FILM / The Big Picture: Spare the rod, spoil the child: Adam Mars-Jones reviews Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, the monster of all movies

STEVEN SPIELBERG has been in the business of producing wonder for so long now that it's easy to forget he made his name with fear. Jaws was one of the most mechanically efficient of all thrillers, and now with Jurassic Park, after almost 20 years the ex-wunderkind is giving his smiling muscles a rest and showing his teeth one more time.

The best thing about Jurassic Park is the way that fear never drives out wonder, wonder at the special effects that have realised dinosaurs so convincingly, but also at the dinosaurs in their own right. These vivid apparitions are the warm-blooded, agile and in some cases unexpectedly resourceful creatures of new wave palaeobiology. Fear without wonder is a gruelling experience, just as wonder unclouded by fear can be an insipid one. The worst thing about Jurassic Park is that an economic necessity, of securing a PG certificate for what is essentially a horror film has been allowed to intervene in the story-telling, so that the tone is constantly disrupted by an incongruous reassurance. You may have seen cartoon books of the Greek myths retold for children where the ugly workings of fate are sweetened by consoling illustrations. Yes, my little one, Hercules has gone mad and killed his children. But what's that peeping out from beneath his chair? Yes, it's a bunny rabbit] Jurassic Park gives the same impression when the classic thriller dynamics of tension and release are violated in favour of a much faster alternation of nastiness and pseudo-parental smothering.

The strangest example is when a seasoned gamekeeper, who has never underestimated the danger of the resurrected saurians, is ambushed by the most frightening revenant of all, a velociraptor, which bears the same relationship to tyrannosaurus rex as a chainsaw does to a corporation lawnmower. In the split second between his seeing her (the dinosaurs, in an attempt to stop them breeding, have been genetically engineered to be female) and her fatal pounce, he murmurs calmly 'clever girl', for all the world as if he was considering her for Mensa membership.

The idea that certain beings don't mind being killed as long as they are fairly hunted has always been a feeble one but at least it's usually invoked for sensible reasons, by the hunter and not the prey. Granted, this character has a British accent and may be assumed to be unusually preoccupied with fair play. But the real reason for his sang-froid when confronted with a warm-blooded and savage hunter is that he is the first nice person we have seen attacked. He isn't evil, cowardly, fat or a lawyer, and the sting of his death must be taken away even before it happens. The mortal emotions are disallowed instead of being absorbed, in the way that the horror genre makes possible, and indeed depends on for its existence. Adult viewers are given one attractive couple to identify with (Sam Neill and Laura Dern), the younger ones another (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards, playing the grandchildren of the park's inventor). The junior heroes have a worst time of it, but they are given the biggest sticking plasters as well as the closest shaves. They are almost grotesquely resilient, the logic being presumably that if the young people in the audience are terrified simultaneously with the young people on screen, they will likewise be consoled by seeing their screen stand-ins comforted.

So when traumatised by the carnivorous narrative, young Tim and Lex are led into little vegetarian enclaves of atmosphere, therapeutic glades of Astro Turf. Tim may have had his legs trapped under a car overturned by a tyrannosaurus rex, but he has no trouble walking and is soon cracking dinosaur jokes. Lex is less quick to recover, but it isn't too long before she is patting a harmless brachiosaurus. The brachiosaurus responds in a brilliantly unexpected spasm of special effects, by sneezing, deluging Lex with antediluvian mucus. Never mind that a single sneeze cost as much to produce as the average British feature film. The cultural lineage of Jurassic Park runs through King Kong to Frankenstein, and the film dutifully includes debates, in advance of disaster, about the morality of bringing the dinosaurs back to life for profit.

But it never really convinces as a film preoccupied with worries about nature or science or commerce or all three. Spielberg is too much in love with the beasties he can conjure up to moralise in more than a token way about the legitimacy of their presence out of their time.

The characters are drawn without any great form or consistency. Sam Neill's character, Grant, is given a mistrustful relationship with technology, which is the sort of quirk that a computer might come up with in a doomed attempt to give a flat character a glimmer of dimensionality. Grant is indifferent to children, until he learns to parent during his arduous escorting of Tim and Lex from the park back to the supposed safety of the visitors' centre, so Jurassic Park has not escaped the dead hand of Personal Growth.

Laura Dern's character, Ellie, is conventionally devoted to Grant, but has odd fits of feminism when talking to anyone else. At one point, when the park's inventor, Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough), suggests that he should go on a dangerous sortie instead of her, she snaps, 'We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.' It seems not to occur to her that the reason for his offer, which he can't get out, might not be, 'because I'm a man', but 'because it's all my fault'.

The human performer who makes the best of it is Jeff Goldblum, playing a mathematician and chaos theoretician. Goldblum's casting is slyly inspired, since this actor has always seemed to have a little lizard in his own family tree (he played a saurian alien in Earth Girls Are Easy). Dressed in beatnik black, an image of archaic cool, he expounds chaos theory the way existentialists in the Fifties expounded their philosophy - that is, as an efficient way of getting girls into bed. He drips water onto the back of Ellie's hand, defying her to guess which way the drops will roll. Then he can talk about tiny flaws in her skin, unpredictable patternings of the little golden hairs . . .

Despite Goldblum's turn as a cold-blooded human being (whose strongest statement of fear, after being molested by dinosaurs, is 'I'm fairly alarmed here'), it is the warm-blooded saurians who are the be-all and end-all of Jurassic Park. Even the lumbering brachiosaurus, once relegated by science to a life in water on the basis that it couldn't support so much weight on land, is given some gracious choreography, and giraffes up on to its hind legs to reach the topmost branches. There are scenes of dinosaur pastoral, with stately beasts processing down to the lake to drink, and of group panic, when a herd of kangaroo-sized lizards stampedes past like oversized poultry. An ailing triceratops may bring tears to young eyes, but children will also understand the hero's impulse to lean against its side, to feel himself being lifted up and down by the immense bellows of those lungs.

When the velociraptors stalk the children through a canteen kitchen, Steven Spielberg finally leaves his junior viewers to their fears and produces a classic suspense sequence worthy of the creator of Jaws. Too often before then, Jurassic Park is marred by his need to install inappropriate facilities, for the benefit of an audience he shouldn't have been forced to target.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee