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Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.

Movie

Jurassic Park
(1993)

 

I’m uninspired by the prospect of seeing Jurassic Park 3D. Rather than going to such a length I thought I’d revisit one of the ‘berg’s biggest movies two-dimensionally, as nature intended. It is, after all, it’s twentieth anniversary.

I saw the film twice in the cinema on its initial release, something of a rarity usually reserved for films met with high esteem or requiring further cogitation. That wasn’t the case with Park, it was for purely for reasons of being sociable. The second visit confirmed my reservations, and seeing it again now only reinforces them. This is a very well-made film. Spielberg is at the height of his powers. The use of special effects is frequently stunning, putting many a movie to shame made several decades down the line. But it feels cynical and hollow.

Sometimes overtly so (the pre-emptive displays of Jurassic Park merchandise could be viewed as oh-so-clever and self-reflexive, but the alternative is that it’s shamelessly crass). Sometimes because the script is so calculated that it lacks any real inspiration. The virtual retread a few years later would only confirm the shortage of really great ideas. But Michael Crichton was essentially doing an undisguised Westworld with dinosaurs, plus a bit of cod-science thrown in, so why should that be surprising? And Spielberg had long wanted to make a dinosaur movie, an entirely understandable itch to scratch. It’s just a shame he made this, rather than mounting a remake of The Land that Time Forgot.

Jurassic Park really scores with the set pieces. Once you’ve listlessly endured the not-really-very-good introductory sequences, that is. Sam Niell’s Dr Alan Grant freaks out a fat kid by describing the predatory habits of velociraptors. Richard Attenborough’s hammy Scots accent masquerading as a character introduces us to the science via a cute (read, patronising) cloning-for-idiots cartoon. An employee of the Park is up to no good in a really loud and obnoxious manner (he’ll get his!), only made bearable by the Wayne Knight’s gleeful performance.

Then there’s the introduction to the dinosaurs. Having the characters as audience surrogates is okay when its Grant and Ellie (Laura Dern). When it’s a pair of kids (hey, this is Spielberg) who happen to be Hammond’s niece (Lex, Adriana Richards) and nephew (Tim, Joseph Mazello) you wonder if you’ve strayed into some strange throwback Disney movie. To be fair to Richards and Mazello, their performances are fine, and Spielberg’s smart enough to not to make them precocious (although a climactic life-saving bit of computer whizzery on Lex’s part stretches patience pretty thin). But there’s no reason for them to be there, other than that’s what you used to do in family movies.

Worse, Spielberg regular John Williams ladles on the majestic grandeur of these beasts with a syrupy trowel. There, I’ve said it. I don’t like his Jurassic Park theme. It’s symptomatic of every identikit, fawningly emotive score he’s delivered in the past twenty years. Don’t get me wrong, he knows exactly how to punch up the dramatic scenes, but the cheap awe and spectacle need muffling.

To an extent, the director is just remaking Jaws. With better special effects. He relishes holding back his big reveals (an opening velociraptor attack with the camera only ever showing its victim, a cow lowered into their enclosure shows us nothing but frantic foliage). He revels in building tension (the famously rippling glass of water as the T-rex approaches, Knight’s encounter with a dilphosaurus). And it cannot be stressed how masterfully he integrates the effects. The combination of CGI and practical is nigh-on seamless, and the foregrounding of the physical elements (wind and rain, light and dark) lends weight and tangibility to them. Spielberg seems enthused here in a way that was only sporadically evident in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and was almost entirely absent from Hook. It’s just a shame he didn’t build a better script.

Surely its straightforwardness is to its credit? Entrepreneur invites scientists to his dinosaur theme park. Theme park goes wrong. All concerned must escape to safety. If it was as tightly wrought as the premise makes it sound, yes. I might have preferred James Cameron’s (who tried to buy the rights) take, but he’s not exactly economical and to-the-point either. Spielberg being Spielberg, other less-desirable ticks and obsessions intrude clumsily on the main plot.

Most pointedly, Grant doesn’t particularly like children, so the film is obliged to follow his journey from cruel relish at scaring the little ones to reluctant, then hearty, recognition of the joys of fatherhood. To achieve this, we are told, the only thing necessary is to endure a life or death experience with prehistoric monsters. All the while acting as the surrogate parent to a couple of little urchins. It’s as irritatingly unsubtle as that. Every time Grant stumbles forward in this new parental paradigm, Spielberg cuts back to doting Ellie who just knows Grant will be making babies with her in no time.

If this weren’t bad enough, Neill is unutterably dull in the role. It’s not as if this is his fall back position, but cast the actor in a solid, dependable part and he starts to blend in with the furniture. There’s a lack of vitality at the core of the film. I don’t know that the permanently tranquilised William Hurt or the increasingly somnambulant Harrison Ford (both were offered, and turned down, the role) would have made Grant more interesting but you’d at least have felt their presence more directly.

It’s left to the supporting players to inject a bit of life into the proceedings. Of which, Jeff Goldblum (as Dr. Ian Malcolm) is more than capable. He’s easily having the most fun here; I suppose you could call it the Han Solo part, except that he’s put out of action just as the excitement starts. Goldblum’s one of my favourite actors; I love his delivery, and the idiosyncratic emphases he places on his sentences. His manner is a curiously antithetical combination of the excitable and the laidback. He enthuses over Chaos Theory in a way that makes it sound far more interesting than Grant’s fusty old dinosaurs. In theory, Goldblum’s return as the lead in The Lost World should have been a masterstroke. Unfortunately, again, the script was the problem.

Then there’s Bob Peck as Muldoon, the game warden, whose “Clever girl” is one of the most famous lines in the film. It’s a great “warning” part, not as show-off as the grizzled old veteran played by Robert Shaw in Jaws, but possessed of instant gravitas nevertheless. Samuel L Jackson’s chief engineer Arnold is a fairly thankless role, but he makes it memorably wearied and (particularly today) notable for chain-smoking.

The climax of the film always struck me as curiously curtailed. Spielberg stages a breathless half hour or so of velociraptoring before the intervention of a friendly neighbourhood T-Rex enables our protagonists’ lucky escape. It’s a deus ex machina for our heroes and cuts off mid-melee. Throughout, Spielberg is very reticent with his dinosaur violence. Humans are fair game, but we don’t see any dinosaurs shot, blown-up, gored, dismembered or otherwise exsanguinated. That’s what you call Cameron for, I guess. I did like the falling “When dinosaurs ruled the Earth” banner fluttering down as the beasties form a tableau rumpus, however.

Most of all, Jurassic Park was a missed opportunity. It was a chance to do something really fresh and exciting with dinosaurs using modern technology, but Crichton’s tale is blandly formulaic; that the film works as well as it does is all down to Spielberg (the screenplay is credited to Crichton and David Koepp; the latter is a solid director in his own right, but is his work-for-hire for Spielberg has been consistently not-quite-there). The sad thing is, the series has become the last word for dino-stories. They’ve surfaced occasionally (Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the misfiring comedy take on Land of the Lost) but neither in central roles, nor wholly successfully. And now that Jurassic Park 4 is on the horizon, is there any hope that it won’t just be another stir-and-repeat of the previous three? It’s a shame Joe Dante (one of the original rights-bidders) couldn’t have been given free rein on John Sayles’ aborted script for it.

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