My ears are still ringing and my head is still swimming from the experience I had last night: I saw Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. The movie of the year, the ads call it, with dinosaurs so life-like you won't believe they're real. There hasn't been this much hype for a movie since 1989's Batman, and expectations have been high that we would finally see a return to the old Spielberg magic that's been missing since the days of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The question to ask, therefore, is "does the movie live up to the hype?"
Yes, it does. The movie isn't perfect, but it delivers what the audience wants to see, and more. You want dinosaurs? There has never been anything on the screen quite like the dinosaurs we see in Jurassic Park. The movie is teeming with them, and they're every bit as scary as we want to be, and then some. The dinosaurs take us on a thrilling, terrifying roller-coaster ride from the first frame to the last. I haven't felt this wrung-out by a movie since I saw Aliens in 1986; there's an intensity to this film that grabs us and holds us on the edge of our seats, carrying over any weaknesses in plot and characterization. In fact, the dinosaurs outshine the human cast, typifying a weakness inherent in all of Spielberg's movies.
I could go on and on about those dinosaurs. This movie has the special effects Oscar in the bag, especially where the Tyrannosaurus Rex is concerned. The only time it seems as though we're looking at animatronics and not at live lizards is when the dinosaurs aren't moving (which isn't often). The brachiosaurs tower over the tops of hundred-foot-tall trees, and the fearsome velociraptors (which like to hunt in packs) look like the came from our darkest nightmares. You absolutely will not believe your eyes.
In fact, the dinosaurs are so realistic that parents with young children may want to seriously consider the movie's PG-13 rating before taking their kids to the theatre. Spielberg knows how to frighten an audience without blood; in fact, there's less blood and gore in this movie than there was in Jaws. There are scares aplenty, though, and they all come from suspense and the sheer presence of the T-rex as it thunders across the screen, crushing everything in sight in pursuit of his meals - both dinosaurs and humans. His assault on a party of Jurassic Park sightseers may be the most intensely frightening scene Spielberg has ever filmed. It's a far cry from Barney. The film pulls out all stops to wring suspense out of the dinosaurs, and at this it succeeds grandly.
The human actors and actresses struggle to compete with these awesome titans, but let's be honest: Spielberg could have cast anyone in these roles and gotten the same results. After the troubles with Hook, in which casting problems and demands (as well as outrageous salaries) struck a heavy blow to its success, Spielberg has apparently gone back to using actors and actresses less in demand, thus guaranteeing that he would have the final say in every stage of production. (Laura Dern has commented that when it comes to control of his movies, Spielberg is more obsessive than David Lynch.) This means the dinosaurs take the center stage, and no attempt is made to outshine them.
The story is essentially an update of the classic monster movies of the 1950s, those films that state that There Are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. In the case of this movie, it's the power of creation, as Man (specifically, a billionaire named John Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough) has taken dinosaur DNA from the blood of mosquitoes encased in amber for millions of years and used it to grow brand-new, living reptiles. Hammond wants to put these dinosaurs in a theme park on an island off the coast of Costa Rica and display them for the world to see, but he finds that living beings can't be controlled as easily as the robotic creations of Disneyland.
That tells us all we need to know about the story. In terms of thrills and excitement, it lives up to its expectations and more - but there are serious flaws in terms of characterization and plot development. The humans are there simply to be gobbled up and to run away from dinosaurs. Most of the people seeing this movie aren't even going to remember their names by the time the final credits roll; there's no Chief Brody or Lacombe or Elliot here. Sam Neill and Laura Dern put in passable performances as the pair of archaeologists who squabble about whether or not to raise a family. He doesn't want kids, and she does - but of course there's a heart of gold underneath his supposedly gruff exterior, and when the chips are down he plays the father figure, risking his life to protect the kids tagging along with them.
Richard Attenborough is John Hammond, the billionaire who's brought back the dinosaurs, cloning them from dinosaur DNA taken from fossilized mosquitoes. Unlike his obsessed opportunist character in the novel, he's a kindly grandfather figure who wants nothing more than to impress the world with his creation, making his dinosaurs available for all to see. This is why he built Jurassic Park - he's a modern-day Walt Disney, more interested in the care and enjoyment of his guests than he is with making money.
Then there's Malcolm, a modern-day update of the scientist warning against tampering with nature. He quotes the Chaos Theory (a new branch of mathematics that governs probability and predicting the unpredictable), and of course we know he's right when he says that "life can't be controlled" - because in this type of movie, it never is. Things go wrong, and before anyone knows what's happening Jurassic Park is out of control and dinosaurs are moving this way and that, munching on the unfortunate souls who get in their way.
