Make no mistake, we’re talking what Hollywood calls ”high concept” here. ”This is not a lizard,” Dr. Alan Grant announces to his brilliant and shapely assistant, Dr. Ellie Sattler, early in Michael Crichton’s new thriller, Jurassic Park. ”No three-toed lizard has walked on this planet for two hundred million years.” So what is it? Well, what would every kid (and half the adults) in America hope it is?
A little dinosaur of course! Grant is a paleontologist who has just been sent an X ray of an unidentified lizard from a remote beach in Costa Rica. Soon afterward, he and his assistant get a call from the eccentric head of a genetic engineering firm offering them each $20,000 a day to visit an isolated island off the coast of Central America. En route to this paradise the company plane also picks up Ian Malcolm, a fast-talking mathematician who specializes in chaos theory.
The chaos in question is the greatest theme park of them all. A team of profit-mad scientists has succeeded in recovering dinosaur DNA from the stomachs of blood-sucking insects preserved in fossilized tree sap. Having cloned 15 species of the prehistoric beasts, they plan to display them in the wild and get richer than the Rolling Stones. ”The commercialization of molecular biology,” Crichton warns us in his convincing preface to the story, ”is the most stunning ethical event in the history of science” — doubly dangerous because ”there are no detached observers. Everybody has a stake.”
Now you’d think that anybody who’s ever failed to confine a determined beagle to the backyard could guess that a Tyrannosaurus rex might pose a more formidable problem for a theme park. If Crichton were serious about displaying the dangers of genetic engineering, you’d think he’d have tried something a bit more plausible: chickens as big as Shetland ponies, maybe.
But why be a spoilsport? Filled with diverting, up-to-date information in easily digestible form, Jurassic Park is hard to beat for sheer intellectual entertainment. Warm-blooded and more like birds in their movements than reptiles, Crichton’s dinosaurs are far more intelligent — hence far more dangerous — than, say, Godzilla or the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. If the novel’s obligatory tyrannosaurus behaves almost as mechanistically as his cousins on the Saturday morning cartoons, Crichton does a more convincing job with a smaller species of carnivores called velociprators, which hunt in packs like wolves.
When it comes to human beings, unfortunately, Crichton’s characterization is purely skeletal. Once he gets the cast assembled on the island and things start to go wrong, the conventions of a thousand action/adventure films take over and the plot becomes entirely predictable. Crichton can’t kill off the dinosaur expert, the two kids who get lost with him, nor Dr. Sattler, the paleobotanist with the great gams. Malcolm, the chaos theorist, must survive at least long enough to deliver the moral: ”You decide you’ll control nature, and from that moment on you’re in deep trouble, because you can’t do it…Your powers are much less than your dreams of reason would have you believe.” Which pretty much leaves a passel of greedy scientists, computer experts, lawyers, public-relations people, and other minor functionaries to be devoured before the slam-bang conclusion.
Ingenious, but not entirely satisfying. C+