These lizards mean business! Spielberg's dinosaurs elevate "Jurassic Park" into classic monster movie

June 10, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

When Steven Spielberg mutters, "Leapin' Lizards!" he isn' kidding around.

Thus his much anticipated version of Michael Crichton's

"Jurassic Park" is a festival of leaping lizards -- and cavorting, cartwheeling, gamboling, strutting, bounding and tumbling lizards, which gets exactly at the movie's signal triumph and its primary drawing card: You will believe that they are back. And that they brought their teeth.

Will you believe anything else?

That's a more difficult question to answer. The set-up is just chilling enough, a variation on a theme Michael Crichton worked earlier in his film "Westworld," about a high-tech amusement park that turned lethal for its customers. In this version, the park is an island off Costa Rica where an eccentric billionaire has used the latest breakthroughs in genetic engineering to clone tribes of dinosaurs from DNA found in mosquitoes frozen in prehistoric amber. A week or two before it opens, a small team of "experts" is flown in to see if it's safe. It isn't.

Crichton can plot and plan and research, but he's a terrible novelist and the characters he provided were tissue-thin; the screenplay by Crichton and David Koepp doesn't do much to flesh them out. They're more ossified than any fossil ever found in the Badlands. Still, one has to admire how much the actors do with the skeletal materials.

Each of them beams energy and charisma into some of the most prosaic and exposition-clotted lines ever written. Laura Dern looks as if she's a one-woman pep squad as Dr. Ellie Sattler, a paleobotanist. Her main squeeze, cowboy paleontologist Alan Grant, is played by Sam Neill, agreeably, and Richard Attenborough drips with bonhomie as the wealthy but foolish John Hammond. Two kids -- Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards -- whose only purpose is to be terrorized are adequate; they scream nicely and never get icky. But the true cake-taker is Jeff Goldblum as mathematician and "chaos theoretician" Ian Malcolm. This is a first: man of science as Roy Orbison. I kept waiting for the black-clad, motorcycle-booted, shade-wearing string bean to start belting out, "Pretty Lizard."

Underneath it all, the movie is a $70 million margarine commercial with Madam T. Rex uttering the famous line: "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." That was the most passionate and vivid theme in the book, with Malcolm arguing that any activity based on the illusion of control over the natural order was bound tocollapse into chaos because the elements of the system were entirely too diffuse to be categorized, much less predicted. But Spielberg blunts the book's edge and moral purpose: it was a screed against uncontrolled and for-profit applied science, a worst-case scenario from before the day the asteroid hit. Spielberg has milled the anger out of the story, even turning bad guy Hammond into a grandpop type.

But Spielberg also fixes a lot of things. The narrative has been speeded up and simplified, and once about 30 minutes of explaining is dispensed with, it bounds into the purest and most visceral of movie genres, that old favorite, the monster movie. It worked in the '50s and it still works.

Spielberg even acknowledges his cheesy sources. There's a scene where the tyrannosaurus gobbles an unlucky lawyer -- we see his wiggling legs in the snout -- that's a pure steal from "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," which tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York in 1953 where the wiggling legs belonged to a cop. This time, he eats a lawyer; you see, there has been progress! And it's also true that the dinosaurs have far more personality than the people.

Tyrannosaurus is the boss: Muscular, fast, huge, rippling with athleticism, it opens an automobile like a Viking opening a sardine can. Brachiosaurus is 90 tons of E.T., a gentle, quizzical beast with eyes like pools of melting chocolate. Dilophosaurus is pure theatrical violence, with a fanlike hood that radiates out before she strikes and a toxic saliva which she fires like a large, wet bullet. But the true prince of the realm is velociraptor.

These bad boys must have gotten a new agent, for their celebrity is definitely on the upswing: They're the true stars of the film, just as they've come to represent the New Dinosaurs.

Definitely a brat pack, the raptors hunt in gangs and exhibit incredible cunning and savagery. Spielberg has even imagined a kind of language among them, a chittering, almost hisslike slither of tongue over teeth that produces a vocabulary of clicks and gurgles. They have the physiques of NBA power forwards and vertical leaps that seem to take them into the stratosphere.

Spielberg is honest to their savagery; he hasn't sentimentalized them into new age eco-sensitives -- they're just mean-ass flesh-eaters. Indeed, the film is far too intense and dynamic for children under 9. But when they hunt, the movie takes on a power that's truly primordial. In one brilliant, unsettling sequence, which is played for maximum surrealism, they stalk the two children through Jurassic Park's kitchens.

What a concept: beasts of the Jurassic slipping down stainless steel corridors while two terrified children use just a shred more native intelligence to try and outsmart them.

A brilliant and dynamic piece of popular movie making, "Jurassic Park" has a lot more bite than bark.

"JURASSIC PARK"

Starring Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13

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