COVER

Myths in the park

Spielberg recreates the world of dinosaurs with uncanny realism

Brian D. Johnson June 14 1993
COVER

Myths in the park

Spielberg recreates the world of dinosaurs with uncanny realism

Brian D. Johnson June 14 1993

Myths in the park

Spielberg recreates the world of dinosaurs with uncanny realism

The scenario has an eerie symmetry. American author Michael Crichton writes Jurassic Park, a best-selling novel about scientists who clone living dinosaurs from ancient DNA to create a tourist attraction, a cross between a zoo and a theme park. The story, in which the dinosaurs run amok and start eating people, reads like a Steven Spielberg movie-a prehistoric Jaws. Even before the book is published, in 1990, Spielberg, the Tyrannosaurus rex of Hollywood directors, snaps up the screen rights with Universal Pictures. In his own way, he replicates what the scientists in the story do. With special ef fects, he brings dinosaurs back to life with uncanny re alism, turning prehistory into pop culture. The theme park director in the film boasts that he has "spared no expense" in creating an attraction that "will capture the imagination of the entire planet." Neither has Spielberg. And with his movie, the scenario comes full circle-all that is needed to complete the picture is a Jurassic ride at a Universal Studios theme park.

Jurassic Park is an event—a must-see attraction for anyone who has ever stared at those silent museum skeletons and wondered what dinosaurs might have looked like in the flesh. It is such a staggering spectacle that its shortcomings seem almost beside the point. And as the movie thunders into North American theatres this week, it seems safe to predict that it is going to be huge. Everything about it is larger than life. The $75-million budget. The marketing campaign with the McDonald’s tie-in. The merchandising blitz of spin-off products, from lunch boxes to lip balm. And the stars—not Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dem, Sam Neill or Sir Richard Attenborough—but the more costly and charismatic creatures that tower over them. Jurassic Park is a monument to bigness. Even the writer is big. Crichton stands six feet, nine inches tall. When he walks across a room, it is with an accommodating stoop, as if he is ducking invisible branches. And with the highest profile of any novelist in JÉjjj*. Hollywood, Crichton is looking forward to a monster summer. The 50-year-old author, who has also worked as a director, sold the Jurassic Park rights for $1.9 million and co-wrote the script for $625,000. Next month, he has another best-seller hitIk ting the screen—Rising Sun, which stars Sean * Connery in a murder mystery with a controversial message about the dangers of unbridled Japanese investment. Cautionary tales in the form of technothrillers are Crichton’s specialty (The Andromeda Strain, Westworld). And in Jurassic Park, he uses the metaphor of dinosaur cloning to voice his concerns about the dangers of genetic engineering in particular

and of technology in general.

The book began as “a fantasy premise” 10 years ago, says Crichton, “but since then, technology advanced enough that I began to believe it myself.” Taking part in interviews last week along with the movie’s cast and crew in Los Angeles,

Crichton said that in writing the book and making the movie, he and Spielberg had

the same challenge: making the dinosaurs convincing. ‘There are no dinosaurs, and genetic engineers are not about to make them,” said the author. “It can’t be done. In that sense, the premise is even more unlikely than E.T.’s. But one of the ways I can convince you is to be graphic in a Stephen King way—to show that these are real creatures that can hurt you.”

As a result, Jurassic Park, unlike E.T., is not for the whole family. It is much less violent than the book, which contains grisly descriptions of evisceration. But it has scenes too intense and terrifying for young children. Hollywood has finally succeeded in making dinosaurs real enough to seem both awesome and scary. With computer graphics and animatronics—electronically controlled models—Jurassic Park takes special effects to a new stage of evolution. And the movie, which cost more than has ever been spent on a dinosaur research project, invests paleontology with fresh glamor.

The story is a sweetened, stripped-for-speed version of Crichton’s ominous novel. Attenborough brings an avuncular warmth to the role of John Hammond, a deluded entrepreneur who clones dinosaurs for fun and profit—using DNA extracted from the blood of prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber. New Zealand actor Sam Neill adopts an American accent to play Dr. Alan Grant, whose character is based partly on real-life Montana paleontologist John Horner. Grant champions the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, fast-moving creatures that nurtured their young and were more closely related to birds than to lizards.

