It’s not one of Jeff Goldblum’s rock star moments as “Jurassic Park” chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, but still, we remember the line. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [create dinosaurs],” he tells Richard Attenborough’s entrepreneurial dreamer, John Hammond, “they didn’t stop to think if they should.” A similar bit of finger-wagging might apply to the movie itself. We’re not talking about the 3-D conversion done for this weekend’s 20th-anniversary reissue (more on that later), but about the scary magic Steven Spielberg’s crew conjured up in the first place.
“Jurassic,” of course, is a visual-effects landmark, a film that achieved such startling digital breakthroughs that Spielberg himself was dazzled and, mid-production, drastically scaled back plans to use more high-level puppetry. After “Jaws,” where every bit of effects work had been a notorious creative concession, it made him giddy to be able to craft a creature feature the way he pictured it in his head.
But “Jaws” wasn’t a movie for children. (It just dangled them as shark bait.) “Jurassic,” despite its PG-13 rating, does want to attract that crowd. It’s not billed as a thriller, but as “an adventure.” It visually articulates kids’ innate dino-fixation by loading up on transportive, savanna-like shots of “veggiesauruses” benignly grazing, all set to John Williams’s majestic score. Michael Crichton and David Koepp’s script departs from Crichton’s novel by more brightly spotlighting Hammond’s grandkids (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello), having them navigate the finale with improbable, tech-savvy resourcefulness calculated to make peers cheer. Sam Neill’s hero paleontologist experiences (surrogate) parenting moments clearly meant to resonate with a family audience. And then, leaving nothing to the imagination, the filmmakers show us, say, Hammond’s cowering lawyer getting his head chomped off by a T-rex. Because they can. Might it have been advisable to opt for “Jaws”-like suggestion more often, considering who Universal marketers are so eagerly putting in the seats?
Quick point of clarification: I’m a fan of this movie. It is thrilling, and the 3-D treatment is a nice enhancement. (Moments like a raptor leaping at the ceiling can feel processed, but that tyrannosaurus-in-the-sideview-mirror gag is sharper than ever.) It’s a testament to Spielberg’s storytelling virtuosity that what we’re seeing still feels so intense. But the crazily veering mix of terror and family-friendly wonderment continues to make this one of his more curious works, as imperfectly spliced as those frog-laced strands of dino DNA. Spielberg isn’t serving up some isolated iffy moment here, like Elliott blurting “penis breath” in “E.T.” Questionable judgment runs throughout. You wonder if the more consistently dark tone of the Tom Cruise-Dakota Fanning “War of the Worlds” remake was Spielberg’s acknowledgment that his tested-family dynamic needed fine-tuning.
Thankfully, “Jurassic” didn’t traumatize my grade schooler to the point of a 2 a.m. I-can’t-sleep visit. But when he leaned over at a couple of points to ask, “How much longer?,” it wasn’t because he was jonesing for more concessions candy. We’ll be keeping that reaction in mind when “Jurassic Park IV,” from indie director Colin Trevorrow, rolls out in the next year or so.