IT is well known that going to a typical Steven Spielberg movie is like attending an amusement park. So it's not surprising that Mr. Spielberg has now made a movie about an amusement park - and no ordinary park, but a walloping extravaganza stuffed with thoroughly Spielbergian thrills.
I suppose it was inevitable that Spielberg would crank out an entertainment like "Jurassic Park," given the trajectory of his career. And it's probably just as well that he has turned his talent in this direction - flighty and frivolous though it is - at this stage in his development.
After earning a reputation as one of Hollywood's most dependable money-spinners, with pictures like "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and the Indiana Jones epics, Spielberg has been trying to wax mature in his more recent films. For all their ambition, however, the romantic drama "Always" and the mythical free-for-all "Hook" seem to strain at their grown-up agendas rather than slide gracefully into them. There's only one kind of movie that Spielberg has truly mastered: the kind that looks like a wide-screen v ideo game complete with loony plot twists and mind-bending special effects.
And that's "Jurassic Park" down to its bones. Vivid and violent enough to stretch the PG-13 rating to its limit, it will delight Spielberg fans, reassuring them that he isn't trying too hard to grow up, but still has time to put them on a rollercoaster ride now and then.
Based on Michael Crichton's novel (1992, Alfred A. Knopf), the film takes place on an island where an eccentric zillionaire named John Hammond has realized an amazing dream: Using cells extracted from mosquitoes preserved in prehistoric tree sap, he has cloned a colony of dinosaurs that live, breathe, and clomp around exactly as their ancestors did before their species became extinct. His motive is less to advance the cause of science than to provide exotic entertainment in the most audacious theme park ever built.
Hammond's idea may sound great, but as the old science-fiction cliche says, there are things mankind wasn't meant to tamper with. Before the park opens its doors, its computer-controlled operation goes kerflooey - thanks to a greedy employee who's trying to smuggle dinosaur embryos off the island - and the genetically engineered giants run amok.
Caught in the chaos are Hammond's two grandchildren and some scientists he's invited to give the park their seal of approval. Can the handsome paleontologist, the pretty paleobotanist, and the witty but cynical mathematician save the youngsters (and themselves) from the wily Diplodocus, the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the dangerously klutzy Brontosaurus? No sweat - but only after two hours of chills, spills, and harrowingly close shaves.
Still working on the adult image he wants to acquire, Spielberg has injected "Jurassic Park" with a few serious questions. The movie asks whether humanity has lost respect for nature to a dangerous degree; whether we now think of science as an intellectual game rather than a key to understanding; whether there are things mankind wasn't meant to tamper with. Regrettably, the film never gets around to exploring these issues, since chases, races, and hairbreadth escapes are its main concern in virtually eve ry scene.
Another interesting question raised by "Jurassic Park" is whether Spielberg consciously intended it as a symbolic study of his own life as a filmmaker, or whether this dimension crept into the movie without the director's awareness. Hammond's park isn't sort of like a Spielberg production, it's exactly like a Spielberg production - complete with exotic settings, marvelous creatures, and marketing tie-ins like lunchboxes with Jurassic Park logos. It even has a Spielbergian budget: "We've spared no expense !" crows Hammond over and over, taking childlike pride in the sheer hugeness of his enterprise.
Since everything goes wrong in Hammond's prehistoric playground, should we conclude that Spielberg is criticizing the notion of devoting vast resources to escapism and spectacle, rather than to developing knowledge and improving the world - a statement that would amount to a surprisingly mature self-criticism of his own cinematic career to date?
Apparently not. Hammond's sin, the movie eventually makes clear, is not his ambition to be the ultimate impresario. Instead it's the fact that he dared to create something real, like a world of living creatures, instead of something fake, like a glitzy Spielberg movie.
TRUTH may be stranger than fiction, Spielberg and company tell us, but fiction is a lot more safe and comfy - and can earn you a fortune without the unpleasant possibility of risking anything but your producers' money. Faced with the choice of spectacle or substance, Spielberg still favors spectacle by a wide margin.
As pure spectacle, "Jurassic Park" works as well as anything else Hollywood's high-tech wizards have given us lately. It's derivative in spots - the classic "King Kong" and the amusing "Gremlins" obviously inspired some of its better dinosaur ideas - but the special effects are simply astounding, with utterly lifelike monsters jostling humans who sometimes don't seem half as convincing.
The acting is also on target, within the limitations of a movie that cares more about action and fantasy than credible motivation and well-rounded characters.
Sam Neill and Laura Dern make a nice couple as the paleontological heroes, and Jeff Goldblum brings his unique humor to the mathematician whose knowledge of chaos theory proves too theoretical to help much.
And it's a pleasure to see Richard Attenborough on screen for the first time in 14 years. He's a first-rate character actor when he isn't busy being a third-rate movie director, and he makes Hammond a surprisingly engaging character.
The supporting cast includes Josh Mostel and Samuel L. Jackson as well as Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello as the threatened kids of the story. The rich cinematography is by Dean Cundey, and the split-second editing is by Michael Kahn, a regular member of Spielberg's team. David Koepp and Mr. Crichton wrote the screenplay. John Williams composed the rip-roaring music.
* "Jurassic Park" has received a PG-13 rating for what the rating board describes as "intense science-fiction terror." The film contains a great deal of violence, some of which could be extremely frightening for young children, and some vulgar language.