Leapin' Lizards!

The dinosaurs are jumping, but the story isn't in Jurassic Park III

A third Jurassic Park movie was of course inevitable, given that the second shattered box office records. (It also shattered the conventional notion that any movie starring Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, and a bunch of dinosaurs had to be at least somewhat interesting.) But when you have one of the hottest box office properties of all time, isn't it worth taking a little time to craft it? Just because you know it can only be better than The Lost World, do you have to rush it through production, start shooting without a script, cut corners on the visuals, and then not even bother to promote it until about a month before it's released? The first Jurassic Park was an event that even folks who normally stay clear of movie theaters knew about; ask the average man on the street, and chances are he may not know there's a sequel currently in theaters.

But just because Jurassic Park III has several obvious flaws, that doesn't mean it's a complete waste. For one thing director Joe Johnston, who previously made even the most benign animals seems frightening in the kids' horror flick Jumanji, has loaded the film with some truly malevolent beasties. While The Lost World one-upped the T. rex simply by introducing more of them, Johnston digs up the spinosaurus, the largest carnivorous dinosaur known to exist and bona fide king of the jungle badasses, as proven early in the film by the fact that it snaps a T. rex's neck. Although you'd suspect that such a creature must have been invented for the movie, it is based on real fossils, but because no complete spinosaurus has ever been found, there's room for creative license. It's unfortunate that the TV spots have repeatedly displayed the creature's look; the film's slow revelation of it is very nicely done.

Johnston has also performed a valuable service for fans of Michael Crichton's books: He finally stages the pterodactyl sequence from the first book, and it's worth the wait. For the sake of visuals, there's some creative fudging here -- the giant pteranodons used in the film are generally believed nowadays to have had feathers, been smaller, and more or less looked like large pelicans, while these are massive leathery reptiles with a taste for human flesh. Not that it really matters, since, um, dinosaur cloning isn't exactly based upon reality either.

It's almost a shame that the movie has to have a script at all, but once again the studio suits have decided they need to be some kind of reason for people to get trapped on an island full of dinosaurs yet again -- as if anyone cares. At least scribes Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor have the decency to treat this film like a real sequel, and pick up where the first film left off. (This is more of a proper sequel to Jurassic Park than The Lost World ever was.) Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) has broken up with Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and is hard-pressed to get people interested in his fossil research anymore, since the existence of real live dinosaurs is more fascinating. (Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm is glibly written off with the remark, "Seems like the guy was kinda high on himself.") So, not ten minutes after he has uttered, "No force on earth or in heaven could get me on that island," he's back on the island, hired by alleged entrepreneur Paul Kirby (William H. Macy) and Kirby's ex-wife (Téa Leoni) on the pretense of an adventure flight over the island. In fact the Kirbys are looking to rescue their son, Eric (Trevor Morgan), who may have landed there following a parasailing mishap involving some really fake bluescreen effects.

That's enough plot. The rest is a series of set pieces, as Grant and the Kirbys (who soon reconcile as a couple -- nothing like the threat of being torn apart by lizards to rekindle the ol' marriage flame), along with various other characters so disposable they might as well be wearing red Star Trek uniforms, make their way to safety through dangerous terrain, stalked by the spinosaurus, pteranodons, and of course those old favorites, the velociraptors.

While the script has some nicely humorous moments that are mostly unexpected (Grant has a dream in which a dinosaur talks to him; Paul Kirby refers to the spinosaurus as the "tricycloplotz"), it frequently shows its seams. The ending in particular is weak and abrupt, involving a character suddenly knowing something that he explicitly did not know before, apparently as a result of sheer dumb luck. At times it feels as though the characters and the dinosaurs are actively trying to ignore the script; when certain items are established for use later on, the payoff is so ho-hum that one wonders why they bothered. (The exception is a neat cell phone gag, which is on a par with the rearview mirror gag in the first film.) Other items appear as if they're being set up for later payoff but are then completely ignored, notably the secret origin of the spinosaurus and a big beaker of tyrannosaurus urine that serves no purpose beyond its being urine and therefore inherently funny. And the raptors seem to be inserted just because of some kind of contractual obligation; their menace swiftly wears thin (or maybe it's because a ten-year-old girl kicked their butts with gymnastics moves in the last film).

At its best Jurassic Park III is eerily similar to some of the more recent dinosaur-themed video games on the market. Scenes set in an abandoned science facility could have been taken straight out of Capcom's Dino Crisis. And a sequence in which a character must jump across several stone pillars protruding high from a body of water and immersed in mist are a direct crib from the N64 hit Turok. It should be noted that, like those games, this film may not be suitable for very young viewers: One scene in which a child is nearly pecked to death by baby pteranodons is particularly likely to inspire nightmares.

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