Do the dinosaurs work?
Indeed they do.
Does anything else?
The greatly anticipated “Jurassic Park,” it turns out, is the poor little rich kid of this summer’s movies. Everything that money can buy has been bought, and what an estimated $60 million can purchase is awfully impressive. But even in Hollywood there are things a blank check can’t guarantee and the lack of those keeps this film from being more than one hell of an effective parlor trick.
Ever since director Steven Spielberg began to work on Michael Crichton’s futuristic novel of catastrophe in a theme park stocked with flesh-and-blood dinosaurs from the Jurassic Period, the anticipation about what the beasts would look like has been intense. And in that area “Jurassic Park” (citywide) does not disappoint.
Brought to life by a consortium of four separate effects units, including live-action expert Stan Winston, who created the original “Terminator,” and Industrial Light & Magic wizard Dennis Muren, responsible for “Terminator 2’s” computer-generated morphing effects, the dinosaurs are wondrously realistic.
Ranging from the kindly brachiosaurus, a 77-ton vegetarian that might crush a flea but wouldn’t think of eating it, to the difficult Tyrannosaurus rex and the downright nasty velociraptor, some six kinds of dinosaurs come to life with a verisimilitude that is humbling and that also blends seamlessly with the film’s considerably blander and less interesting human characters.
All the imagination and effort (including 18 months of pre-production) that went into making the dinosaurs state-of-the-art exciting apparently left no time to make the people similarly believable or involving. In fact, when the big guys leave the screen, you’ll be tempted to leave the theater with them.
Not that anyone was expecting “Jurassic Park” to be the dinosaur version of “Howards End.” In fact, it was Spielberg himself who created the model for this kind of picture 18 summers ago when he directed the enormously popular “Jaws,” a film in which strong acting and concern for character added considerably to its creature-on-the-loose suspense.
One looks in vain, however, for performances as good as those of Robert Shaw or Richard Dreyfuss or patches of writing as memorable as Shaw’s monologue about a World War II shark attack. With the exception of Richard Attenborough, who is energetic and fun in the role of Hammond, the entrepreneur who dreamed up the park, “Jurassic’s” acting is unengaging and simplistic. Combined with Spielberg’s unexpectedly flat directing style, the result is a standard-issue jeopardy picture with (very realistic) dinosaurs plugged into all the appropriate gaps.
Written by novelist Crichton and “Death Becomes Her” co-screenwriter David Koepp, “Jurassic Park” actually starts out with some of the pep and vigor of an old-fashioned B-movie, moving quickly between different locations as if it can’t wait to set up its story.
First stop is Isla Nublar, a speck off the coast of Costa Rica and the soon-to-be-opened park’s locale, where we (and an unlucky worker) get a first-hand glimpse of how ornery those dinos can be. We also get to visit with a nervous attorney, a secretly traitorous park employee and, on a dig in Montana, two of the world’s preeminent dinosaur experts, handsome paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and his attractive colleague, paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern).
The link between all these folks is empire builder Hammond, who, the nervous lawyer says, can’t open his park unless he can persuade scientists that what he’s doing is safe. So Hammond prevails on Grant and Sattler (as well as eccentric mathematician and chaos expert Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum) to accompany him and his two young grandchildren to Isla Nublar and become his attraction’s first visitors.
But, as if possessed by a mysterious tropical lethargy, “Jurassic Park” slows to a crawl once the island is reached. Aside from the ingenious explanation of where the dinosaurs come from (they’ve been created from dino DNA locked in the stomachs of preserved-in-amber bloodsucking insects), the film spends almost all its time on false alarms and cute moments emphasizing how much stuffy Dr. Grant can’t stand to be around kids.
The action, which takes up most of the second hour, is certainly impressive when it happens, especially when the jumbo-sized T. rex goes on a rampage. But because much of the jeopardy involves those young children, parents should treat “Jurassic’s” PG-13 (for intense science-fiction terror) rating as if it were an absolute ban on pre-teen admittance. These dinos are the furthest thing from cuddly when they choose to attack.
Though thrilling in the abstract, the battles in “Jurassic Park” suffer, as the rest of the film does, because they’re not connected to anything that isn’t the emotional equivalent of baby food. For Spielberg, the director who brought it all together in “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Sugarland Express,” seems, like an out-of-control toy, to be spinning off in a pair of different but equally unfortunate directions.
On the one hand, Spielberg’s acceptance of an indifferent level of performance from his actors indicates an increasingly mechanical, uninvolved approach to the non-effects parts of filmmaking, making “Jurassic Park” play like it was directed by one of those special-effects computers it makes such prominent use of.
And whatever emotion does find its way into this film reeks of suitable-for-children sentimentality, which is paradoxical given how unsuitable for children all the action is. It’s tempting to call “Jurassic Park” “Father Knows Best: The Early Years,” because the sole point of all the carnage appears to be to increase Dr. Grant’s appreciation for young people, turning him from a gruff curmudgeon into someone who has the makings of a considerate parent.
Finally, though, the problem with “Jurassic Park” is that Spielberg has chosen to make an amusement park instead of a motion picture, so much so that it is difficult to separate what the script says about the park (“We’re going to make a fortune with this place,” etc.) from what the filmmakers must have thought about the project.
“Jurassic Park” will doubtless make that fortune and solidify Spielberg’s position as the Pied Piper of popular entertainment. But those who remember when the director didn’t sacrifice everything to childish sentiments and special effects will view it as a further step along the familiar road of a talented individual unnerved by success.
Sam Neill Dr. Alan Grant
Laura Dern Dr. Ellie Sattler
Jeff Goldblum Dr. Ian Malcolm
Richard Attenborough John Hammond
Bob Peck Muldoon
An Amblin Entertainment production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Steven Spielberg. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Gerald R. Molen. Screenplay Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on the novel by Crichton. Cinematographer Dean Cundey. Editor Michael Kahn. Women’s costume supervisor Sue Moore. Men’s costume supervisor Eric Sandberg. Music John Williams. Production design Rick Carter. Art directors Jim Teegarden, John Bell. Set decorator Jackie Carr. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (intense science-fiction terror).