T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous is a 1998 3D IMAX Movie, directed by Brett Leonard. Like previous Leonard films (The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity) it makes use of then-pioneering CGI effects. The film is mostly a documentary with a Framing Device, only 45 minutes in length. The main stars were Liz Stauber, Peter Horton, and Kari Coleman. It was the first starring film role for Stauber, who previously only had theatrical credits and a cameo in Can't Hardly Wait.
The film begins with an unseen Narrator describing the badlands of Alberta, Canada and their importance to palaeontological research. The camera gives a spectacular overview of the plains of Western Canada, then moves to Red Deer River and the badlands themselves. More accurately, the Dinosaur Provincial Park, southeast of Calgary. Somehow the film fails to mention that. In any case, the camera zooms into palaeontologists on the field. Several methods of field work are briefly seen. The narrator introduces as to the head researcher: Dr. Donald Hayden (Horton), who happens to be a museum curator and the father of our Narrator. The camera reveals the identity of said narrator: Ally Hayden (Stauber), teenage daughter of the guy and currently a tour guide at the museum. This is her summer job.
A brief scene establishes that Ally herself is a palaeontology enthusiast. Meanwhile, Donald and his assistant Elizabeth Sample (Coleman) are climbing down a mountain cliff. They want to examine the mountain surface for presence of further fossils. An accident almost costs Elizabeth her life, but helps both of them stumble onto some interesting fossils. Later, Donald announces his discoveries to Ally by phone. She pleads for a chance to join him on the field, even if only to keep notes and help categorize the findings. He dismisses her as not ready for field work yet. Ally makes clear that this isn't the first time her father lets her down.
A few weeks later, Donald has returned to the museum. Ally is eager to see him and have him review her own science project. She has been working on a model for the egg laying, nest building, and parental behavior of the Tyrannosaurus rex. She bases her work on the behavioral study of modern birds and even has it illustrated. Donald barely glances at her work and then rejects it, feeling it is based too much on scientific theory and too little on "hard evidence".
Not long after, Ally has a minor accident with a fossilized dinosaur egg and inhales dust from the Cretaceous period (145-65 million years ago) She starts wondering the museum and having realistic hallucinations of the exhibits coming to life. From her POV, Ally is shifting between visions of the museum with some unusual elements and an actual time-travel to different eras. (The film leaves it unclear as to whether all she sees are illusions or whether travel occurs). She gets to witness life at the Cretaceous and see a real-life Tyrannosaurus its nest. Ally also has a chance to meet and have brief conversations with her idols: Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) and Barnum Brown (1873-1963). The film explains that Knight was the artist responsible for highly influential paintings of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, while Barnum was one of the most famous fossil hunters of his era. With each having a chance to explain their methods and ways of looking at evidence.
The film and its storyline stand as a fun way to present some scientific facts, theories and views on palaeontology. The CGI helped visualize the way actual dinosaurs would live and move. At the time of release, it was a modest box office hit. Its worldwide gross is estimated to 102,425,137 dollars, more than covering its budget. About 53 million of those dollars came from the United States market, where it was the 43rd most successful film of its year (likely aided by being shown in IMAX theatres at science centers and children's museums). The critics were mostly favorable to it, feeling it was fine as a children's movie, although there were also negative comparisons to Jurassic Park. It had a Spiritual Successor of sorts in the documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) which used similar CGI technology to depict living dinosaurs.
The film provides examples of:
- Anachronism Stew: Mild example; Parasaurolophus and Pteranodon actually predates Tyrannosaurus by a few million years.
- Artistic License – Paleontology: More or less averted. No major anachronisms here as all depicted species were native to the Cretaceous and North America. Though they might belong to different sub-periods of the era. However, a plot point of the film contains a discussion on whether dinosaur eggs even existed. There have been many found since 1859. Since they were reptiles, this should hardly be a matter of debate. Not to mention Dryptosaurus is portrayed as a (featherless) dromaeosaur, when it's been already been established since the 1960s it was a tyrannosaur.
- Bittersweet Ending: Ally helps rescue the Tyrannosaurus's egg from the Ornithomimus and gains its trust, but unfortunately the meteor strikes nearby and kills the T. rex and her eggs.
- Born in the Wrong Century: Sort of. Ally is mostly influenced by the pioneer palaeontologists of the late 19th/early 20th century and their methods. Her father remarks that she would fit right in with those active in the 1920s.
- Daddy's Girl: Ally adores her father, which arguably inspires her fascination with palaeontology.
- Evil Egg Eater: When Ally ends up in the Late Cretaceous period, she finds a T. rex nest with five eggs and an Ornithomimus trying to raid the nest. Ally defends the nest despite the Ornithomimus being much bigger and more ferocious than her, until mother T. rex shows up and chases away the egg eater.
- Field Trip to the Past: The Tyrannosaurus is the subject of Ally's science project for school. Then she meets one first hand and gets the details.
- The Ghost: Donald mentions his wife, Ally her mother. But even in the single scene occurring within the Hayden house, said woman is never seen.
- Hallucinations: The mundane explanation of what Ally is experiencing.
- In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Ally is not in control of where she ends up. Yet her visit in the past has her meet two of the most famous figures in her field of study. Right, that could not be some also-run of the same period.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Left vague if Ally is only hallucinating or time-traveling.
- Mushroom Samba: Ally inhales dust and starts seeing visions.
- Nerds Are Sexy: Ally Hayden seems to provoke this reaction to certain reviewers.
- Or Was It a Dream?? : Ally looses a necklace during her visit to the Cretaceous. At the finale, Donald returns the necklace to her. Claiming to have found it "in the late Cretaceous". It is left unclear if Donald is joking or he got the artifact in his dig. Not that it looks million of years old.
- Our Time Travel Is Different: At first Videocassette Time Travel. Ally sees visions of artifacts of ancient civilizations, then hominid skeletons, skeletons of prehistoric mammals, then finds herself in the Cretaceous. Later, Instantaneous Time Travel. One moment she is having a conversation with an early 20th century palaeontologist, the next she is in the museum. Next she is back in the Cretaceous. She is barely aware of the changes.
- Parental Neglect: Whether they are at a great distance and speaking on phone, or even sharing a room, one thing never changes. Donald has very little time for his daughter and mostly ignores her. Supposedly corrected at the finale, when he promises to take Ally with him on the following summer's expedition.
- Ptero Soarer: The Pteranodon is fairly accurate. The main problems are its lack of fur (although the perception made it hard to tell), living alongside Tyrannosaurus rex and flying inland when it would actually be typically seen near the ocean.
- Recycled IN SPACE!: The film is essentially "Alice in Wonderland WITH DINOSAURS!"
- Sequel Hook: The film ends with a baby Tyrannosaurus erupting from the fossillizd egg, frightening the museum cat, then leaping toward the screen.
- Time Travel: The other explanation of what Ally is experiencing.
- Wind from Beneath My Wings: The Pteranodon manages to make some fairly impressive winds as it hovers over Ally.