With Steven Spielberg stepping down to getting merely an "executive producer" credit, director Joe Johnston's "Jurassic Park III" could unquestionably have been an irrelevant, needless second sequel to one of the biggest money-making franchises of all time. With all of its possible story options told out in the first two pictures, could there really be more to do with the premise aside from hack together pieces from the predecessors and construct them into a new, cohesive whole? Quite the contrary, as "Jurassic Park III" turns out to be a new kind of breed of dinosaura little long in the tooth, but with just enough life to resurrect not only the series, but the genre of big, summer action-adventure movies.
If 1993's "Jurassic Park" was a groundbreaking achievement, both in modern special effects and marvelous, cliffhanging storytelling, and 1997's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" was a joyless, boring misfire with none of the magic that made the original so memorable, then "Jurassic Park III" stands as infinitely better than the second film, but not quite up to par with the first. Still, it's an entertaining and tightly-wound suspense yarn that, clocking in at 92 minutes, is over a half-hour shorter than the previous "Jurassic" excursions. This running time difference works as a definite asset, as the story and break-neck action sequences get going almost right away, bypassing the dreary, seemingly endless exposition that made "The Lost World" almost a chore to endure.
Triumphantly reprising his role from the first movie, Sam Neill stars as Dr. Alan Grant, a paleontologist who, seven years after his unforgettable experiences at Jurassic Park, still must field questions about what he went through and saw. A proposition comes his way in the form of Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Tea Leoni), a wealthy, married couple who wish to fly over Isla Sorna and take in the glorious sights of the dinosaur-infested Site B. Following a generous paycheck that leads Dr. Grant; his young, wide-eyed assistant, Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola); and three other crew members, to accompany the Kirbys on their "harmless" trip, their real motives emerge. The Kirbys, it seems, are a middle-class, divorced couple who have every intention of landing the plane on Isla Sorna to begin searching for their 12-year-old son, Eric (Trevor Morgan), whose paraglide crashed there eight weeks earlier. When their airplane crashes on the island, however, they find themselves stranded without any way of calling for help, in a land of dinosaurs that would happily eat them for lunch.
With little more than a brief fifteen-minute introduction to the characters and plot, "Jurassic Park III" jumps to the chase, literally and figuratively. The next hour is an almost non-stop parade of snazzy, state-of-the-art visual effects that make the creatures look more realistic and elaborate than ever, and fast-moving, breathtaking action set pieces that don't hardly let up to allow you to breathe. One such sequence, set on a creaky drawbridge that the potential victims have no idea is located inside a giant birdcage with flying, carnivorous Pteranodons, jauntily milks the tension for all it's worth.
Also working to the film's advantage is the intoxicating sense of wonder that the dinosaurs are depicted with--a trait that made the original so special, and one that was utterly absent from the followup. This assured, smart decision allows to give the film an unexpected depth that it otherwise might not have had in such a quick-paced narrative. The music, by Don Davis, powerfully recaptures the lush score that John Williams perfected in the original. And the screenplay, by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne (1999's "Election"), and Jim Taylor, is crisply well-written.
With so many dinosaur chases, the character interaction is effective, workmanlike, and kept to a minimum. Sam Neill proves again what a mesmerizing, underrated actor he is, and why he is better suited for the "hero" role than the slightly nerdy Jeff Goldblum was in "The Lost World." Making the debut appearances in the series, William H. Macy (2000's "State and Main") and Tea Leoni (2000's "The Family Man") are just the type of strong character actors that give their roles the added nuances needed to avoid cliches. In only a few scenes, we are able to believe that Paul and Amanda Kirby are divorcees who still, in one way or the other, love each other very much. Laura Dern (2000's "Dr. T and the Women") also makes a refreshing appearance, albeit a fairly small one, as Ellie Sadler, her character from the original. Dern is such a likable presence, and does such a good job here with not much screen time, that it's a shame she couldn't have been right alongside Neill throughout. One thing is for sure: their chemistry together is undeniable.
"Jurassic Park III" is so thrilling a motion picture that its ending, unfortunately, comes out feeling anticlimactic. A final run-in with their meat-eating adversaries seems missing, as if the makers couldn't wait for the film to come to a close. The disappointing conclusion aside, "Jurassic Park III" is a welcome return to the style and startling execution that made the 1993 picture such a success. With a final image that hints at a possible fourth "Jurassic" adventure, the thought of such, it turns out, doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all.
©2001 by Dustin Putman