movie film review | chris tookey

Jurassic Park

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   Jurassic Park Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.05 /10
Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Full Cast >

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Michael Crichton and David Koepp, from Crichtonís novel

Released: 1993
Origin: US
Length: 126

A valuable memo to Hollywood that summer blockbusters donít have to be stupid.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The hero (Sam Neill, pictured right) is a dinosaur expert, a man who loves digging for fossils, and - like Robin Williams in Hook - is unsympathetic to children: "They're noisy, they're messy, they're expensive, they smell!" He and his botanist girl-friend (Laura Dern, left) are invited to pass judgment on a very unusual, secret theme park, built on an island by Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a Scottish entrepreneur.

On their first ride around it, they are accompanied by Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) who represents Hammond's investors, a sceptical mathematician (Jeff Goldblum) and Hammond's grandchildren (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards). Unfortunately, one of Hammond's employees (Wayne Knight) has, from motives of greed, decided to smuggle dinosaur embryos off the island. His treachery - together with a tropical storm - triggers off events which leave Neill and the two children stranded within inches of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and everyone else in the park in jeopardy from other kinds of dinosaur, including Velociraptors - smaller, more mobile and intelligent carnivores.

From this description, you might be forgiven for thinking that Jurassic Park is just another Monster Movie - but Spielberg's come a long way from the primitive mechanical shark he used to sacre the trunks off us in Jaws. The dinosaurs here are wonderfully lifelike and used so three-dimensionally that you can see the interaction between real and artificial characters. They were the best special effects since another Spielberg production, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

But really outstanding Monster Movies (such as King Kong) turn their monsters into more than mobile special effects. In Jurassic Park, Spielberg makes them individuals: he seems at first to be making a facile distinction between "goodie" dinosaurs (vegetarians) and "baddies" (the flesh-eaters), but the climax of the film entertainingly subverts that distinction, and proves that (as Neill observes) "they're animals - they do what they do", unfettered by human notions of right or wrong.

Through a series of telling visual images, Spielberg makes clear - as Neill and the children are nearly killed by a falling car, an electrified perimeter fence, a failed computer system - that the real monster is the modern technology which created the dinosaurs but is now out of control.

Nor is this just another Mad Scientist movie. The genetic engineers in this film are mere subordinates of Hammond, and he's a fundamentally well-meaning man whose aim is not to dominate the world, or even make a lot of money, but to entertain: he's a flea-circus proprietor who's bitten off more than he can chew. It would be easy to be cruel about Attenborough's performance - his Scottish accent comes and goes - but he endows the character with a warmth and visionary enthusiasm that make his character's folly even more chilling.

Most of all, Jurassic Park is a terrific action-adventure. Like Hitchcock, Spielberg knows how to build suspense, use humour to ease tension, and shoot heart-stopping action: he's already proved himself a master of the genre with the Indiana Jones trilogy. Where Jurassic Park is better than his previous pictures is that here he shows how adventure can change people. Sam Neill learns that he has paternal feelings which he never suspected, and Attenborough discovers the perils of even benevolent totalitarianism.

Action films are all too often "Boy's Own" adventures, but Spielberg has learned from his mistake in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and given his female characters more to do. Laura Dern and Ariana Richards are not just screaming damsels in distress: Spielberg doesn't deny their femininity or vulnerability, but he shows that resourcefulness and courage are not exclusively male attributes.

Screenwriters Michael Crichton and David Koepp may have simplified the story of Crichton's best-selling book, but I think they have improved it. They have made it clearer, more dramatic, less lecturing. And they've removed its sadism - which may well have been done to placate a family audience, but also makes it a lot less meretricious.

Just as importantly, they have made the story more humorous. Jeff Goldblum as the sceptical mathematician gives one of his most likeably laid-back performances; the dialogue (though initially indistinct) is always in character and funny at the right, tension-releasing moments. The film even makes some affectionate, satirical sideswipes at Disney's Epcot Center, with its gung-ho attitude towards technology.

Finally, and most surprisingly, it's a Film of Ideas. Spielberg may have simplified Crichton's novel, but he's retained its most interesting concepts: about dinosaurs having much in common with birds, about scientific research falling into the hands of irresponsible commerce, about Chaos Theory (which holds that life is too complicated ever to be totally controlled). And at a time when the old world order has disintegrated, a film which explains Chaos Theory in terms that a child can understand is extraordinarily well-timed.

One word of warning. This is a scary picture which could give children of any age nightmares. The violence is shocking (we see a man disappearing into a Tyrannosaurus's mouth, and one of the best sight-gags in the film features a disembodied arm), but there's no sadism, less delight in violence and destruction than you'd find in Tom and Jerry.

It's very exciting and entertaining, and genuinely a family film. Although the picture makes clear that not all adults are to be trusted, and that even the best have their limitations when faced with a pack of meat-eating dinosaurs, Sam Neill is the kind of father-figure which has often been missing from Spielberg's films. It will leave most children reassured that grown-ups are there to take care of them, and to that extent is less profoundly disturbing than E.T.

Jurassic Park won't move you to tears as E.T. did: it's a different kind of film. But it combines the best elements of this director's previous successes: the spectacle of Close Encounters, the suspense of Jaws, the excitement of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the wonder of E.T. It also contains things I haven't seen in Spielberg before: more of a delight in ideas, a dryer sense of humour, an absence of sentimentality.