Homer served as the movie’s scientific consultant. Spielberg was adamant about authenticity according to Phil Tippett, dinosaur supervisor on the special effects team. “We didn’t want it to turn into a monster movie,” he said. “The goal was always to be sanctioned by the paleontological community.”

In a similar vein, Hammond recruits experts to endorse his DNA-saur paradise. He flies Grant and his colleague, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dem), to the jungle island off Costa Rica where he has built Jurassic Park as a highly automated jungle ride. Joining them is mathematician Ian Malcolm (played with sardonic zest by Jeff Goldblum), who is convinced that Hammond’s venture is doomed to end in chaos. Hammond’s grandchildren, Alexis and Tim (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello), complete the tour party.

A chain reaction of mishaps, compounded by a tropical storm and a saboteur at the main computer terminal, turn the tour into a nightmare. Along the way, the movie parodies the Orwellian atmosphere of theme parks like those run by Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and

Hollywood, where Spielberg movies such as Jaws and E. T. have been turned into rides. The script also mocks greedy Hollywood merchandising, with images of Jurassic Park lunchboxes and thermos bottles— the same kind of products that are being licensed by the film-makers.

In the end, the movie and the marketing become inseparable. The film, like its promotional campaign, is shrewdly designed to unveil the dinosaurs in stages, without giving too much away in advance. If focuses on six species, each with its own personality. The long-necked Brachiosaurus is a benign, beautiful vegetarian that inspires awe and

affection. But the man-sized Velociraptors— swift, vicious and smart enough to open doors— are the villains of the piece. Tyrannosaurus rex, meanwhile, is the most spectacular beast, a carcrunching Godzilla with a heart of gold.

To create the dinosaurs, special effects wizards came up with a seamless blend of computer graphics and live-action models, which included a 9,000-lb., 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex. In some scenes, the actors had to play to empty space that would later be filled by computer images. “Steven directed it like a silent film,” said Goldblum. “He would say, ‘Look up there and laugh like a seven-year-old boy,’ and they’d have a big stick with a crude dino drawing. But the Triceratops was real, with 15 guys operating it. One was doing the breathing, one was doing the blinking, one was doing the tongue.”

The story has two movements: the build-up and the chase. The first part offers some amusing dialogue and a zippy cartoon spoof that explains the premise. But Goldblum’s irreverent character, the only one not overshadowed by the dinosaurs, goes on the disabled list midway through the plot. Many of the secondary characters simply disappear without explanation. And once the dinosaurs are on the rampage, concern for character and dialogue is crushed by relentless action sequences. Some of them are breathtaking—notably a scene in which T-rex gobbles up a man sitting on a toilet seat. But, as usual,

Spielberg errs on the side of overkill. To Crichton’s relief, however, the movie does not portray the explicit gore of the book. “In a book, you are your own film-maker,” says the writer, “and you’ll see what you want to see. In a movie you are being shown images that you can’t control. If you see intestines pour out, you go, ‘How do they do it?’ ”

But the violence is still strong enough to present a dilemma for parents. Crichton says that he considers the movie unsuitable for children aged 6 and under. “In the questionable area of 6 to 8, I have two sugScenes from the $75-million blockbuster Jurassic Park; the computer graphics and electronic puppetry take special effects to a new level, but the movie is not for the whole

gestions,” he advises. “If they have seen Terminator 2, then they can see this. The other suggestion is go see it first and decide for yourself.” Crichton adds that he has to deal with the problem in his own house. “I’ve got a four-year-old running around going, ‘Jurassic Parkl Jurassic Parkl’ but she is not going to see this movie.” As Hollywood clones Jurassic Park into a dizzying array of commercial artifacts, the story’s serious subtext may get lost in the dust. But the book has generated interest, and even research, in the scientific community, says Crichton. “One of the first readers was a well-known molecular biologist. This friend of mine gave him the book and happened to be there when he finished it. The guy slammed it shut and said, ‘It can be done!’ This was reported to me with great amusement. And I’m going, ‘Nol’ The whole point of the book is that it shouldn’t be done.” But Crichton does not expect the movie to be controversial. “I ran into Bob Swanson, who is one of the founders of Genentech [a leading bio-engineering firm]. You know what he

asked me? ‘Is the movie good? Can you believe the dinosaurs? How scary is it? Can I take my kids?’ ” And as Jurassic Park opens for business, that kind of curiosity should make it a winner in the natural selection of the summer box office.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON