So, The Lost World was a bad movie and Steven Spielberg wisely abandoned the franchise after that. However, about four years later and after a lot of wrangling, Joe Johnston stepped in and delivered Jurassic Park III.
This is kind of an odd film. There’s definitely a sense of increased cheapness about it; like the filmmakers were setting their sights lower this time. Bad as The Lost World was, it felt like a big, prestigious blockbuster, filled with high-class stars, directed by a world-class director, and with a massive scope to it. Jurassic Park III feels like a B picture: something the studio wasn’t especially enthusiastic about and just kind of threw together. The effects are definitely a step down from the first two films (oddly enough), the dinosaur designs are noticeably different, and the writing is more ridiculous and cartoony. Again, Lost World had bad writing, but bad writing in a more sophisticated, self-important style. Jurassic Park III is more “wouldn’t it be cool if…” wouldn’t it be cool if there were another dinosaur bigger and tougher than the T-Rex and they had a big fight scene? Wouldn’t it be cool if the raptors were so smart they could talk to each other? Wouldn’t it be cool to have a big action scene with pterosaurs and a parasail?
Anyway, the plot is that, with the living dinosaurs on Isla Sorna public knowledge, Dr. Alan Grant (returning Sam Neil, doing a much better job at reprising his character than Jeff Goldblum) is having trouble getting anyone to fund his digs. That is, until the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) offer him an exorbitant amount of money to act as their guide during a fly-over of Isla Sorna. Grant accepts, but it turns out they actually intended to land and search for their lost son, Eric (Trevor Morgan), who disappeared in a parasailing accident some weeks previously. The plane is soon destroyed by a massive and ferocious Spinosaurus, stranding the group on the island.
Like I said, Jurassic Park III is pretty light stuff. The plot is flimsy; just another “how do we get off dinosaur island” thing (just like the second half of Lost World, though thankfully less obnoxious). Plot points are brought up and then dropped, and the extraneous ‘dead-meat’ characters are so obviously not needed that they barely even bother to set them up before offing them. There are some really stupid moments, and the whole thing collapses pretty quickly when you think about it.
And yet…honestly, I think it’s still better than The Lost World. It’s stupid, but it’s not insulting in that the characters we’re asked to empathize with are at least decent people with reasonable motivations. Yes, the Kirby’s basically kidnapped Grant, but they were desperate and not thinking clearly. Yes, Billy (Grant’s young assistant, played by Alessandro Nivola) does some really stupid things, but nothing criminal or malicious. In fact, there really aren’t any human bad guys at all, which is kind of refreshing.
Likewise the lighter, more cartoony writing, while sometimes annoying, at least makes less of an impact when it fails. Seeing a great director try to tell a truly awful story is more painful than seeing a journeyman director trying to tell a flimsy and kind of lame one. You can more easily get into the romp nature of the film when it doesn’t take itself so seriously. The Lost World was too mean-spirited for the dinosaur action to be really fun. Here, even when it’s goofy and ridiculous, it’s still at least appealing in a shallow kind of way.
Basically, Jurassic Park III shows much less skill than The Lost World, but for that very reason it goes down easier. It’s not good, but it’s at least pretty enjoyable for the most part.
Sam Neil is, of course, excellent as Alan Grant, despite the fact that he has so little to work with. The first movie was underwritten, but this…well, never mind. He’s Sam Neil: you could hand him a menu and he’d make something out of it. Same with Laura Dern, who briefly returns as Ellie Sattler. Here, by the way, we have the first of two very bizarre decisions that seem specifically designed to annoy fans. Ellie, we learn, has broken up with Alan and married someone else. Alan’s still a friend and apparently visits fairly frequently, and their relationship is something of a plot point in the film. So…why did the writers decide to do it this way? Was it because in the books they weren’t romantically involved? But those were the books: you kind of left those behind a while ago. I mean, we didn’t get a lot of development between them, but they had good chemistry (and still do) and the ending of the film seemed to imply that they had gotten over their one disagreement about kids and were on their way to making a life together. So again, what was the thinking behind this? In any case, I don’t like it, and I don’t think anyone who was a fan of the first movie would like it either. It just feels like a little flick in the eye from the filmmakers (“No, the characters you liked so much in the first film didn’t get the happy ending you thought they would. Too bad!”). But this is nothing compared to what’s to come.
Anyway, moving down the cast, there’s the very talented William H. Macy and the…kind of blank Tea Leoni. I don’t know, I’m sure she’s got talent, but she doesn’t really show much here. She just kind of stares straight ahead most of the time. Macy, honestly, doesn’t have much to do. He has some funny lines, but he’s clearly not trying very hard. Nivola as Billy is also kind of blank and not very interesting. Trevor Morgan, on the other hand, is actually pretty good. He’s older than the previous kid characters and more active (heck, he survived two months on dinosaur island all on his own). I actually think he gives a pretty darn good performance. The rest of the cast is pretty much just there to be dino-chow, so they’re not really worth talking about.
