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
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions