Written Post“No force on Earth or Heaven could get me on that island” — Josh takes a look back at Jurassic Park III

“No force on Earth or Heaven could get me on that island” — Josh takes a look back at Jurassic Park III

After re-watching Jurassic Park (click here for my review) and The Lost World (click here for my review) last month (as part of my look back at the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg) I figured, what the heck, why not take another look at Jurassic Park III (executive produced by Mr. Spielberg and directed by Joe Johnston).

While not as bad as I’d remembered, like The Lost World this third Jurassic Park film is a pale reflection of the first one.

In some respects, I think I like Jurassic Park III better than the second installment.  Whereas The Lost World was slow and rambling — with a story that was all over the place — Jurassic Park III has a much leaner, meaner narrative: a group of people crash on the island and must find a way to survive long enough to reach the coast where rescue hopefully awaits.  That’s a simple hook, and I think it serves the film well.  The story gets going quickly, and from there moves right along like gangbusters straight through to the end.  There’s an intensity and sense of danger that I felt the second film was completely missing.

There are also some terrific action set-pieces.  Here is where Joe Johnston’s background in the world of visual effects serves him well.  We finally get to see some Pterodactyls (teased by the first two films), and they’re worth the wait — the whole sequence in the Pterodactyl cage is a tense, exciting adventure.  I also love the Spinosaur/T-Rex fight early in the film (shades of the King Kong/T-Rex fight, I felt, but that amused me rather than annoying me), as well as the Spinosaur attack on the river, in the rain, that takes place late in the film.

Whereas The Lost World chose — mistakenly, I think — to focus entirely on Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, this third film wisely returns the focus to Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant.  I love Mr. Neill in this role, and it’s great to see him back front-and-center in this film.

Unfortunately, despite those strengths, there’s also quite a lot of weaknesses to Jurassic Park III, things that keep the film squarely mediocre in my mind.

First of all, other than Sam Neill, I think the film’s ensemble is pretty weak.  One of the key components to the first film’s success was how many great characters there were in the piece — and the great actors chosen to portray them.  But like The Lost World, while the lead character in Jurassic Park III is interesting and sympathetic, the rest of the ensemble is flat.  I love William H. Macy, but he seems woefully out of place here, as does Tea Leoni.  There’s very little meat to their characters.  (I also thought the revelation that they’re not the rich jet-setters they portrayed themselves to be was pretty nonsensical.  It really seems crazy, if they’re just normal folks, that they sent their son on a para-sailing trip to Isla Sorna.  I could see a pair of uber-wealthy folks doing that — but a contractor from the Mid-West?  That doesn’t work for me.)  Speaking of their kid, Trevor Morgan does a fine job portraying their son Erik, and he never falls into the trap of annoying kid-sidekick to Dr. Grant.  But this character also feels totally flat to me.  Despite the fact that the kid had to survive on his own on an island of dinosaurs for EIGHT WEEKS, he seems ludicrously calm and well-adjusted when Dr. Grant finds him.  I would have expected the kid to have at least a LITTLE Newt-like post-traumatic stress to deal with!!  That could have made Erik an interesting character — instead, he’s just as forgettable as Dr. Grant’s saint-like (except for when he inexplicably isn’t) assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola).

Jurassic Park III is also hamstrung by the desire of the filmmakers to constantly top the previous two films.  OK, they must have said: the T-Rex was dangerous, but we’ve seen him for two films so now we’ll give you an even HUGER and MORE DANGEROUS dinosaur this time!!  (That would be the enormous and long-snouted Spinosaurus.)  And to prove how bad-ass he is, we’ll show him killing a T-Rex early in the film.  The Spinosaurus may be a real dinosaur, but I thought it played as rather silly in the film.  It was just a little TOO enormous — plus, it didn’t seem to me to have the personality that the T-Rex had in the first film.  The film also never quite explains why we see so many new dinosaurs in this movie that we’ve never seen before.  Why didn’t Jeff Goldblum and co. bump into the Spinosaurus when they were on Isla Sorna in the last film?

Since I mentioned Isla Sorna, this is also a good time to repeat the comment I made in my review of The Lost World, that I think the filmmakers made a bad decision to set The Lost World, and now this film, on a second dinosaur island rather than the original island, Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park took place.  In Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs get wiped off that island at the end, so he had to create a second island — Ingen’s “Site B” on Isla Sorna — to continue the story.  But the dinos on Isla Nublar weren’t destroyed at the end of the Jurassic Park film, so the filmmakers easily could have set their sequels there.  That would have been simpler, narratively, I think.  We wouldn’t have had to have had silly scenes like the one in this film where one character has to explain to the other, confused characters (standing in for the audience) that there were two dinosaur islands and this is the second one.  It also would have added a lot more resonance to the tale to have had Dr. Grant (and Dr. Malcolm, in the first sequel) having to return to the actual island that they so narrowly escaped in the first film.  Early in Jurassic Park III, Dr. Grant declares that “no force on Earth or Heaven could get me on that island.”  Doesn’t that sound like a line that BEGS to have been: “no force on Earth or Heaven could get me BACK TO that island”??  Wouldn’t that have been much cooler?

But I digress.  Speaking of the filmmakers’ need to continually top what we’ve seen in the first two films, we get the silly subplot about how the raptors can talk to one another.  Haven’t the raptors been plenty dangerous in the first two films?  Haven’t we seen that they can operate as a pack already?  Although there might be some scientific basis to the idea, I had to laugh at the way Jurassic Park III keeps hitting us over the head with the idea that the raptors can talk to one another.  It’s unnecessary — it only cheapens creatures who are already incredibly dangerous, potent villains.

Then there’s the ending.  I remember being really taken aback by what I felt was an extremely anticlimactic ending — “What, that’s it?  The movie’s over?? — when I first saw this in theatres.  This time, I knew what was coming, but I still think the film ends too suddenly without any good pay-off to the adventure.  When the raptors circle Grant and co., I thought we were in for a great showdown.  Instead, the raptors take their eggs and leave, the characters run to the beach, the US navy is there, movie over.  After all of the adventures on the island, it felt way too quick and easy to me.  I was hungry for one more big action sequence that would have made it tougher for our characters to get off the island alive.  I was also really bummed that there was no final scene between Dr. Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern, in what is basically a cameo role).  That highlights another weakness in the film’s story — even though I loved seeing Sam Neill back, his character Dr. Grant had no real arc of any kind in the film.  How is Dr. Grant different at the end of the film than he was at the beginning?  Has he changed his point of view about the dinosaurs on the island (that he dismissively describes as “theme park monsters” at the start of the film)?  Has he re-evaluated his strained relationship with Dr. Sattler?  We don’t know, and the film doesn’t seem to care.  That’s a shame.

And so ends the Jurassic Park series (for now, at least — there have long been rumors of an in-development fourth film, but nothing has come of it yet) — not with a bang, but a whimper.  At least I can say that, unlike The Lost World, Jurassic Park III is at least a fun, tense little action-thriller, even if the film doesn’t have much to say or really any narrative reason for being other than making some more money for the studio.

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