REVIEW: Jurassic Park III [2001]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: July 18th, 2001 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Joe Johnston
Writer(s): Peter Buchman and Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor / Michael Crichton (characters)

“No force on Earth or Heaven could get me on that island”

It’s almost ironic to discover David Koepp—screenwriter of the franchise’s previous two installments—was the one to think up the “simpler” story concept that Peter Buchman (with revisions by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) ultimately built upon for Jurassic Park III. The man responsible for adapting The Lost World into an overstuffed cash-grab of a bloated sequel swooped in just weeks before another fully storyboarded and ready-to-go draft went into production with the advice to condense its focus. You have to wonder then if Steven Spielberg was the real cause of the creative drop-off from Jurassic Park. Either he prevented Koepp from paring down the follow-up’s dueling narratives and return to survivalist storytelling or the screenwriter learned from his mistakes to reclaim some of the original’s magic.

I wish I could leave out the word “some” and say Joe Johnston‘s (a former Industrial Light and Magic guy who petitioned his friend Spielberg for the job) third chapter is the continuation we deserved. But alas, it’s not. While much better than the ill-fated The Lost World, it’s still little more than an adventure ride of vicarious thrills. It’s more straightforward with a welcome infusion of humanity courtesy of Amanda (Téa Leoni) and Paul Kirby’s (William H. Macy) reckless decision to launch a search party for their son Eric (Trevor Morgan) on Isla Sorna, but its over-arching purpose is still an effect of the complex machinations of author Michael Crichton‘s beloved novel rather than a new propulsive thrust. It proves how some masterpieces are better left alone.

If you were going to wrongly distill Jurassic Park‘s success to its action alone, however, this is what would result. Eric (along with Mark Harelik‘s family friend Ben Hildebrand) would stray too close to the dinosaur-infested island on an adrenaline rush of a lark and find himself stranded until someone with the guts to ignore all warnings could find him. With the Costa Rican and American governments unwilling to assist the Kirbys, they have to desperately go outside the box and more or less kidnap via extortion a guide who knows what can be expected within a world of the unexpected. That man is a research money-strapped Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) who agrees to this sightseeing trip gone awry before his benefactors explain their intent to land.

With this trio are Grant’s young colleague Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola) and the Kirbys’ hired hands of Udesky (Michael Jeter), Cooper (John Diehl), and Nash (Bruce A. Young). We can imagine which of them will eventually prove to be better used as food, but Johnston and company waste no time in showing us instead. So from the moment they touch down on Isla Sorna soil, the film becomes a breathless race to take cover and avoid a now scientifically proven smarter pack of Velociraptors and a giant dorsal-finned carnivore known as Spinosaurus—along with T-Rexes, a gaggle of Compsognathus, and Pterodactyls. Will they find the boy? Will they be able to protect him let alone themselves? Is a death-defying escape even possible if they can do it all?

Nothing about what happens is subtle as themes of parenthood and relationships are constantly laid on thick. We catch an early glimpse of Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) for no reason besides showing her happily married with children to reintroduce Grant as forever engaged to his work. His feelings for Billy go beyond those of a teacher as he holds him like a son to bestow wisdom and help flourish. But these clearly conceived weak attempts at psychology are nothing compared to the paralleling of Amanda and Paul’s search for their son against Raptors chasing them in pursuit of their eggs. You could read the whole as an elaborate test put on by Grant the marriage counselor to remind the Kirbys what truly matters most in their lives.

Luckily there are enough distractions courtesy of suspenseful scenarios that pit the cast opposite predators they cannot defeat to turn our attention away from the poorly executed melodrama. Johnston adds a little Jumanji homage at one point when a stranger appears in the forest to save Grant from sure death, the fight within the aviary is suitably tense as the battle leaves land, and some of the chase scenes do feel dangerous in their quickness rather than drawn-out and boring. If not for the increase in on-screen violence, I’d say Jurassic Park III is the most family-friendly in scope as far as pacing and excitement go. Neill’s Alan Grant shows how much we missed a teacherly figure as guide during the second film’s quip-fest led by Ian Malcolm.

The stuff about the how the Raptors might communicate with each other lends some added sci-fi intrigue along with the existence of the Spinosaurus (despite its species never showing up on any of InGen’s genetic stable lists), but it’s never enough to deliver something new beyond the island’s already well-developed conceit. Rather than advance the mythos Crichton started (and his own rushed sequel didn’t do so either), this installment exposes how the franchise was firmly planted in a rut of telling shallow stories within a world apparently mined clean. The reignition of stakes thankfully regains our interest whether or not the end shows they were all for show, but we still find ourselves watching a disaster movie squandering the potential it once had for commentary and intelligence.

And with the rumored half-dinosaur/half-human hybrid bandied about for a never-made fourth entry, I’m glad Spielberg and team acknowledged they were grasping at straws. This property isn’t like Crichton’s Westworld with creations cognizant and “human” enough to take control of the narrative. We can’t watch this world from the dinosaurs’ minds as they decide to hold their false Gods accountable. Despite Jurassic Park‘s complexity, it was about teaching humanity a self-contained lesson. The only avenue for continuation was to move from hubris to stupidity and luck—a change devoid of merit beyond mindless carnage. We needed a reboot like Jurassic World to recall what made the original so great, but the jury remains out on if they can succeed where Spielberg failed in sustaining more meaningful plotlines.

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