Thursday 7 February 2013


(Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Here is one of the oddest blockbusters Spielberg has made; a mix of compromise and genius which soars in parts and limps along in others.
The first act is all exposition. Characters are introduced - and by the standards of the modern event film, these characters are finely drawn, with actual personalities and motivations before dinosaurs mean that there is only one appropriate motivation: survival. The cast, composed mainly of grown-up character actors, certainly helps. That is another quirk of this film, produced when the summer blockbuster season was only about a decade old and still establishing its own rules; the cast seems relatively ancient. If this was made now, chances are the principals would all be in their late teens or early twenties. But here we get Sam Neill in the Harrison Ford role as the reluctantly dashing palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant, Jeff Goldblum as the awkwardly witty refusenik mathematician Ian Malcolm and Laura Dern as paleobotanist Dr Ellie Satler. The supporting cast is filled out with classy character faces like Samuel L Jackson and Bob Peck, and they handle much of the expository heavy lifting, telling us all about the Island, setting up the carnage to come.
Spielberg balances out all the maturity on show with two children at the centre of the story. They are Billionaire Richard Hammond's (Richard Attenborough, distractingly trying a twee, almost comic Scottish accent) grandchildren, come for a preview ride around his amazing new attraction; a safari park where genetically engineered (cloned, in effect) dinosaurs replace standard animals. The trio of doctors are there for the same experience, but their visit coincides with a terrible storm and an attempt to profit from some corporate espionage by a disgruntled employee which deactivates power - and electrified fences - at just the wrong moment.  Dinosaurs - including a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a pack of terrifying, cunning Velociraptors - are now on the loose, and any mammals in the park are fair game, including Dr Grant, on the run through the tropical forest with the two kids.
The exposition is such a demand here that Spielberg even sets aside five minutes to have the Park itself deliver it. We witness the educational part of the tour, wherein a cartoon character gives a presentation on how the dinosaurs were created. Through all this, it's hard not to grow impatient. We want to see the dino-mayhem we know is coming, and these scenes don't create tension, they just set the scene efficiently.
The effects, though a little dated, remain stunningly impressive, and Spielberg uses them with a sense of organic storytelling and timing that is possibly his greatest gift as a filmmaker. He integrates the cgi superbly, giving us glimpses of dinosaurs before a sweeping awed shot allows them to dominate the frame, John Williams' euphoric theme rising up as audience and characters are joined in a sense of wonder. And then, he begins to up the tension in the first scene depicting the T-Rex. That is a masterly construction of suspense, beautiful choreography of elements and terrific direction which has lost none of its power to thrill, terrify and amuse. And Spielberg is one of the few directors capable of crafting scenes which do all three at once. It is testament to his skill that he is able to make a film aimed squarely at families so scary; there is no gore here, but the chase and stalk scenes are genuinely tense and gripping, especially once the film ramps up in its last act. In that portion of the film, the Velociraptors take centre stage, and there is much Jaws-like suspense as the children (especially) hide and flee. In these scenes Spielberg feels fully engaged. You can almost feel his mind working, figuring out the best ways to drag audiences wherever he wants them to go, and the cuts and compositions are incredibly consistent in their skill and quality.
It's just that so much else feels so rote; where Jaws feels tight and measured in its pacing and timing, Jurassic Park feels slack and flabby. Individual scenes thrill and crackle, but the film bumps along awkwardly, some of its character beats too blatantly inserted as if in response to preview screening comments. The most interesting character - Goldblum's hilarious oddball - disappears halfway through and is rarely seen thereafter (the sequel seems aware of this, positioning him as the lead character). That is a structural flaw the film fails to repair; it peaks with the T-Rex sequence, and while the Velociraptors are fun and frightening, they don't quite match the impact of that cinematic monster or that awesome scene.
Even then, the whole thing rather peters out into a bit of an anticlimax, and it may be relevant that Spielberg made Schindlers List - a far more personal film - in the same year, stretching even his formidable talents.

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