When you think of Steven Spielberg, you do not immediately think of humans. You think of E.T., the shark in Jaws, the aliens in Close Encounters; you may have to remind yourself to think of Henry Thomas, Roy Scheider, or Richard Dreyfuss. A few hours after seeing Jurassic Park, I had to remind myself that Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum are in it. The stars, clearly, are the dinosaurs. They’re what you visit Jurassic Park to see, and Spielberg unveils them like a master showman. You pay about as much attention to the actors as you would to the tour guides at Disneyland: They’re there, and they’re saying things, but you’re listening with half an ear.
Jurassic Park, from Michael Crichton’s bestseller (he wrote the script with David Koepp), would seem to be the ideal Spielberg project. It has men in wide-brimmed hats making amazing discoveries in lush jungles and harsh deserts; it has children; it has a hearty John Williams score; it has special effects that outdo God. Most of all, particularly during the last 45 minutes or so, it has the old Spielberg snap. After the bloated, rhythmless Hook, Spielberg has stopped trying to improve us and returned to a more basic goal — to get us so worked up we can’t breathe. Sometimes he drops the ball: The opening sequence, in which a dinosaur chomps a Jurassic Park worker, makes our hearts pound until Spielberg blows it with a dissolve. Maybe Spielberg isn’t 100% back on track, but he’s getting there. Jurassic Park places him at about 75% — perhaps 90% when he’s rolling.
Crichton, who obviously wrote Jurassic Park with Spielberg in mind, is himself a director; his debut was Westworld, about robots in an electronic resort that go awry. Jurassic Park is Westworld with dinosaurs. For all the technical jargon, the story couldn’t be simpler. Billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has populated an island with genetically engineered dinos that his scientists have cloned from dinosaur DNA. He invites paleontologist Alan Grant (Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Dern), and chaos theoretician Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) to the island for feedback and support — inspectors are breathing down his neck, and he needs reputable endorsement. When the dinosaurs run amok, Hammond can kiss any endorsement goodbye.
As he demonstrated in Duel and (of course) Jaws, Spielberg is an ace at building suspense and dread. (He didn’t always need state-of-the-art effects to do it, but…) Yes, Spielberg lets his critters do a lot of the work for him, but he also gets a lot of mileage out of simplicity: water trembling in a glass as a Tyrannosaurus rex thunders closer. The movie has almost no gore, but it’s intense enough to make columnists worry whether young children should see it. This fretting is needless: Jurassic Park is scary, but in a healthy, exhilarating way — no worse, finally, than King Kong or Godzilla. Spielberg doesn’t rely (much) on shock; his monsters alarm us because of their savagery, their sheer physical awesomeness. When a swift velociraptor lunges after children — skittering over steel tables, hellishly eager to rip them apart — your blood freezes. And, thanks to the computer-generated animation, these beasts don’t move like the jerky dinos you’ve laughed off in many bad horror movies. They move with nightmarish speed, fluidity, and efficiency. Death machines.
The film, however, pays a sad price for its razzle-dazzle: At about the halfway mark, Jurassic Park becomes less and less a people-in-danger movie, more and more an extended chase in which it hardly seems to matter who’s being chased. Remove the people from the people-in-danger equation and you’re left with very little danger — and very little dramatic impact. Chase! Run! Jump! All of this is undeniably exciting, but I wish that Spielberg, having assembled such witty actors as Neill, Dern, and especially Goldblum, had come up with more for them to do besides chasing, running, and jumping. Goldblum, whose every cynical mutter gets a big laugh, all but disappears after the first hour — but then you’d never know from Dern’s open-mouthed, typical-Spielberg-woman performance here that she was capable of Wild at Heart or Rambling Rose, either. Spielberg also wastes Samuel L. Jackson (so brilliant in Jungle Fever), who gets stuck with dialogue like “I can’t get Jurassic Park back online.” I mean, why hire Jackson if you’re only going to feed him to a raptor?
None of this really dims the pleasure of the spectacle, though. Jurassic Park earns its spot in fantasy-film history. When a herd of Gallimimuses stampede across a pasture in perfect integration with the live actors in the shot, or when a vicious T. rex engulfs another (seemingly) live actor, it’s pure movie sorcery. At its best, Jurassic Park makes your jaw drop lower than it dropped at Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Terminator 2. The idea of man coexisting with dinosaurs may be a nightmare, but in Spielberg’s hands it’s every moviegoer’s wildest dream.