Jurassic Park III (2001)

D: Joe Johnston
S: Sam Neill, Tea Leoni

Cheerfully unpretentious sequel to Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park which retreads most of the same material only with greater brevity and more wit. Dino expert Sam Neill (Event Horizon) is suckered into a trip to Isla Sorna, the In-Gen breeding factory featured in the last movie. He's supposed to be a tour guide, but things quickly begin to turn sour as his would-be benefactors, rich couple William H. Macy (Boogie Nights) and Tea Leoni (Deep Impact), are revealed to have a hidden agenda and the island itself proves to have hitherto unguessed dangers in the form of secretly bred killer dinos.

No longer weighted down by expectation after the negative reception of its most immediate predecessor (which still made tons of money), Jurassic Park III feels like a film which is more comfortable with itself than either of the first two. Where Spielberg and his screenwriters laboured over complex filming logistics, cutting edge effects technology, establishing a convincing scientific basis for the action, and ensuring that the themes of parenthood, risk, and ethics were thoroughly worked through, substitute director Joe Johnston (Jumanji) and screenwriters Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (Election), and Peter Buchman neither bother nor care. The film covers much of the same thematic ground, focusing on 'neglectful' parents (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and an anxious expert on the past faced with the future in the present (Jurassic Park). It has similar action scenes, naturally, all on the same basic theme of man vs. dino (with occasional dino vs. dino action for variety's sake). It also has the audience's familiarity with the 'world' of these films to date to work with, and enough of resources to have a bit of fun with it. If Jurassic Park was essentially a monster movie and The Lost World: Jurassic Park was a white hunter adventure pic, Jurassic Park III is a Saturday afternoon jungle adventure serial from a low-rent studio circa 1930. It moves fast, doesn't labour its points, and ensures that there are doses of violent action about every eight minutes or so before running out the clock on the hour and a half mark (which by today's standards is about the equivalent of a 60 minute programmer in the old days).

Arguably, this is the most entertaining film of the bunch. It revels in its own ability to play fast and loose with this concept and frequently pokes fun at its 'weightier' elder brothers. In one key scene Neill and lost child Trevor Morgan converse on the subject of books by Neill's character compared to that of Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm. The kid remarks that Malcom's were "too preachy". It doesn't take much of a stretch to see this as a comment on Spielberg's hamfisted thematic ranting in the previous pictures. Throwing all caution to the wind, the effects team have designed dinosaurs which use the same basic technology and learning which informed the others, but they've added all kinds of visual and behavioural wrinkles just to make it a better show. We get Pterodactyls and talking Raptors, stripey animals with mohawks, and pretty much anything else that might look cool in an action scene regardless of whether or not it might have really looked that way (another early scene establishes that "John Hammond bred theme park monsters", not 'real' dinosaurs, thus effectively allowing the film to dump the zoology lessons and get on with the mayhem). There's even a beastie which out-guns the T-Rex, and it is introduced almost immediately then brought back into the fray several times afterwards with the benefit of a very amusing sound gag best seen (or is that heard?) to be appreciated.

Ironically though, the only thing the film is missing is Spielberg's directorial deftness and skill with images. Joe Johnston is a serviceable enough helmsman here, and he has steered the franchise quite nicely into what scarcely looks like its nadir. Yet funny though it might be and entertaining though it is, there is no scene in the film which has the ability to work its way into your visual imagination as moments from the others did. Spielberg's painstaking preparations did pay off, not just in that he manufactured two blockbusters pretty much to order, but in that his staging of those complicated action scenes often made them more than just hackmanship. Scenes such as the first appearance and attack of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and the trailer assault and the Raptor attack in the long grass in The Lost Word: Jurassic Park have a way of sticking with you and lend themselves to repeated viewing to marvel at the dynamics of how they were achieved. Of course it all came at the aforementioned price of an excess of gravity and ponderousness, and this film eschews such gamesmanship.

Jurassic Park III is a lot of fun. It's a refreshingly honest adventure which shows up the flaws in its predecessors all the more clearly without necessarily losing touch with their strengths. The script is clever enough to ensure you are in on the gag, but noble enough not to stick its tongue out at the audience entirely. It doesn't deconstruct Jurassic Park to make some kind of ironic postmodernist jibe, it just takes the concept and runs with it as entertainment for the first time in the history of the franchise. The movie is consistent in tone and provides high-adventure thrills and spills on the scale of the old serials in a way Spielberg did once, but not recently. It also has lots of laughs, including an hilarious illustration of why watching Barney the dinosaur can be bad for your health and tips for the handling of T-Rex urine. You're not meant to take the film very seriously, so don't: but you can enjoy it safe in the knowledge that Johnston and his writers have realised like Joel McCrea's character in Sullivan's Travels that the show must go on.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.