Mother Nature puts flesh on Spielberg's monsters: Robert Block on a find that makes fact of dinosaur fiction

WHEN the weeks of painstaking preparations were completed last July, the dinosaur hunters made public their discovery. And what they announced was at once wonderful and horrible.

In the badlands of eastern Utah they had unearthed the bones of a 20ft-long, 1,500lb killer, armed with steak-knife teeth and a 15in slashing claw on each hindfoot. The press immediately declared that the new dinosaur, named Utahraptor, had replaced Tyrannosaurus Rex as the meanest, most fearsome creature ever to have walked the earth.

Three months later, in October, two teams of scientists, one at the University of California and the other at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said they had made a breakthrough once imaginable only in science fiction novels: they had successfully extracted DNA fragments from insects fossilised inside chunks of amber. The building block of life had been found in creatures dead for more than 30 million years.

These discoveries stirred the imaginations of millions of science fiction readers and dinosaur lovers around the world. But to film director Steven Spielberg the news was more than just amazing; it was as if fate and Mother Nature had joined his public relations team. Here was life imitating art.

Spielberg and a team of technicians were in the middle of trying to turn Michael Crichton's best-seller Jurassic Park into the most accurate dinosaur movie that current knowledge permitted. However, some licence was taken.

In Crichton's book, a mad millionaire commissions a scientist to bring dinosaurs back to life for a theme park. The scientist does so by cloning the beasts from DNA found in a blood-sucking insect preserved in amber. It was great story material, but bad science. At least, that was the case until October. While the scientists agree that the possibility of cloning anything bigger than bacteria remains fantasy, the idea of reviving ancient life in the lab no longer seems that far-fetched.

Then there was the commotion over Velociraptor, the sickle-clawed arch-villian of Jurassic Park. In reality, the agile pack-hunter which roamed the plains of Mongolia 80 million years ago was about 6ft tall - too small for a big screen bad guy, Spielberg deemed. He decided to make the reptile twice as big and risk the ire of hard-core enthusiasts.

Suddenly, like manna from dinosaur heaven, came the discovery of Utahraptor, a closely related reptile about the same size as the movie monster. Spielberg's reputation as a champion of Mesozoic accuracy was more or less intact. 'We were the cutting edge,' Stan Winston, the film's chief dinosaur model-maker, said jokingly to an American film critic. 'After we created it, they discovered it.'

The upshot is that when Jurassic Park hits cinemas in Europe this July it will boast the most sophisticated, life-like dinosaurs that dollars 60m (pounds 40m) can buy and modern animatronics and computer animation can create.

'It is clearly state of the art, beyond Terminator 2,' said Jurassic Park producer Kathleen Kennedy. 'It's unique because you are dealing with real, moving things. As we move closer in technology to create eating, breathing things, we're making a fascinating breakthrough. What you'll see is very real - completely real.'

Well, not quite. But dinosaur experts who advised the film-makers would agree with a spokeswoman for Spielberg when she says: 'No other dinosaur movie has been truer to life.'

Dinosaurs have been roaming around the imaginations of young and old alike ever since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins unveiled his life-size reconstructions of the beasts at the Crystal Palace in 1853. They are a never-ending source of pop culture fascination. They have shed their image as dim-witted flesh mountains doomed to failure, and have been rehabilitated as evolutionary success stories. Dinosaurs occupy that wild place where science, fantasy, showmanship and commerce intersect. By the time summer is over, that place may forever be known as Jurassic Park.

MCA-Universal has a lot riding on the film. If it flops, it will be felt deep inside the ranks of Universal studio, whose only recent hit has been Scent of a Woman. Spielberg also needs a boost after his 1991 feature Hook failed to live up to industry expectations. That is why no one is leaving anything to chance. Jurassic Park has a marketing and promotion budget of dollars 65m, one dollar for each year the dinosaurs have been extinct, making it the biggest movie-marketing crusade ever launched.

Ken Green, the head of promotions for United International Pictures (UIP), said that although the budget for promotion in the UK had yet to be finalised, 'Jurassic Park would have the biggest advance publicty budget ever spent in the country'. Expressions such as 'Jurassictastic' will soon be popping up everywhere. Jurassic Park has already started jostling with Columbia Pictures' Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, for lucrative summer audiences. Jurassic Park lost the first big battle of the struggle when Columbia outbid Universal to have the Hero logo put on an unmanned Nasa rocket next month.

It is in marketing, however, that Jurassic Park appears to have the edge. MCA has sold more than 100 licences for 1,000 Jurassic Park products. No one will say how much is at stake, but, for comparison, the successful 1989 licensing programme for Batman sold about dollars 500m worth of goodies. Jurassic tie-in products will include action figures, sleeping bags, computer games, clothing and accessories.

The heavily protected logo for the film - a silhouette of a roaring Tyrannosaurus skeleton - is the heart of the promotion programme, according to Zoe McCrudden at UIP. It will be seen throughout the film, appearing on the side of park vehicles, on park employee uniforms, everywhere it can fit. 'Never before has the name and logo been a plot point in a movie to this extent,' said John Hornick, vice-president and creative director at MCA-Universal Merchandising.

However, unlike Ninja Turtles, dinosaurs are not trademarked and there will be plenty of manufacturers trying to cash in on the film. There are at least four 'dinosploitation' films in the works, reviving a film genre that has been absent for almost 30 years.

Hollywood has had an on-again, off-again love affair with dinosaurs, going right back to the pioneering days of commercial film-making. They had their silver screen debut in 1915, when Willis O'Brien pushed clay figures in front of a stop-motion camera to bring his obsession to life in a five-minute short entitled The Dinosaur and the Missing Link. He repeated the feat in 1919 with The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and again in 1925 with The Lost World, adpated from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous novel. His crowning achievement was, of course, King Kong in 1933, still considered to be one of the greatest special effects movies of all time.

In all these films, and even in some of the later ones, such as One Million BC in 1966 (more famous for a scantily clad Raquel Welch than its Mesozoic monsters), dinosaurs were portayed as slow, plodding, stupid reptiles. Jurassic Park will go a long way to correct this outdated image.

But, at its heart, Jurassic Park is firmly in the tradition of all the films and stories about dinosaurs, its central premise being that, if we search long and hard enough, we will find not just dinosaur bones but dinosaurs themselves.

(Photographs omitted)