Bad movies bring big crowds to the Academy of Natural Sciences

Dinosaurs do their thing in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" before skeptical experts and hooting moviegoers at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Dinosaurs do their thing in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" before skeptical experts and hooting moviegoers at the Academy of Natural Sciences. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 15, 2012

Home to 18 million specimens and a cadre of sober-minded researchers, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is a redbrick bastion of science.

Yet every few months in a darkened auditorium, the museum stages a public airing of what science is not.

Pass the beer and pretzels, please.

It's Mega-Bad Movie Night, in which a snarky panel of experts offers a running commentary while showing a really, really bad science-fiction flick.

Piranha feeding frenzies. Vengeful killer snakes. Scientific implausibility mingled with gratuitous carnage. In six screenings to date, most recently Thursday night, the panel has gleefully skewered all of it.

Only adults are allowed in the audience, given the sometimes profane nature of the commentary (and the beer), but from the academy's standpoint, that is a good thing. In a tight economic climate, museums nationwide are scheduling nighttime events to expand their clientele beyond the usual busloads of chattering schoolkids.

With the bad-movie night, the academy seems to draw a particularly avid breed of twentysomethings, who spread the word through social media and websites such as Geekadelphia.com.

But seriously, a 400-person sellout on a Thursday night in February?

This month's celluloid victim was The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the second of three movies about bringing dinosaurs to life in the modern world.

Action!

Critics with credentials

Introducing Jason Poole, manager of the fossil lab and coordinator of dinosaur hall at the museum on Logan Square. Accomplished scientific illustrator and veteran of fossil digs in Egypt, Patagonia and Montana.

But put a microphone in his hand . . .

On the screen, as a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex seized one of the movie characters in its jaws and reared high in the air, Poole muttered:

"That's one way to get a leg up in the world."

The audience groaned appreciatively.

Sitting off to one side in an armchair, Poole wore an expedition-style vest and a wide-brimmed leather hat.

Alongside him was Paul Callomon, who manages the museum's malacology collection (i.e., the mollusks, which include snails, clams, and octopuses).

Finally, for reasons not immediately apparent, the academy's movie critics included the Norse god Thor, complete with helmet and plastic hammer.

Actually it was Daniel Corti, the academy's director of visitor services. He explained afterward that because of his long, blond hair, he can't escape the Thor label.

"So I've embraced it," he said.

The audience ate it up, and when he was introduced by adult programs coordinator Jill Sybesma, they awarded Corti a standing ovation.

Unlike most of the movies in the Mega-Bad series, The Lost World has top-shelf production values. It's a Steven Spielberg film, with a certain polish not found in the earlier features screened, such as Mega Python vs. Gatoroid and Eight-Legged Freaks.

Still, Lost World is generally not considered in the same league as, say, Citizen Kane. (When The Lost World was in theaters in 1997, The Inquirer's Carrie Rickey gave it 21/2 stars.) And the science left a lot to be desired, panel members said.

Callomon ridiculed the notion that in the Jurassic Park series, scientists had cloned the dinosaurs by using frog DNA to fill in any gaps in the dinos' genetic code. Birds - considered by scientists to be living dinosaurs - would have been a much better fit.

Poole faulted some anatomical oddities in the film, such as one dinosaur's using its head as a battering ram. In real life, that would have driven the animal's spinal column right into its braincase, he said.

In another scene, a T. rex bashed its head sideways into a bus. Not likely, Poole said, cackling derisively. The dinosaur's skull was built with powerful jaws for chomping; bashing a bus probably would have cracked it.

Corti is not a scientist, but he proved himself astute at pointing out the movie's improbabilities.

After one particularly frantic escape scene, in which the human characters crashed through lots of glass, Corti took aim.

"I lost track of how many windows they went through, but none of them are cut," Corti called out. "No cuts! I'm just saying."

Fossils and flying things

The evening began an hour and a half before showtime, with nachos, pretzels, and four kinds of beer on tap in the academy's galleries. Visitors listened to museum staffers describe the exhibits, which included fossils and live animals.

Academy educator Hollie Barattolo had a Cooper's hawk perched on her gloved hand.

"Hello, living dinosaur," she said, holding out the bird for inspection as two visitors walked by.

Many of the moviegoers said they had heard about the event through Twitter and other social media.

Dan Stugan, a Philadelphia resident who works in drug development for the pharmaceutical industry, said he got the word from a friend by e-mail.

"I thought it was pretty intriguing," Stugan said as he sipped a beer.

He said the concept reminded him of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a long-running TV comedy in which bad movies were dissected with a similar degree of irreverence.

The academy's panel was merciless in tackling The Lost World, even taking down accomplished actors such as Jeff Goldblum. After Goldblum gave one too many concerned looks at the camera, Poole could no longer contain himself.

"This is the same face I always have," Poole said, imagining himself in Goldblum's head.

Besides concerned looks, the film features plenty of screaming. Early on, a little girl goes off exploring and encounters some pint-size dinosaurs that turn out to be lethal.

As the girl's mother calls out that lunch is ready, Callomon shouted gleefully:

"Yeah, she's it!"

Up next in the Mega-Bad series, on May 31, is Sharktopus (50 percent shark, 50 percent octopus).

And, museum officials hope, 100 percent box-office attraction.


Mega-Bad Movies

Since 2010, The Academy of Natural Sciences has screened six science-fiction movies while experts offer a live commentary.

Past . . .

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Eight-Legged Freaks

Mega Python vs. Gatoroid

Mega Piranha

Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus

Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus

. . . and future

Sharktopus (on May 31; go to www.ansp.org and search for the title)


The Academy of Natural Sciences' Jason Poole, a "dinosaur guy," talks about Mega-Bad Movie Night. Go to www.philly.com/movienight


Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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