ careers. To the universe’s greatest sadness, only two songs were released, Circle of Life and The Reveal. By all means go listen to them NOW. The first one in particular is is tear jerking in so many ways.

To me, the only flaw in the movie are the live action discovery segments. The acting ranges from okay to godawful, though at least they are realistic and don’t break the story’s flow very much.

I give the movie 9 out of 10.