The SUVs that take visitors through the prehistoric theme park in Jurassic Park do not have drivers; they’re guided by a track that runs down the center of the trail. The movie itself has a driver – none less than director Steven Spielberg – but it too often feels as if it’s been set onto a predetermined path. Particularly in comparison to Jaws, Spielberg’s other monster movie, Jurassic Park is less of a story than an attraction. It’s mechanical.
Perhaps Jurassic Park was cursed in conception. It’s hard enough to make a summer tent-pole movie that feels like more than a thrill ride, let alone do it with one that’s set in a literal theme park. To be fair, Spielberg and screenwriters Michael Crichton and David Koepp try to give Jurassic Park a personal touch. But the harder they press those buttons – especially with a subplot in which child-averse paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) finds himself the sole protector of two kids when the dinos attack – the falser they ring. This idea of parental responsibility is a through-line in much of Spielberg’s work, of course, but here, alongside other signature touches such as the camera zooming into an awestruck close-up, it feels like Spielberg lite.
But then we get the Tyrannosaurus rex attack, one of the standout sequences in all of Spielberg’s work. Consider the witty editing: the first shot is of an empty leash dangling, letting us know that the sacrificial goat that had been there a few hours earlier has since become dinner. And then there is the rare patience: establishing shots of the area both build suspense and allow us to get our bearings, so that we can make sense of the action when the chaos comes. Spielberg also captures everything we’re meant to feel in a single image: the trembling cup of water, caused by the giant steps of the oncoming beast. And there is the powerful use of silence. Sometimes I appreciate John Williams the most when he’s gone.
Yet as much as you can point to the T-rex attack as a master class in action filmmaking, it still leaves a mechanized aftertaste. None of the characters involved really matter: not Neill’s scientist; not the two kids he’s with (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards); not Jeff Goldblum’s goofily “sexy” mathematician; not the company stooge (Martin Ferrero) who’s clearly dino chowder. Sure, we’ve gotten a bit of back story for some of them and the movie has gone to great lengths to make us understand that if Grant bonds with these kids, it means that he’ll agree to have some of his own with fellow scientist Laura Dern. But in the moment itself, as the T-rex attacks, they’re little more than pieces on Spielberg’s chess board, no different than the two SUVs and the dinosaur itself.
In Jaws, it felt as if the lives of real people were in grave danger, posed by a threat of which we could conceive. Jurassic Park straps a handful of Character Types into a roller-coaster car, secures the safety bar (we know those kids aren’t going to die) and sends them barreling down the tracks. There are a few frightening loops along the way, but we know where that track is going, and where it’s going to end. With a sequel, of course.