Jurassic Park III
Jurassic Park III

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 92 minutes.

Cast: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl, Bruce A. Young, Laura Dern, Taylor Nichols, Mark Harelik
Writers: Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on the characters and concept by Michael Crichton
Music: Don Davis, John Williams (theme)
Cinematographer: Shelly Johnson
Producers: Larry J. Franco, Kathleen Kennedy
Director: Joe Johnston


Grade: C- Review by Carlo Cavagna

The first Jurassic Park was a landmark movie, because it used computer-generated special effects to a degree never seen before and because it was a pretty damn terrifying action/horror flick. Even adults went home checking over their shoulders for velociraptors prowling the city streets. The second, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a carbon copy of the first with a preposterous tacked-on coda stolen from a Godzilla movie, was not, but it still managed to be scary. The third in the series, Jurassic Park III, is likely to frighten only ten year olds. Jurassic Park III is not just a walk in the park, just as the tag line says. It's a yawn in the park.

The most identifiable reason for this is that executive producer Steven Spielberg couldn't be bothered to direct this installment, and handed it off big-studio marionette Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, October Sky), who has never made an unsafe or surprising choice in his career, and probably never will. Moreover, this is the only installment not based on a novel and written directly for the screen, which probably accounts for the watered-down story. The first two movies were each over two hours in length. This one barely fills 92 minutes.

Another clear problem is the uneven pacing. To a certain extent all three Jurassic Park movies suffer from it, but it's most pronounced here. Instead of building a perpetual sense of dread, the movie alternates between "scary" scenes and "safe" scenes marked by easy-to-read visual and musical cues (conveyed via the annoyingly omnipresent horn-heavy orchestra). Perhaps cognizant of the many children that will see this movie, Johnston has opted to give them breaks in the action, letting them know when it's okay to What's for dinner?relax and when it's not.

The greatest shock in Jurassic Park III is seeing Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the writers behind the sharp satire Election, in the screenwriting credits. Maybe the third writer, newcomer Peter Buchman, is the dominant influence, or maybe Payne and Taylor are just drawing a paycheck.

Drawing a paycheck seems to be the motivation for the actors, too, because Sam Neill seems disinterested throughout the film. His character, Dr. Alan Grant from the first Jurassic Park, vows that nothing could get him to set foot on dinosaur-infested Isla Sorna, but he doesn't ask too many questions when a thrill-seeking couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) offer him big money to be their tour guide, despite the obvious holes in the story they feed him. (They just want to fly over the island! They wouldn't dream of landing the plane!) Even if the other characters don't quite realize what they've gotten themselves into, Dr. Grant should be in a permanent state of fear.

Laura Dern apparently refused the big payday to return, or maybe she wasn't offered one, but she appears in a cameo that serves to set her up as Dr. Grant's satellite phone-a-friend Lifeline. The normally engaging Téa Leoni contributes plenty of screaming, but not much else, and William H. Macy does his middle-America William H. Macy thing. Alessandro Nivola of Mansfield Park does the most acting, but one wonders why he bothers--probably because he's not yet at a point in his career where he can safely phone it in. The obligatory kid, who goes missing near the island in the introductory segment, is played by Trevor Morgan (Mel Gibson's young son in The Patriot and bully Tommy Tammasimo in The Sixth Sense).

The effects are impressive, though. Unlike The Mummy Returns, Tomb Raider, and even Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Spielberg and Johnston have not fallen into the trap of using computer generated images for ALL their special effects, recognizing that CGs just don't look good in close-ups. Rather, they use a mix of computer graphics and hydraulic and electronic live-action models designed by Stan Winston, like in the first two films. The models include a full-size, 44-foot tall, 13-ton spinosaurus, which was apparently even bigger than the tyrannosaurus rex and replaces it as the dominant predator in this sequel. (It gets to fight a T-rex, too.) Other newcomers to Jurassic Park include the giant flying pteranodons (think, a reptilian bat with a huge beak), who are introduced in a long set piece that comes closest to reproducing the terror of the velociraptors in the kitchen in the first movie, without quite succeeding.

The use of models and robots allows the dinosaurs to express a range of emotions not possible with computer graphics and lends to them a solidity that is simply absent from the computer-generated monsters in The Mummy Returns and Tomb Raider. The effects look good. They look even better, in fact, than in the first two films, owing to the natural advances in technology that have occurred in the past several years.

But they're not enough to save the movie. No matter how good they look, the novelty of these creatures is gone, and so having a good story--or any story, for that matter--becomes critical. There isn't one.

Review © July 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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