From the moment the first tyrannosaurus swam onto the screen Prehistoric Planet I was hopeless – I giggled with delight. My mind immediately went from “I’m a science editor seriously watching this nature show” to “Holy shit, that’s a dinosaur.”
Prehistoric Planet is Apple’s attempt to answer the question: what if we had done something planet Earth but 66 million years ago? The result looks frighteningly good, especially since the producers have neither succeeded in inventing time travel nor have they dared to do so Jurassic Park and dinosaurs brought back to life.
It’s a whole lot of cinematic magic that makes the five-episode series actually feel like a nature documentary, though its main subjects haven’t been swimming in the sea, soaring in the sky, or stalking through forests since the end of the Cretaceous. It’s not perfect – some heads looked animatronic, and some of the herds felt downright animated. But those few visual blemishes were drowned out by the film’s meticulous attention to detail. snowflakes fall a Nanuqsaurus after a blizzard or dappled sunlight hitting the cobalt blue feathers of a Corythoraptor in a forest make the dinosaurs appear real, even if every movement, every shadow is constructed. This sort of leap forward in dino realism was last achieved 29 years ago when the first Jurassic Park movie came out.
Since this is the second mention of the film, it’s time to talk about the titanosaur in the room. When it premiered Jurassic Park was remarkable. It represented dinosaurs as science understood them at the time and inspired a generation of paleontologists. This generation has now been part of a massive wave of discoveries that have been made in the decades since. So many discoveries, in fact, that some of the science presented in the original film is now out of date – something the many sequels have struggled with. We are now living in what is often referred to as the “golden age of paleontology” – especially for dinosaurs. We now know so much more about how dinosaurs behaved, what they looked like, and where they lived than we did 29 years ago.
So for a paleontology nerd, it’s deeply exciting to see some of the fossil discoveries of the last few decades on screen – not just dinosaurs with feathers, but also nesting behavior, fights between species, and even the workings of their digestive systems. There’s absolutely no doubt that we’re going to see a lot of discussion in the paleontology community about the series, including which parts were speculation, which parts were likely correct, and what people disagreed with the most, and some of that discussion has already been done led on behind the scenes.
Any scene for Prehistoric Planet involved a tremendous amount of research and discussion about and comparisons to animals we see today. “Everything we show is plausible using the latest scientific evidence,” Jon Favreau, an executive producer for the show, said in a news conference, noting how different it was “from Hollywood, where you could kind of make anything up and wear anything the screen.”
“By the way, this can all change in the course of the year,” said Favreau, referring to the pace of research. “But right now we could point out everything we do and none of that is being done for Flash. None of this is for the spectacle. It’s all set in science.”
Even for libraries with background research, there were some questions that the team’s scientific adviser, Darren Naish, couldn’t answer with journal articles alone. But the film often found an answer nonetheless.
Take one of the plesiosaur scenes. “We have to decide if we’re showing plesiosaur paddles as stiff when they hit them, or if there was a flex, you know, if they were a little limp,” Naish said in an interview with The edge. “We chose the floppy disk because the animators said it would work best.” That choice turned out to be a good one. The animators had noted that the biomechanics made the most sense with the “floppy” option, and a subsequent paper by researchers showed that interpretation was probably correct, Naish said.
The depth of research is also reflected in the variety of ancient creatures on display. There are popular favorites, like that t rex with his pack t rex juniors. And Velociraptors are here in full feathered glory – smart girl. But there is also Ornithomimus, the thieving nest-building dinosaurs who look like punk rock ostriches with dark mohawks and bright red sleeves. or Barbaridactylus, a pterodactyl with ridiculously giant antlers on its head. or Beelzebufo, a giant frog that will haunt my dreams. And the charismatic megafauna isn’t the only one making it. Other organisms, including fungi, ammonites, and ancient plants all make an appearance as supporting characters.
That fits, because at its core this is still a nature documentary including the king of all nature storytellers: David Attenborough. While it doesn’t feature the same creatures we see today (crabs and dragonflies make cameos), the series has the same beats and stories you’ll find in any Attenborough documentary – they just got started in the fossil record, not in a field shooting. There are life and death battles, fun mating rituals and cute young dinosaurs just trying to make ends meet in a cruel world.
(Fair warning to all other new parents out there: the scenes with young dinosaurs in danger definitely hit harder than I ever had in my preschool days. I may have yelled, “Don’t you dare hurt that baby, David Attenborough!” more than once over the five-episode arc. Hormones are one thing.)
What’s really remarkable about watching the series is how it drives home, how many things not changed in 66 million years. Sure, the continents have shifted and different life forms have taken over the planet, but the same forces are still at work. Seasons are still changing, life forms still have to deal with wild events like storms, wildfires and even mosquitoes. Against this familiar backdrop, the dinosaurs feel just as alive as any bird, rhino, or tiger we’d see today—although only a few fossilized remains remain of them. It turns out that with the right filmmaking technique and enough research, life finds a way.
Prehistoric Planet premieres Monday, May 23 on Apple TV. The five episodes will be released daily throughout the week.