Friday, April 20, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Jurassic Park III (2001)






Jurassic Park III (2001) is another step-down in quality for what should have been a durable movie franchise.  Although Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) featured a troublesome script and some considerable third-act problems, Jurassic Park III pales in comparison even to that sequel.  In large part, this is because the action scenes featured here don’t seem to escalate or build in any substantive fashion, and because the script – about a rescue mission on Isla Sorna – is distinctly minor league.  On top of all that, the film features a mawkish sub-plot about a splintered family coming back together over the threats of imminent death-by-dino.  About the only arena where the film truly works, and works well (at least from time to time) is in the depiction of the dinosaurs, particularly the upgraded look of the awesome Velociraptors.

Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer [1991], The Wolfman [2010], Captain America [2011]) takes over the directing reins from Steven Spielberg for Jurassic Park III, and it’s not a pretty sight.  The third film is choppy and episodic instead of spectacular, and even some should-be-great moments such as the franchise’s first glimpse of an Anklyosaurus are presented in half-hearted fashion, in the equivalent of a cutaway or insert shot.  The film ends after only a scant 82 minutes, but even at that short length Jurassic Park III feels over-long because the movie is essentially a plot-less runaround, featuring no significant or meaningful narrative. 

Last week, I wrote about The Lost World as a dip or fall from greatness. Jurassic Park III is a plunge from greatness, and precipitous one at that.  I enjoy any fantasy film that features wondrous dinosaurs in action, however, and I can’t deny that Jurassic Park III is entertaining and often amusing, but today it just feels like small potatoes in comparison to the other series entries.  Accordingly, Jurassic Park III is the franchise’s Son of Kong:  a fun film to revisit on occasion, but really only a shadow of the original.

“This is how you make dinosaurs?

The Kirbys (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) recruit Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and his apprentice, Billy (Alessandro Nivola) to act as tour guides for a fly-by of Isla Sorna, Jurassic Park’s Site B.  Grant only reluctantly agrees, having lost both the love of his life, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and his love of dinosaurs. He's now a man without "faith."

Against Dr. Grant’s wishes, the Kirbys’ plane sets down on the dinosaur island, and Grant learns the truth about the flight.  The Kirby’s young son, Eric (Trevor Morgan) went down on the island eight weeks earlier during a para-gliding accident, and they are attempting to rescue him.  While the group searches for young Eric, it must also contend with a giant Spinosaurus that is hunting them. 

Even worse, Billy has stolen two Velociraptor eggs, and the dangerous pack-hunters want them back…

“Reverse Darwinism - survival of the most idiotic…”

The film that Jurassic Park III hopes to be is actually one of interest.  It’s the story of Dr. Alan Grant’s loss of faith.  Dr. Sattler has married another man, and had a child with him.  And the realities of Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna have totally changed how Grant views the profession of paleontology.  His whole world has been turned upside and he has forgotten how to gaze at it with a sense of wonder.  Upon seeing the dinosaurs again for the first time, Grant admits “My God, I’d forgotten…” and it’s a nice character moment.  As usual, Sam Neill is terrific in this film, finding every scrap of good material in the lackluster script and augmenting it through his interpretation of the prickly Grant.

Unfortunately, Dr. Grant’s loss of faith is not at the center of the action.  Instead, we waste time with cartoon character, comedy-relief mercenaries who may as well have the words “dinosaur fodder” stamped on their heads.   They belong in another reality, not the hard-earned reality of the Jurassic Park franchise.  And when the screaming, dopey mercenaries are gone, the movie seeks relentlessly to hammer home the Kirby reconciliation sub-plot, which is handled with extreme schmaltz and sentimentality.  The Jurassic Park movies have always mixed dinosaurs and families (and kids), but Jurassic Park III wants to consider this “walk in the park” some kind of family psychotherapy, with each Kirby realizing how much they love the others.  After awhile, the loving gazes and heartfelt stares are just a little too much to bear.  If the subplot were handled with a greater degree of humor or subtlety, it might be tolerable, but the sentimentality factor is through the roof.

Even worse, what seems absent from Jurassic Park III is Steven Spielberg’s impressive capacity to transform an action "moment" into something truly epic, an example of multiplying chaos and tension.  There are plenty of action scenes here to be sure, but they begin without lead up or pre-amble, rumble along quickly, and end before they make a real impression.  The battle between the Spinosaurus and the T-Rex is one prime example.  It goes by so quickly that it almost feels like a throwaway.  I should hasten to add, complex action scenes with dinosaurs are the reason we go to see these movies.  Spielberg understood that fact, and in even in The Lost World was able to construct a colossal amount of tension around a scene with a trailer hanging off a precipice.  He was patient and thorough, making us experience each agonizing, chaotic moment.  The action scenes in Jurassic Park III are veritable drive-bys in comparison.

