Sure, you can take some critical potshots. We'll get to that. But first credit Jurassic Park for being colossal entertainment — the eye-popping, mind-bending, kick-out-the-jams thrill ride of summer and probably the year. After wimping out with Hook, director Steven Spielberg shoots the works and turns popular science into epic adventure.
Michael Crichton's speculative 1990 bestseller gives Spielberg a juicy two-pronged premise: What if dinosaur DNA extracted from mosquitoes trapped in amber allows extinct species to be cloned for a theme park? And what if these reconstituted behemoths don't like being exploited behind electrified fences?
The cast is headed by Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, the billionaire who builds Jurassic Park on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. To preview his main attraction, he invites a few select guests for the weekend: his two grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards), along with paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), his paleobotanist love Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and smarmy lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero). Malcolm, played by Goldblum as a walking smirk, is a chaos expert who predicts that things will go wrong. When a T. rex snacks on Gennaro, you believe him.
The real stars are Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren and Michael Lantieri, the leaders of the movie's technical teams, who have raised the craft of special effects to an art form. To create the illusion that the dinosaurs are up and breathing, honking, hunting and stampeding, they use a combination of live-action models, puppets, hydraulics and dazzling computer-generated imagery. Estimates of Jurassic's cost range from $60 million to $100 million, but who's counting when a movie delivers a rush of pure elation?
Spielberg indulges in his patented tricks for buildup: Actors open their mouths and stare expectantly, and John Williams pumps up the hokey music. The gate outside the park even recalls the great wall in King Kong. But what you see inside is no letdown. In a lab, a baby raptor pokes through a shell and flutters to life with a piercing fragility that belies its predatory nature. A dilophosaurus spreads its peacock-colored crest as a prelude to spitting venom. A twenty-foot T. rex picks up a tourist car in its jaws and hurls it into a tree before chasing after another vehicle like thunder on the hoof. Scenes of breathtaking majesty (long-necked brachiosaurs feeding on trees silhouetted against a night sky) alternate with scenes of horror (flesh-eating velociraptors closing in on children).
Compared with the dinos, the human characters are dry bones, indeed. Crichton and coscreenwriter David Koepp (Death Becomes Her) have flattened them into nonentities on the trip from page to screen. Attenborough plays Hammond as a misguided geezer, not the psychotic Walt Disney of the book, who'd sacrifice his own grandkids to his greed. Perhaps Spielberg, with more than 1000 merchandising tie-ins riding on Jurassic Park, finds it easier to relate to an entrepreneur who turns science into a sales pitch.
If the film lacks a true villain, it also lacks a true hero. Neill, a skilled actor, lacks the star presence to play this Indiana Bones. Onscreen, Grant unconvincingly shifts his values from fossils to family. He is too often left coddling Tim and Lex while Crichton's darkly cynical view of the marketing of biogenetics goes begging. Spielberg wants to make him a good husband for Ellie, whom the radiant Dern gives a game spirit, even when she's elbow deep in dino-doo trying to find the source of a triceratops's tummy ache.
The absence of strong characters is a flaw, not a fatality. How many of us cared about Sheriff Brody's brood in Jaws? If Jurassic Park lacks the emotional hold of E.T., it still forges a bond between the animals and the audience that allows the beauty and terror of Crichton's vision to come through. Spielberg never turns the dinosaurs into huggable Barneys or B-movie monsters; they retain a primitive dignity. Unlike the book, the film can't discuss findings that suggest dinos were quicker, smarter and more social than previously believed or more closely related to birds than to reptiles. What talk there is comes off as truncated jargon. But this evidence is reflected, gloriously, in the visuals and in enough detail to delight the dino-crazed kid in all of us. Jurassic is a grabber for the best of reasons: You won't believe your eyes.