Jurassic Park is more than just the biggest hit of the year. It was always unlikely that the Academy members who vote for the Oscars would put right their mistake of ten years previously, when they preferred Gandhi to E.T., a decision which even the winning director Richard Attenborough recognised as perverse. All the same, Jurassic Park was the kind of masterpiece which would have been a worthy Best Picture in any year.

,On the critical reaction to Jurassic Park:

Spielberg is the most commercially successful director ever: he has directed six out of the all-time Box Office top ten. But, as so often during his career, his latest film has been rewarded with generally grudging and patronising reviews from the American and British critics - particularly those at the so-called "quality" end of the spectrum. Why?

Jurassic Park is, like most of Spielberg's films, a mixture of cinematic genres, and genre films tend to be undervalued. For years, thrillers and westerns were not taken seriously by "posh" critics, who have always preferred psychological studies, "social issue" films or costume drama. Ironically, many of these highly-praised films are now forgotten: who remembers The Searching Wind (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947) or The Rose Tattoo (1958)?

A breakthrough came with so-called "auteur " criticism in the 1950s, led by Frenchmen like Truffaut and Chabrol - who held that directors such as Hitchcock and John Ford were important film-makers, pursuing their personal visions through the thriller and the western. No such critical respectability, however, has yet reached the five genres to which Jurassic Park may be said to belong.

The most common and revealing objection to Spielberg's latest film has been that the humans are sketchily drawn, and that the real stars are the dinosaurs. Well, yes - but so what? You could level the same accusation at every other Monster classic, from King Kong to Frankenstein, from Alien to Them!

Any screenwriter, producer or director worth his salt knows that in this particular genre the monster is the star of the show: the rest of the cast consists of supporting actors, who exist in order to show differing attitudes towards the monster.

Audiences, however subconsciously, know that too. That's why romantic sub-plots and long scientific explanations of how the monsters came to be that way are a bore: if the monster is realistic, we don't need more than a cursory explanation, and throughout any love scene we'll be waiting for the monster's next appearance.

Jurassic Park is also an action-adventure, in which character has to be established through action and visual imagery, not through long dialogue scenes or Oscar-worthy method-acting. See the film with an open mind, and you'll marvel at the way Spielberg packs in visual information about his characters by the way they dress, walk, respond to crises. In doing this, he's showing sensitivity to the rules of this genre - another in which "classics" are critically appreciated long after they are made. I can't think of a single action-adventure which achieved the reviews it deserved - not even now -acknowledged "classics" like The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) or The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Jurassic Park belongs to a third, despised genre: the family film. Beauty and the Beast, a couple of years back, was the first cartoon ever to be nominated for an Oscar: not altogether coincidentally, it was also one of the first family films to gain universally favourable notices. Family pictures as distinguished as The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St Louis, Pinocchio and even the ground-breaking Snow White all received dismissive reviews by leading critics of their day.

Finally and perhaps most damagingly, Jurassic Park is a Horror film. Spielberg's use of suspense and especially his "stalk and slash" sequences towards the end owe an obvious debt to Psycho, Hallowe'en and Friday the 13th. All three of them are now acknowledged as masterpieces of their genre. All three were panned by critics when first released.

Spielberg understands the conventions of horror films as well: he experimented with them in Duel, he learned how to manipulate them in Jaws. The audience's eye is led one way: the danger actually strikes from the other. It's a matter of taste whether you think ingredients drawn from slasher movies should be part of a family film; but there's no denying that children find them exciting, or that they're dramatically effective.

The truth is that Spielberg is much more cinematically literate, more knowledgeable about genre than his critics. Time and time again during his career, like a cinematic palaeontologist, he has uncovered seemingly fossilised genres and - almost magically - reassembled them to make a living organism.

He has not always met with artistic or commercial success 1941 was a dinosaur that wouldn't walk - it was far too cumbersome and suggested that his forte is not zany comedy; Always was not so much the charming romantic comedy with elements of the supernatural that Spielberg intended, as sentimental schlock; Empire of the Sun was a glossy travesty of a complex novel.

But his acknowledged successes have been spectacular: Jaws revitalised both the Monster movie and the suspense thriller; the Indiana Jones trilogy brought the "Boys' Own" adventure up to date; Close Encounters of the Third Kind combined the alienated anti-hero of 70s movies with the spectacle of 2001. E.T. (which Spielberg directed), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Gremlins movies (all of which Spielberg executive-produced) brought new resources, wit and special effects sophistication to the family genre, which had been more-or-less defunct since the live-action Disney comedies of the 50s.

To review Jurassic Park as if it is a flawed science lecture, or a failed attempt to make a profound psychological study of palaeontologists, is as pointless as accusing an Ingmar Bergman film of containing too few car chases, or saying that a Martin Scorsese gangster film might be improved by the addition of a few hit songs.

Would Spielberg have been wise to do as the critics might have wished, and spend more time in Jurassic Park on the human relationships, on the science, on building a more complex narrative? Of course not; and in suggesting that he should have, the critics are merely showing why they are critics, and not successful film-makers.

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