"Jurassic Park" does for live-action critters what "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" did for toons. In that sense, it's a cinematic landmark, but in terms of plot and character, it's about as well developed as "Godzilla." The human actors are little more than Spielberg's designated dinosaur-gawkers. Jaws suitably agape, they simulate awe for the arrival of every skyscraping beast.
Crichton's cautionary tale has been altered to reflect Spielberg's sappy sensibilities, but the premise remains implausibly monstrous: Dinosaurs get a second chance at world dominance when a shortsighted billionaire developer, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), stocks his Costa Rican theme park with a variety of humongous Mesozoic has-beens. Talk about raiding the lost ark.
The wondrous menagerie has been cloned from blood cells found in the stomachs of fossilized mosquitoes. There are what the kids of the cast (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello, as Hammond's grandchildren) call the "veggiesaurs" -- herds of lowing, long-necked brachiosaurs and gallivanting, fleet-footed gallimimuses. And there are the "meatasaurs," like the sweetly chirping dilophosaurus, who seems E.T. sweet till she spits a blinding poison loogie in your face. Parents, these things have big, long teeth and a powerful hunger for the young ones. There's a reason for the rating: Under 13, be well advised.
The fiendishly clever velociraptors, who turn out to be smarter than we knew, have been testing the electrified pen around their compound for weakness. Mother Nature has been messed with, and there'll be a major payback when these Frankenstein's monsters go on a rampage.
But first the bait.
Sam Neill, a renowned paleontologist, and Laura Dern, his kissing colleague, represent the human race in this battle of big-time species. While working out their feelings over childbirth -- he's against -- they are invited to inspect the mysterious park when Hammond's investors, concerned about safety, threaten to abandon the project.
They are joined by an amicably twitchy lawyer (Martin Ferrero) and the resident doomsayer, Jeff Goldblum. A glib, flirty mathematician obsessed with the Chaos Theory -- an uptown version of Murphy's Law -- he regales the group with his forecasts for ecological disaster. "The lack of humility displayed before nature staggers me," he adds. "Dinosaurs had their shot and nature selected them for extinction." That's as deep as it gets -- not counting the re-creation of the Jurassic equivalent of fresh, steaming meadow muffins.
The mathematician's dire predictions are completely disregarded, and the next morning the group, joined by Hammond's grandchildren, set off to tour the rain-forested park. When a tropical storm hits and the computers go down, the dinos escape their no-longer-electrified paddocks and attack the tour group.
First to arrive is a four-story tyrannosaurus rex that looks from jeep to jeep with the studied expression of a chow hound at the Sizzler's food court. Hmm. There's the jeep with the scientists, and there's the one with the lawyer and the kids. He stomps and roars and stomps and roars, then a synapse in that giant brain finally fires: "Dat's it. First we eat the lawyers." Chomp.
With the paleontologist's help, the kids narrowly escape Mr. T's claws in what is the first of an increasingly intense series of close encounters. His girlfriend, who has gone off to help reset the circuit breakers, is glad to see that he's getting along so well with the kids when they are reunited for a climactic brouhaha with the graceful and cunning raptors. Thanks to this feisty surrogate family, ecological devastation is narrowly averted.
The children, a brave and resourceful pair, are well-nigh constantly in grave danger -- but the film isn't so much graphic as it is harrowing. After a slow, expository opening sequence, the pace becomes nearly relentless. There's fodder for nightmares, sure, but the thing that's most scary is Spielberg's blatant merchandising of his junky "Jurassic" gewgaws.
Crichton, who wrote the screen adaptation with David Koepp ("The Apartment"), has tempered his characters' abrasive personalities and spared many from the dino-jaws. Hammond is an obsessed visionary in the book, but Attenborough plays him more as an incompetent Colonel Sanders, and the obstreperous Chaos theoretician is merely insouciant, which Goldblum works to happy advantage. Whole segments of the park population sometimes just disappear, and plot lines often dangle like the cables ripped from their moorings by the berserk antiheroes. But then again, who cares -- it saurs.
Jurassic Park, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for violence.