FILM / The beast years of their lives

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IN Jurassic Park (PG), Steven Spielberg clones from the fossilised DNA of his former glory the legendary, ticket- spewing Spielbergasaurus (sometimes confused with the Hypeasaurus), a box- office beast thought to have become extinct in the mid-Eighties. After his plodding, muddled recent work, this is the abundant, contradictory Spielberg of old: part Peter Pan, part Hitchcock, part Harryhausen, part Wizard of Oz. He regains some of his excitement and grandeur. Scale is returned to the movies, as well as scaliness.

To start with those saurians. They are the stars, and they shine so brightly they blind you to many of the film's faults. Spielberg doesn't cage them long: about 20 minutes of limpish expository scenes. When we see them, our feelings match those of the palaeontologists (Sam Neill and Laura Dern) flown in to examine them. They have been studying the beasts for years; we've been reading about them for what seems like years.

After a long, rapturous close-up of Laura Dern's mouth gaping in wonder, you fear an anticlimax. What you get is one of the great movie moments: a huge Brachiosaurus placidly stretching on its hind legs, undulating its elegant slate-grey neck to munch a tree-top. No strings, no jerking, no give-away outlines. It looks alive. If you can hear anything over John Williams's soaring score it may be your heart singing.

By now we have sampled another wonder: Isla Nublar, 110 miles off Costa Rica, played by the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The scientists and a mathematician (Jeff Goldblum) are helicoptered in by the park's owner, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), making a sheer descent down Niagara-like falls, whose foaming, filigree waters are backdropped by lush greenery.

Hammond has bussed the experts in to approve the fruit he's plucked from the tree of knowledge. He's used DNA fossilised in amber to recreate dinosaurs, and plans to open the park as a Dinoworld. It should 'make millions', gloats his lawyer (Martin Ferraro). Instead, as chaos theoretician Goldblum predicts, it makes mayhem.

A grouchy computer wiz, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), steals embryos and sabotages the security system. With his blubber and shiftiness, Nedry is an obvious bad egg. But in Jurassic Park there should be no eggs at all - at least not fertilised ones - as all the dinosaurs are female. Soon nature has found a way, however, and eggs hatch. And Nedry has pulled the electricity so the visitors' vehicles are stranded and the fencing loses its charge. In a brilliant action sequence a Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks a car carrying Hammond's grandchildren (typical Spielbergian wised-up innocents). The vast beast looms unexpectedly into frame like the Jaws shark, the slithery face both agonised and delirious, its steak-knife teeth curled in a grin. When it roars, it's like the horns of a hundred steamers hooting together.

'Sixty-five Million Years in the Making' is the film's sales pitch. They might, then, have spent a few more minutes on the script. Michael Crichton and David Koepp's screenplay provides the bare minimum of plot and characterisation, though it does so with wit and efficiency. Goldblum's mathematician has a nice line in sarcasm. And melodramatic cliches - 'John, I can't get Jurassic Park back on line]' - are carried off with acting aplomb.

The plot, unlike the dinosaurs, seems mechanical. The disasters turn up on schedule - more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than Jaws. Apart from one lyrical interlude, when Neill and the children rest in a tree, it's a fright-ride from start to finish.

It is often said that Spielberg casts humans to reflect beasts, and you can play the game here. Dern's elegant neck and meekness match her with the herbivorous Brachiosaurus. Goldblum, his raddled features crowned by greasy hair, looks like the ridge-headed Dilophosaurus, which delivers a startling spit. Neill's squat face mirrors the ailing Triceratops, which he tends in a scene bound to have audiences 'aahing'. Richard Attenborough? Well, he is a dinosaur, acting with an energetic limp, and the Scots burr from his last screen role as General Outram in Satyajit Ray's 1977 film The Chess Players.

The actors do much with little. Dern and Neill see to the three Ss of Spielberg acting - screaming, staring and scarpering - and inject some feeling. Dern has a punchily moving scene with Hammond, pleading the case of humanity against science and commerce. Goldblum gets the lazy brilliance of his mathematical sceptic. Only Wayne Knight's villainous Nedry is a complete caricature: an obese, jabbering wreck, either transparently guilty or too jittery to have been selected for such sensitive work. Attenborough's one glint of steel - 'I don't blame people for their mistakes, but I do ask that they pay for them' - is reserved for him. Otherwise Hammond is conceived in generous Spielbergian terms: a misguided idealist, guilty of thinking instead of feeling - not a greedy capitalist.

Apart from its sequel-friendly ending, the film strays most from Michael Crichton's novel in its softness with Hammond - though Crichton's Hammond was hardly dark (he's described as 'about as sinister as Walt Disney', which when it was written held no irony). Spielberg and Crichton are well matched: both boffins more interested in technology than character, and clueless about women. Neither version of Jurassic Park creates a figure half as fierce or fun as Conan Doyle's warring professors in The Lost World. Crichton soups up the dangers-of-science theme of his androids-amok film Westworld. Spielberg throws out the facts and figures - fractal mathematics, computer print-outs - giving a smoother ride.

Spielberg's direction has restored zest. After the chaos of his last film, Hook, the story-telling is beautifully clear. And, abandoning the widescreen format, he gives us some of the crisp, startling shots that made his name, notably a chase filmed through an advancing dinosaur's legs. The editing is as tight as ever, stretching reality for suspense - a car falling through tree branches seems forever on the point of crushing those scurrying from it. But if you saw Jaws on television last Tuesday, you may miss some of the freshness and boldness that perhaps only the gleeful novice could provide.

What you also miss is fear. For all the rumpus about its PG certificate, Jurassic Park is not a very frightening film. The dinosaurs are more awesome than terrifying. They're most frightening when heard off-stage, deafeningly rustling leaves and thumping the earth with their footsteps. Spielberg uses his old shock routines, but scrupulously avoids showing pain. Who can forget the garbled screams of the girl at the beginning of Jaws as she is slowly devoured? In Jurassic Park, victims are swallowed whole, unshrieking. And they are villains - or lawyers, which amounts to the same thing in American films now - not innocents. The audience laughs. It's as if Spielberg, whose greatest films have been either dreams or nightmares, can't decide whether to make a fantasy or a frightener.

Jurassic Park relates to Spielberg's work as Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather III did to theirs: a return to favoured, hallowed ground, to something like form, but not to greatness. Jurassic Park challenges for fourth place in Spielberg's canon, behind Close Encounters, ET and Jaws. Its power lies depressingly in special effects. How much credit should Spielberg take for the vicious and agile Velociraptor? Its name means 'fast stealer', and what it steals is scenes. We see one being born, looking both innocent and menacing, hell lying about it in its infancy: a triumph of art direction and modelling. Likewise, the thrilling scene when Neill and the children cower under an upturned tree as a herd of Gallimimi hurtle, Becher's Brook-style, overhead, was created by computer. The film itself is cloning life. You wonder why they didn't beam up the actors the same way. Spielberg has given us a wondrous night out but an ominous hint of cinema to come.