How about the dinosaurs? The big new face here is, of course, the Spinosaurus, and I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive beast. Huge, powerful, with long, crocodile-like jaws, massive arms, and a huge sail on its back, it’s easily a film highlight and makes a great ‘villain’ dinosaur.
On the other hand…
Not content to flick us in the eye by breaking up Grant and Sattler, the filmmakers then give the audience a good, sound kick in the nethers by having a huge, epic fight between the Tyrannosaurus and the Spinosaurus…and having the Spinosaurus win.
First of all, that’s stupid. Though it may have been larger (more on that below), the Spinosaurus was a fish-eater with long, relatively flimsy jaws while the T-Rex had one of the strongest bites in the history of the world. It would have ripped the Spinosaur’s head off with the first bite. Having the Spinosaurus break the T-Rex’s neck is even worse, as the T-Rex had an extremely thick, muscular neck while the Spinosaurus…didn’t. As someone said on TV Tropes, it’d be like having a heron break the neck of a bulldog.
Paleontology aside, there’s such a thing as audience goodwill. You don’t start off a sequel by killing one of the most beloved characters of the franchise, and especially not because you want to set up a new character as a replacement. It’s patronizing, insulting, and downright cruel to the audience. We’ve spent two movies with the T-Rex. The T-Rex was the big, powerful, awesome counterpart to the nasty raptors. We liked seeing the raptors die because they were just hateful little buggers, but never wanted the T-Rex to die because it was just too cool and too impressive. The T-Rex was basically the hero of the series: the one the audience always came to see. Killing it off in such a stupid way two minutes after it made its appearance just to set up the Spinosaurus as its replacement is about the best way I can think of to alienate your fan base.
Now, obviously they would have to have a fight between the two creatures, but it should have been the film’s climax and should have ended with the T-Rex winning. The characters could have been alternatively chased by each dinosaur, the Spinosaurus could have been established as being bigger and more brutal, thus putting the T-Rex at an apparent disadvantage, leading to an epic battle of the titans in which the villain of the piece would be dispatched just as our heroes escape. It would have been a twist on the first film’s ending and would have finished off on a high note.
As it is, the fight itself is cool, but the ending is infuriating, and really, nothing else that follows can top that fight. This is made even more apparent by the fact that the film doesn’t even have a climax. There’s one last encounter with the Spinosaurus, then an encounter with the raptors, then they escape. The film doesn’t so much end as it just kind of peters out.
One more thing on the Spinosaurus, and you can’t really blame this on the filmmakers. Recent discoveries have shown that it didn’t actually look like that. Rather than standing on long, powerful legs like a T-Rex, the Spinosaurus actually had rather pathetically tiny back legs so that it was more like an enormous crocodile than anything. A bit of a disappointment, really, since the Spinosaur here really is an impressive creature, and I’m sorry to learn that it never really existed.
On to the raptors. They’re built up as being even smarter this time (why is never explained), able to communicate through an actual language, which leads to a really stupid scene where Grant is able to use a raptor-brain-shaped kazoo to sort-of communicate with them. I swear I’m not making that up.
Really, though, their new found super intelligence isn’t notably different from how they were in earlier films except in one or two scenes. It’s just another thing that’s set up, but never pays off. Certainly they’re nowhere near as intimidating as the matriarch from the first film.
The Pteranodons (who were not dinosaurs, by the way) are another film highlight. Okay, they weren’t quite that big and they couldn’t carry people around like that, but they’re cool and the film makes pretty good use of them. I especially love their introduction, with one of them walking slowly out of the mist, looking, for a split second, almost human. I also appreciate the filmmakers using a classic trope of a character being scooped up by the flyers to be fed to their babies.
A ceratosaurus shows up once for a very silly scene which completely wastes its awesome design. A couple of ankylosaurs amble by in one shot, and that’s really about it. There are a lot of background dinosaurs, but none of them make much of an impact. The only ones who really stand out are the Spinosaurus and the Pteranodons, which, to be fair, is more than the last film could manage.
Meanwhile, plot points just come and go. It’s noted early on that the Spinosaurus shouldn’t be on the island since InGen never made one. This is never explained or addressed again. The raptor’s increased intelligence is the focus of much of the early scenes, but nothing is ever made of it except a few quick gimmicks. Then there’s the fact that one character appears to die, but then appears alive at the end with no explanation whatsoever.
So, what else to say about Jurassic Park III? Not much. It’s light, stupid, but kind of fun. There’s some very cool dinosaur action, and the leads are at least decent company. It’s not worth seeing again and again, but as a ninety-minute time-waster, you could do worse.
Final Rating: 2.5/5: Not good, but pretty enjoyable nonetheles