Jurassic Park III
It may seem odd to criticize a summer movie for delivering the goods, but Jurassic Park III delivers the goods to the exclusion of anything else. The movie is the utmost in studio wish-fulfillment: You want raptors, we got ’em; you want dinosaurs you haven’t seen before, we got a huge Spinosaurus and flocks of Pteranodons; you want chase scenes, you want action, we got plenty of that. So why couldn’t I quite warm to this stripped-down dino-fest? Maybe because it feels totally animated by what Universal thinks — or hopes — we want; it feels like one of those old one-off Marvel comic books with plot points suggested by readers.
The original Jurassic Park (1993) and its follow-up The Lost World (1997), both directed by Steven Spielberg, had their moments of bloat and absurdity, but that only made the dinosaur attacks seem more vivid. (In Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was able to surround the money scenes with dialogue and character scenes of actual interest, but that was back in the ’70s, when such things were allowed in big movies.) This time, Spielberg steps aside and lets Joe Johnston (Jumanji, October Sky) take the wheel; Johnston seems determined to eliminate anything that critics jeered at Spielberg for doing, but he lacks Spielberg’s malicious taste for suspense.
There’s nothing here like the ominous whoooom … whoooom (“That’s an impact tremor, is what it is,” Jeff Goldblum stammered; “I’m fairly alarmed here”) that announced the T. rex in the first film, or the witty clack-clack of the raptors’ claws tapping patiently on the kitchen floor. Johnston’s dinos just pop up and chase whatever’s around. More than before, they come across merely as big monsters who occupy the center of action scenes. Jurassic Park III is spectacular but not scary or thrilling — Johnston has graciously, if probably unintentionally, given Sony a good template for a PlayStation game.
Once again, a child is in danger; this time it’s young Eric (Trevor Morgan), who’s marooned on Isla Sorna, the “second island” of genetic-dino breeding seen in The Lost World. Eric’s divorced parents (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) unite to go save him; they lure the original movie’s hero, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), to help them by waving a fraudulent promise of big money in his face. If Macy and Leoni were presented as obsessive, narcissistic parents driven to find their son no matter who else gets killed, the movie might’ve had some bite, but they’re painted as everyday boring people for the audience to relate to, and William H. Macy, aside from a couple of funny lines, hands in his least inspired performance ever.
Ironically, Laura Dern probably comes off best here — maybe because she’s worked with Johnston before (in October Sky), maybe because she’s only in it for about five minutes and feels relieved not to have to run screaming from thin air. Playing a happily-married-with-two-kids Ellie Sadler (not married to Alan Grant, we note with some surprise; the movie never tells us what happened), Dern seems loose and relaxed — qualities not shared by those on Isla Sorna, for obvious reasons. Sam Neill does some of the same ah, shit, not this again shtick Jeff Goldblum did in Lost World, but whereas Goldblum made it work for his character, Neill — the actor, not the character — looks resentful at having to revisit this digital playpen.
The credits inform us that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor worked on the script; if you know the names, you’re probably as big a fan of the satires Citizen Ruth and Election (both written by Payne and Taylor, and directed by Payne) as I am. You will probably also enter Jurassic Park III curious as to what contributions they made; you will very likely leave the movie still curious. Surely nothing in this dino smackdown is remotely satirical, with the vague exception of a recurring satellite-phone gag, which may be a sly goof on how the T. rex’s presence is always broadcast well in advance. But if Payne and Taylor were assigned to the script not to add anything brilliant but simply to remove anything blatantly oafish, they seem to have overlooked many such moments (my favorite is the scene where a man steps in front of a speeding airplane, expecting it to stop for him). Those who keep track of such things will note that the sole black character is among the first to become dinosaur stool, while the sole female is a dithering buffoon; this movie follows its two predecessors into the land of retro pulp adventure, pre-political correctness, yet lacks Spielberg’s affectionate parodic wink at same (not only in the previous Jurassic Park entries but also in his Indiana Jones series).
So how are the dinosaurs? As sculpted by Stan Winston and animated, in part, by ILM’s computer wonks, they’re looking smooth; the dinosaurs in the first Jurassic Park that blew us all away in 1993 already look a little, well, 1993 in comparison with the 2001 models. (Students of such things may be able to trace the development of computer animation through the Jurassic Park movies alone.) But the dinosaur scenes also go by too fast; it’s not only that Johnston isn’t the mechanical wizard Spielberg is — he also doesn’t have Spielberg’s team of editor, composer, and cinematographer. Much of Jurassic Park III looks alternately washed-out and too dark — it looks crappy, to be blunt. And the film zips by too fast for any one sequence to gather weight or momentum. When the mighty T. rex and the even mightier Spinosaurus duke it out, it should be a true clash of the titans, a climactic collision of apocalyptic force, but it arrives too soon and is staged at such a hectic pace that it’s over before you know it. That goes for the rest of the movie too, really.