Jurassic Park” will at least disabuse anyone of the idea that it would be fun to share the planet with dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg’s scary and horrific thriller may be one-dimensional and even clunky in story and characterization, but it definitely delivers where it counts, in excitement, suspense and the stupendous realization of giant prehistoric reptiles. Having finally found another set of “Jaws” worthy of the name, Spielberg and Universal have a monster hit on their hands.
Very cleverly, the film positions itself both as a dark look at a theme park gone awry, and as a theme park itself. Merchandising, Universal tour attractions and sequels will extend the profits enormously. The only thing that will keep this properly PG-13-rated extravaganza from approaching rarefied “Star Wars” and “E.T.” B.O. heights is its inappropriateness for kids under 10 or 12 — it’s just too intense, although many preteens will no doubt go anyway.
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The $ 60 million production (a bargain at the cost) follows the general idea if not the letter of Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller, which was no doubt partly inspired by Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” the fanciful story of a remote land inhabited by otherwise extinct beasts.
Basis of this hi-tech, scientifically based, up-to-date version lies in the notion that living, breathing and eating full-sized dinosaurs can be biologically engineered using fossilized dino DNA. Having accomplished this in secret on an island off Costa Rica, zillionaire entrepreneur/tycoon John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) brings in a small group of experts to view and, he hopes, endorse his miracle, which he intends to parlay into the world’s most expensive zoo-cum-amusement park.
Arriving to inspect the menagerie are paleontologists Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), as well as oddball mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), advocate of the Chaos Theory, a sort of arithmetic equivalent of Murphy’s Law. Also along for the look-see are Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), a hard-nosed attorney repping the park’s investors, and Hammond’s two fresh-faced grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). Early introductory scenes are surprisingly perfunctory and even sloppy. There are several bad cuts unworthy of a filmmaker of Spielberg’s skill, and the script wouldn’t pass muster in Screenwriting 101. Curiously, the suspenseful structuring of the novel’s opening chapters, in which characters are mysteriously bitten, is abandoned here in favor of some foreshadowing and cross-cutting a la “The Exorcist.”
Equally surprisingly, Spielberg lets the cat out of the bag as far as the dinosaurs are concerned very early, showing some of them in full view after only 20 minutes, lessening the suspense that could have been cranked way up through the accumulation of sounds and partial sightings.
Still, none of these problems matter once the film clicks into high gear. When a storm strands two carloads of Hammond’s guests in the middle of the park at night, a Tyrannosaurus Rex decides it’s dinnertime. In a terrifically suspenseful and sustained sequence, the ferocious monster attacks the vehicles and its inhabitants, chowing down on one and terrorizing the others, particularly the children. Suddenly, after a fitful first hour, Spielberg pulls off one of the most exciting set pieces of his career, highlighted by a stunning shot of a T-Rex in a rearview mirror and climaxed by a gag lifted from Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.”
Events from here on frighteningly verify the mathematician’s view of an unpredictable universe. With command central’s computer and power systems shut down, the dinosaurs are free to run amok, thanks to the treachery of rotund hacker Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), who attempts to make off with a canister of dino embryos but is ambushed by a strange hissing and spitting beast. Even though all the dinosaurs have been bred to be female, recently hatched eggs and babies’ footprints are later found, indicating a rather major flaw in the geneticists’ work.
Grant and the two kids are forced to make their way back across the park to the compound, and their adventures are spiked by arguably the most beautiful and awe-inspiring scene in the film, in which a herd of speedy small dinosaurs sweep toward the characters across a plain and away from a hungry T-Rex, which ultimately enjoys a meal. The outdoor perspectives here, after the nocturnal studio work, prove particularly refreshing.
Moving toward the climax, viewers will be reminded of “Aliens” as two mid-sized Velociraptors attack through industrial ceilings and floors, and play a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game with the kids in a huge kitchen. Final action scene is ironically played out as three monsters attack in a display room festooned with mounted dinosaur skeletons, which will give kids occasion to decide whether they prefer their dinosaurs alive or dead.
It was unimaginable that Spielberg would proceed with “Jurassic Park” if he wasn’t certain that his dinosaurs would be the best ever seen onscreen, and the result shows that assumption to be true. The reptiles here are brilliantly convincing — lifelike, crafty, smooth of movement, and highly numerous. Taking special bows in this department are special effects wizards Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, Michael Lantieri and hundreds of technicians, at Industrial Light & Magic and elsewhere.
In fact, the monsters are far more convincing than the human characters. Just about everyone is defined by one trait only — Dr. Grant dislikes children, Ellie is good-natured, Ian is the sardonic skeptic, Dennis is the sweaty traitor and Samuel L. Jackson’s computer technician always has a cigarette in his mouth.
Saddled with skin-deep roles, the actors are not in much of a position to distinguish themselves. Neill’s paleontologist comes off rather like a bland Indiana Jones, while Dern considerably overdoes the facial oohs and ahhs. The kids are basically along for the ride, while Goldblum, attired in all black, helpfully fires off most of the wisecracks. Observing the mayhem created by the system’s malfunction, he gibes, “But when the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
As for Attenborough, agreeably back on screen for the first time since 1979, his role has been significantly softened from the book, turned from single-mindedly malevolent developer into a profit-minded grandpa willing to acknowledge his folly.
While the gore of the novel has been toned down to unbloody levels, and the body count is notably lower (as if with the wave of a hand, the vast number of workers at the park are made to disappear when convenient), Spielberg nevertheless turns the screws very tight in the film’s second hour, having evidently made the decision to sacrifice the youngest potential viewers in order to give everyone else a good scare.
While his humor can hardly be called subversive, the director pokes a little fun at the theme park mentality in general, and at merchandising in particular as he pans across shelves loaded with “Jurassic Park” products. Crichton’s pessimistic view of people’s motives is given lip service here, but most of the moralizing has to do with humanity’s right to muck around with the natural order of things.
Technically, the film is sometimes more than it needs to be. As in some of Spielberg’s previous outings, Dean Cundey’s lensing overdoes the back illumination and shafts of light at times, and John Williams’ score gets unnecessarily bombastic. But the dinosaurs rule here, and Spielberg and his team of special effects aces have put something on the screen that people have never seen before, which is the surest way to create a blockbuster.