I also must confess that, on a purely personal level, I didn’t appreciate this film’s treatment of the T-Rex. The noble T-Rex saved the day at the climax of Jurassic Park, combating two vicious Velicoraptors and essentially saving the humans.  The mighty T-Rex took center stage and held it magnificently (remember the fluttering banner “When Dinosaurs ruled the Earth?”)  Then, The Lost World revealed to us that T-Rexs make good parents, and again, there was a sense of sympathy built up for the dinosaur. Like a lion, the T-Rex was the regal king of the jungle  Well, in Jurassic Park III a T-Rex gets bloodied and killed by the Spinosaurus in a matter of seconds and it seems rather…ignoble.  I understand that the Spinosaurus is the Big Bad this time around, but it just feels like a cheap shot to treat the T-Rex so shabbily.  Had it put up a more sustained fight, or allowed the human heroes to escape, I might feel differently.  Is it crazy to feel kinship for a tyrannosaur?  Perhaps so, but that's also what the JP movies are about: making audiences understand (and yes, love...) the dinosaurs.  We don't ever really know enough about the Spinosaurus or its habits (how it sees, for instance...) to identify with it, hate it or love it.  It's just a monster chasing the heroes.

By contrast, the Velociraptors – now sporting colorful stripes and small head fathers – are handled very well.  Our “dino lesson” in this installment involves the fact that raptors were “socially sophisticated” and could vocalize and communicate with each other.  Grant informs us that Raptors were smarter than whales, dolphins or primates, and could have very well ruled the Earth if not for the asteroid that rendered them extinct.  I love that idea, and I love how the Raptors are portrayed in all three films.  That said, JPIII reveals their softer side.  They have an opportunity, after recovering their eggs, to kill the human intruders, but don’t take it.  That feels a little anticlimactic, especially since U.S. Marines are about to arrive.  I realize budget must have been a factor here, but imagine a pitched battle between a  Velociraptor pack and the Marines…

The pterodactyls are another high point in this sequel  They look absolutely amazing (even a decade after the film was made), and their presence, unlike that of the Ankylosaurs, is well-integrated into the action.  The best action scene in the film involves the Pterodactyls and the giant bird cage where they make a home.

For so many reasons, Jurassic Park III feels like it suffers from sequel-itis.  The characters are not particularly interesting, and frequently disposable.  The movie is short, as though the makers couldn’t be bothered to give us our money’s worth.  The Lost World clocked in at two hours and nine minutes.  This one, as I said above, barely gets above eighty minutes.  And by and large the action of the film feels rushed and choppy.   I am an absolute sucker for the dinosaur action as featured in all three JP movies, but this one just feels like it is phoning in the all-important sense of wonder.  The few lines that re-hash the "Playing God" aspect of the film feel old and tired, too.  We get it.

I understand that a Jurassic Park IV is imminent. My recommendation to the filmmakers would be to drop the "kids" angle from the franchise and move towards a different paradigm.  After three films, we’ve seen enough kids outsmarting dinosaurs to last us a lifetime.  Instead let’s have a mean, violent, hard-nosed action-packed installment, one that restores the original’s wicked humor, but also Jurassic Park's Darwinian sensibilities about survival.  Go for hard science and hard action instead of hard schmaltz.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    John, a very accurate review.
    You asked:"Is it crazy to feel kinship for a tyrannosaur?" I say no, because, like you, I think JP movies should always treat the Trex with respect established in the first film. Since I was a boy in the'70s, it has always been my favorite dinosaur. The Trex was depicted in Land Of The Lost 1974-77"Grumpy" and the 1977 movie The Last Dinosaur. Sadly, JPIII adding the Spinosaurus was probably more for the toy merchandising than the narrative. As a teenager, I read Ray Bradbury's A Sound Of Thunder and enjoyed the Trex being the game in the Time Safari. This was faithfully filmed as an 1989 episode of Ray Bradbury Theater. However, the 2005 Peter Hyams film unfortunately totally altered the original story for worse and used a Allosaurus instead of the mighty Trex.

    SGB

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  2. Anonymous11:17 AM

    An additional thought, when I you see the full-scale authentic Trex skeleton fossil on display at a museum it is so impressive that these creatures once walked our Earth.

    SGB

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  3. All very true, John, what you cover in your review of this film. We get further away from what made 'Jurassic Park' so friggin' great by the third bite of the apple. That said, I can re-watch this one (though, I also hate the way it treats T-rex in the film) before 'Lost World'. I guess that says how much I was disappointed in the first sequel than with the third being that much better than it. Another fine examination, my friend. Thanks.

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  4. Hello, my friends.

    SGB: I'm glad you relate to my kinship for the T-Rex. We're in total agreement about the JP movies and the treatment of this noble king of the dinosaurs. I also agree with you that the Spinosaurus here was likely a toy/marketing gimmick, but at the expense of T-Rex it's like heresy. Seriously.

    Le0pard13: I can also re-watch this film. I can't deny it. I am a sucker for dinosaur action, and the special effects remain great. But there's something just small potatoes about this sequel in terms of the story and direction. I like Joe Johnston in Rocketeer, Captain America mode, but I hope he doesn't get another bite at the Jurassic apple. I hope Spielberg returns.

    best wishes to you both,
    John

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