The cause of these problems can be traced back to human greed as much as the unpredictability of Nature. There's an interesting theme of greed and its consequences here that's especially appropriate when one sees how much of a theme park the movie itself is. We've all heard the Jurassic Park hype campaign; the merchandise is flooding the markets; the books, T-shirts, tie-ins, and other companies jumping in on the money-making bandwagon here in real life are ironically parodied in the film, as we have corporate executives discussing how much they should charge for park admission. In one scene, John Hammond realizes that his theme park is not going to get off the ground, and we see several of the Jurassic Park products that are actually being sold here in real life. The merchandising campaign for this film was planned before it ever reached the filming stage, and Spielberg is trying to satirize it by taking us behind the scenes and realizing how difficult it actually is to sell a theme park to the public. While it fails as satire, it still retains a level of irony.
(Spielberg may be lamenting the cost of success: because this movie cost so much to make [as did his last film, Hook], merchandising is an important tool for the studio to make its money back. This means that the theme park aspect is built right into the movie itself. Spielberg considered saving the pirate ship from Hook for use in a possible theme park, but that idea was abandoned. In addition, he had wanted to build life-size robotic dinosaurs for this film so that they could be used in a theme park afterwards, but that idea didn't pan out either. Nevertheless, we all know that a Jurassic Park ride is going to show up at Universal Studios. The movie is plugging its merchandise as heavily as the dinosaurs themselves, but Spielberg found a way to make fun of merchandising at the same time.)
But the problems in the story make the film less of an achievement than Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Jaws, both of which are paid homage in this film. When the characters see dinosaurs for the first time, Spielberg is trying to get the "sense of wonder" that he achieved so magnificently in his UFO film, but at he fails at this. In Close Encounters, our enjoyment came from both the UFOS and the reactions of the humans to beings from outer space, but that's not the case here. The dinosaurs *are* amazing and we gasp in awe when we see them, but our excitement comes entirely from the special effects and not from the characters, because they're so poorly developed.
A subplot involving sick dinosaurs is also worth mentioning. I was hoping that this aspect would be further developed, but it seems little more than a red herring. This ties into the ending of the film, which is too abrupt to be truly satisfying. One extended sequence of the characters talking about the sick dinosaurs and their possible life expectancy would have helped; I think that it could have been a tribute to WAR OF THE WORLDS, and it would have been a more satisfying conclusion.
But as serious as these flaws are, they don't subtract from the excitement we feel when the film kicks into high gear. It bogs down in a couple of places during the first hour, but once the machines begin to fail and the dinosaurs are on the loose, the film turns into one of the most exciting, terrifying monster movies ever filmed. Spielberg even tops his own Jaws for excitement here, as we find ourselves gripping the seats and forgetting to breathe. My eyes were locked to the screen for the entire second half of the film, and I was putty in Spielberg's hands as he delivered one amazing scene after another. I especially love the fact that there is almost no blood in this film. In an age when even big-budget science fiction movies like Total Recall rely on splatter and gore for audience entertainment, Jurassic Park scares its audience without making them sick to their stomach.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex is a wonder to behold. The special effects belie themselves even in a mega-budget production like this, and if we look hard enough we can see where the computer animation and mattes are being used. That's minor nit-picking, however, and anyone who complains about the special effects is a spoiled brat who doesn't believe in "suspension of disbelief." But the T-rex will shut the mouths of the most fanatical critics. It's an awesome creation, definitely the most realistic movie monster *ever* created. It does not look like the product of computers and models - it looks *real*! You absolutely will not believe your eyes when you see it, and you'll have an uncontrollable urge to duck when it lunges right at you. Best of all, T-rex is a homage to the movie monsters of old: there's one scene where it eats a helpless victim that reminds me of the classic THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (and the great Ray Harryhausen).
This brings up an important question for parents. Since the film is such a terrifying monster movie, should young children be allowed to see it? The answer, I think, lies with the parents themselves. I'm not going to make a blanket statement here, because you know your children better than I do. There are eight-year-olds in the audience who will eat this movie up and ask for more, but there are also children who will consider the movie too frightening to finish. Personally, I belong to the "give it a try" school: since there's very little gore in the film and its terror comes from suspense rather than actual violence, the experience of seeing a scary movie may actually be a good one for kids. It's similar to taking a four-year-old to see Pinocchio; he'll be frightened by the experience, but he certainly won't be traumatized for life, and years from now he'll look back on the experience and remember it. In the end, it's up to you. If you think Jurassic Park is too frightening for kids, don't take them. If you do, then let them see it. The movie is rated PG-13 for good reason.
Jurassic Park is an unforgettable summer experience, a movie that delivers exactly what we expect from it. It's got a flawed story and forgettable characters, but it also has some of the most amazing monsters of all time. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are a new high-water mark in the long history of Hollywood movie monsters, standing tall with King Kong, the Martians of WAR OF THE WORLDS, and other fondly-remembered creatures of the past. It's an movie well worth paying full admission price for, as long as you realize that you're not going to get Academy Award-winning performances or a complex plot. It's a far more satisfying film than the other summer blockbusters of recent years: Terminator 2, Batman, Total Recall, and other flawed adventure movies. I can't see any movie coming out in the near future that will deliver a more satisfying good time at the movies. Arnold Swchwarzenegger? Who cares? 1993 is going to be remembered as the year we first heard the thundering footsteps of Jurassic Park.