EMPIRE ESSAY: Jurassic Park Review

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On a remote island, a wealthy entrepreneur secretly creates a theme park featuring living dinosaurs drawn from prehistoric DNA. Pre-launch he invites 3 experts and his two eager grandchildren to experience the park..but is it really safe to play with nature?


The late Bill Hicks, stand-up comic and soothsayer, had a theory about life: "It's just a ride." Jurassic Park is just a ride — but what a ride. Built like a theme park attraction (just as the theme park attraction is plotted like a movie), it's a film about a ride that was always destined to become a ride. It even has dialogue in it about other real rides ("When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked"). Anyone lucky enough to have ridden the actual Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios in LA or Florida will testify that art and steel have never been this synchronised — or this thrilling. A cynic might say it's the tyranny of branding (see the film, read the book, buy the biscuits, ride the log-flume). You might say "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrggh!!"

Trust Steven Spielberg to make Schindler's List directly after Jurassic Park (these two wholly astonishing films were released in the same year, never forget that fact). Not only did Schindler overturn the Spielberg stereotype just as Jurassic Park confirmed it, it won him some overdue critical approval and a fistful of above-the-line Oscars at the very same ceremony in which Jurassic Park picked up its predictable clutch of technicals. (Sod it, he could have retired that day.) You might argue, as some critics did, that Jurassic Park is not Spielberg's best film — Jaws is more resourceful, Close Encounters more profound, E.T. more emotional, Schindler more important — but within the good old monster movie genre, it reigns supreme to this day.

The big idea — scientist creates dinosaurs from DNA found in mosquitos preserved in amber and starts a theme park; theme park goes wrong — might have been Michael Crichton's (you can tell, it's got computers in it), but Spielberg made it his, just as he'd made Peter Benchley's Jaws his and Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark his. It's even tempting to read a Spielberg allegory into the story: after all, just as John Hammond (Attenborough) has graduated from flea circus to safari park, Spielberg has graduated from temperamental mechanical shark to Industrial Light And Magic — but the difference is, Hammond's dream goes sour and Spielberg's dream works. Hammond's mistake was to mess with nature; Spielberg works at arm's length, dealing only in illusion, in animatronic legs and a million pixels. Hammond's safari park was forced to shut down before it even opened; Spielberg's Park looked like it would never close, taking over $900 million around the world (duking it out with Star Wars at the top of the box office charts until Titanic).

This is a successful film about a spectacular failure. In that, it's closer to a disaster movie than traditional science fiction. Like a disaster movie, Jurassic Park creates an edifice — the Costa Rican island paradise — and burns it down. In the process, people get trapped and have to be rescued. Others die. As Jeff Goldblum's wry mathematician Ian Malcolm notes in the sequel, "Then, there's running and screaming." The question is, does Jurassic Park really work on any level other than provider of expensive thrills? Probably not. The characters, by and large, are cutouts (Malcolm is an exception, thanks to Goldblum's nervous energy), and the ecological message, by and large, is facile ("Life finds a way"). But the dinosaurs are terrific. What more E do you want? King Kong could be dismissed by exactly the same character-and-message criteria, and that's a classic. Why? Because the monkey was ace.

The regal Brontosaurus, the poorly Triceratops, the iconic, ass-kicking T Rex and its ground-shaking entrance... yeah, they can do that sort of stuff on BBC documentaries now, but in 1993, we were as gobsmacked as Laura Dern. Complaints have been made that the director who kept the monster offscreen for a whole hour in Jaws plays his hand too early here, but in fact, the revealed "soft" dinosaurs only act as dummies for the real deal, the aforementioned T Rex and her henchmen the Velociraptors (it was a crucial, if belated, decision, to have the T Rex save our human heroes from the 'raptors at the end — it's said that Spielberg didn't even realise that the T Rex was the film's hero until he'd shot most of it, and tacked the crashing museum finale on to hammer the point home).

This is a surgically-paced series of set-pieces — the storm/Nedry's death, the T Rex attack, the car in the tree, the raptors in the kitchen, Muldoon's martyrdom — and if ever a film could be described as precisely the sum of its parts... well, just add up the great set-pieces in the sequel to see why it's so inferior. And it even has a postmodern sting in its tale: (Malcolm) "You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had, you patented it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox." Yes they did.

Jurassic Park was built, like a ride, to withstand repeated visits.