Jurassic Park

Starring Sam Neil, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum. Rated 14 years.

It was the summer of 1960, and I was sweating with excitement. In the line-up of a Manhattan movie theatre, my cousins and I and hundreds of other palpitating kids were funnelling into the matin?e premi?re of The Lost World. Ablaze with fantasies of bigger-than-life dinosaurs stomping the likes of Michael Rennie, David Hedison, and Jill St. John (well, maybe not her) on an island that time forgot, we settled into what would eventually become a routine theatrical experience: enticement, elation, and intense concentration, followed all too quickly by disenchantment, stupefaction, and, ultimately, a brave face. "Well, that was pretty good," someone would mutter after the latest dino-stinker, and a few diehards would stay for a second screening, convinced that their illusions could somehow grow stronger through repeated scrutiny.

Obviously, this scenario applies to all types of Hollywood trash, but there's something uniquely emblematic about these cut-and-paste dinosaur sagas. Even more now than in the hysterical Cold War era, the big studios resemble lumbering, pea-brained behemoths, intent on surviving every abasement evolution hands them, whatever the cost. And the cost is high when Steven Spielberg is in charge. One of those kids who wouldn't leave the theatre, little Stevie clearly went gaga over every effect and never decoded the most basic messages about plot construction (if you doubt this, try to sit through his "serious" film, Empire of the Sun).

Even when he's taking off from hit fiction like Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, Spielberg refuses to let eggheaded conceits like literary texture or arresting characterization get in the way of pure kinetic experience. It's the purity of a vacuum. In this box-office monster, the thrills come fast and furious and utterly without grace. The dazzlingly designed and animated critters are breathtaking to behold, and the bad ones–like the razor-clawed velociraptors and everyone's favourite, T. rex–are nearly, but not quite, as nasty as the bad guys in Cliffhanger (we're talking major nightmares for toddlers). It's the rest of the movie that sucks.

Sam Neill juts his jaw manfully and Laura Dern contorts her mouth Dern-fully as a pair of scientists beckoned by a Spielbergesque showman (Richard Attenborough, with a tatty Scottish accent) to inspect his unique wildlife preserve off the coast of Costa Rica. In (potentially) the most interesting role, a leather-clad Jeff Goldblum plays a chaos-theory mathematician who comments on everything like some kind of rock 'n' roll rabbi. Why the wily entrepreneur wants last-minute input from these naysayers is anybody's guess, but the movie has barely started when human error kicks in. Thanks to a corrupt computer specialist, played by Seinfeld's rotund Wayne King (you keep waiting for Jerry to walk into the lab and spit, "Hello, Newman"), the system soon goes haywire and our heroes are like so many bon-bons at the dino drive-in.

Fortunately for the nicer humans, they're accompanied by a couple of cute-smart kids (Ariana Richards and Radio Flyer's Joseph Mazzello), so you know they'll be okay–you just have no idea who they are. Spielberg slows down only long enough to postulate that this toothy crisis has been brought about by greed and ignorance. Of course, as all good materialists know, there's no stupid mistake that can't be overcome with more technology. This has been a constant theme of cheapjack sci-fi films from the '50s ("quick, get the radioactive isotopes") to the present. But the makers of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms never had the foresight to manufacture shiny plastic mugs and memorabilia, strewn with bright logos and photographed more lovingly than any being in Jurassic Park.