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)