Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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Before 'Jurassic World,' reflect on 1993 review of 'Jurassic Park': 'The Ultimate Creature Feature'

This weekend, a whole new breed of dinosaur drops on movie audiences in Jurassic World in a genetically modified monster called Indominus Rex, "boosting attendance since what was extraordinary before is now old hat."

But as Times movie critic Steve Persall wrote this week, 1993's Jurassic Park "wasn't simply a game-changer. It was an entirely new stadium for filmmaking, utilizing the developing technology of computer-generated imaging on a grander scale than any movie before."

Here's Persall's original review, as it appeared on June 11, 1993, of the ground-breaking film to which Jurassic World will be inevitably compared.

The Ultimate Creature Feature

Perhaps the worst mistake Steven Spielberg has made during his career was directing the most popular movie of all time. Since E.T. poked his heart-shaped head around the corner (and became the highest-grossing film ever), audiences have demanded more warm fuzzies from Spielberg and felt betrayed if he didn't provide them. They ignored the fact that his screen triumphs began with the perversely funny horror of Jaws.

Finally, those E.T. expectations have been laid to rest — better yet, trampled — by the dinosaur denizens of Jurassic Park, an amazing adaptation of Michael Crichton's bestseller about an amusement park where the amusements run amok. As he did in Jaws, Spielberg has crafted a man-vs.-nature masterpiece with admirable logic, darkly funny violence and enthralling state-of-the-art special effects.

Watching Jurassic Park, one gets the same feeling of wonderment, glee and old-fashioned fright that moviegoers must have felt 60 years ago when King Kong roared out of the jungle and scaled the Empire State Building.

Crichton's novel — like the Peter Benchley potboiler Jaws before it — is a pop culture study in primal fear, with mankind confronted by monsters that time and nature can't control. Spielberg's uncanny knack for manipulating an audience can be irritating when he's saccharine (The Color Purple, Always) or manic (most of the Indiana Jones trilogy). Here, it's exhilarating because Crichton, and now Spielberg, aims for the pit of your stomach by way of your mind, rather than your heart.

The tension revs up in the opening sequence when a park employee is mauled by a deadly velociraptor — a creature with intelligence to match its six-inch retractable talons. We see only parts of the beast as it attacks — a throwback to the peekaboo style of Jaws — but this superbly scary introduction lets viewers know this won't be another gentle E.T. With great economy, Spielberg sets up his characters and before long, we're at the gates to Jurassic Park.

The dinosaur preserve, stocked with genetically engineered creatures, is the brainchild of billionaire John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough), who needs the approval of two experts before he can convince investors to open the attraction. He ends up with three inspectors: paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill,) paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and brilliant mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), whose Chaos Theory about life's unexpected twists is about to be put to the test.

Joining them later are Hammond's bite-size grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). Meanwhile, a team of management experts (including Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight and B.D. Wong) work on glitches in the park's massive operation.

Before long, the weekend guests meet their prehistoric "hosts," six species of dinosaurs that have been cloned from DNA discovered during a dig. The nearly seamless combination of computer animation and live-action models used by Spielberg's team of SFX experts is awe-inspiring. The dinosaurs are the most realistic movie monsters ever filmed, an achievement destined to be rewarded at Oscar time in 1994.

With his players in place, Spielberg mounts one spectacular set piece after another as the dinosaurs terrorize the tourists by doing what comes naturally; hunting for survival. Even in their most terrifying moments — an attack by a tyrannosaurus rex on a rainy road or a 'raptor pursuit in a kitchen — these dinosaurs are also oddly sympathetic. They're not evil, only hungry.

Critics may scoff that Jurassic Park is merely a special effects horror show, but Crichton's screenplay (polished by David Koepp) is a thinking person's thriller that takes time to consider the moral and scientific implications of cloning dinosaurs. If the ending seems abrupt, it's because the eventual fate of the park's dinosaurs was discussed earlier and viewers need to be attentive enough to pick it up.

Jurassic Park may also be the most intelligent, pro-feminist adventure movie yet made. Rather than just hand a woman a gun (like Ripley in the Alien series), Spielberg and Crichton make their point in subtle ways. The dinosaurs are fine until male greed and the introduction of male dino-chromosomes muddle the gene pool. Dern's character is scared and fragile, but she's tough enough to dig in dino droppings and outwit predators and sexism. Lex was a brat in the book, but has been softened and given a talent that makes her a hero.

Even the acting is of rare quality for a slam-bang action flick. Neill isn't a Harrison Ford-type savior, but his character does show development along the way. Dern is fine in her most commercial role ever and Attenborough overplays Hammond with a suitably Disneyesque twinkle. Best of the bunch is Goldblum, whose line readings sound discovered, rather than recited. Malcolm is a man whose brain operates even faster than his glib mouth and Goldblum provides crucial elements of comic relief and scientific conscience that this story demands.

Fans of the novel may be disappointed at Spielberg's occasional shorthand revisions, but a faithful version of Crichton's tale would have cost at least twice the film's $60 million price tag. Hammond isn't as ruthless, and the subplot of a rival company trying to steal the dino-cloning technique only serves to introduce another course for the dinosaurs to devour.

Chances are, those changes won't matter to moviegoers when Spielberg's dinosaurs chew up the scenery. Jurassic Park is a moviemaking marvel, a blend of popular entertainment and masterful technology that grabs an audience and shakes it like a T-Rex attacking its prey.

We ask for two things from big-budget thrillers like this: Make us believe and make us jump. Jurassic Park delivers on both counts; it's the best gasp-between-the-giggles movie made since a cocky young director and a clunky Bruce the Shark scared the beach out of us 18 summers ago.

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