Press materials for Jurassic Park III breathlessly report that the state-of-the-art in dinosaur-duplicating technology has gotten even state-of-the-artier. The animatronic models employ NASA-specification hydraulic hoses; the muscles on CGI predators now ripple when they plant their massive virtual feet. Even the director and actors practically giggle like schoolchildren while praising the massive technical achievement of which they had been a part. It wasn’t really a movie the press kit was describing. This was the product brochure for the 2001 model year Special Effects Blockbuster.
Back in 1993, when the original Jurassic Park hit theater screens, such pronouncements still meant something. People filled auditoriums to see something they had never seen before: living, breathing dinosaurs striding across their local multiplex screens. Newsweeklies tripped over one another to do cover stories on the astonishing breakthroughs that made the film possible. It didn’t matter that Jurassic Park’s characters were thin, or that its bio-ethics sermons rang hollow and perfunctory. Here was the spectacle of the utterly new, delivered by master showman Steven Spielberg with the gusto of a circus ringmaster.
But the times, they have already a-changed plenty. In 1982, a tedious exercise like Tron could impress us with any use of computer animation. In 2001, audiences greet Final Fantasy with a collective yawn—despite its “we used an entire mainframe to manipulate each individual hair” technology—because they know they only have wait another few weeks for something equally groundbreaking and far less monotonous. It’s Andy Warhol philosophy applied to Hollywood one-upmanship: In the future, every movie will be the state-of-the-art for 15 minutes.
Jurassic Park III represents the inevitable slackness that results when a franchise hits its third go-round, but it also proves how dangerous it can be to show up just a few minutes tardy for the latest visual party. When you’re offering the audience little more than flash-and-dazzle, you’d better hope that you’re flashing and dazzling better than they’re used to getting. And Jurassic Park III suggests that somewhere, someone is operating under the misguided notion that letting the dinosaurs loose one more time is enough to capture imaginations that have been there and seen that.
In JP3’s promising set-up, Isla Sorna—the second dino-site explored in 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park—has morphed from hush-hush experiment to thrill-seekers’ tourist attraction. A couple of such thrill-seekers (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) want to spend their anniversary touring Isla Sorna from the air, so they hire the best guide possible for their trip. Enter Jurassic Park paleontologist-hero Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who has written a book about humankind’s only encounter with real live dinosaurs but still can’t manage to rustle up enough funds for his research (someone needs to fire the entire publicity staff at this guy’s publisher, and pronto). Plane crashes, dinosaurs appear, adventure commences.
The best single line in The Lost World came when Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm commented on the obligatory awestruck gazes of people seeing the dinosaurs for the first time: “Yeah, ‘Oooh, aaah.’ That’s how it always starts. Then comes the running and screaming.” And in The Lost World, Spielberg was smart enough to realize that he wouldn’t have the original Jurassic Park’s “oooh, aaah” factor working for him, so he cranked up the running and screaming. True, he couldn’t resist his compulsive need to place a kid in peril, but at least in The Lost World the kid in question wasn’t shrieking idiotically about UNIX systems.
Jurassic Park III looks to go a similar route (including both plentiful running-and-screaming and, unfortunately, a kid in peril), but begins with one major drawback: Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) is no Steven Spielberg. Johnston may know his effects-driven popcorn entertainment, but he hasn’t a tenth of Spielberg’s sense for turning set pieces into mainlines of adrenaline. Every once in a while, Johnston kicks a bit of giggly anticipation into a dinosaur showdown, like a raptor attack in a cage-filled compound building. More often, Jurassic Park III moves fast without demonstrating that it has any particular place to go.
And that’s probably because, ultimately, it’s going around in circles. A few species make their debuts in Jurassic Park III—the T. Rex’s-ass-kickin’ spinosaurus, a flock of pteranodons—but they provide little sense of discovery. As new and improved as the dinos may be, this is still the third time around. There’s only so much geek-factor glee that can be generated by the fact that—true to recent scientific discovery—the raptors now have feather-like quills on their heads!
None of which might matter if the Jurassic Park III creative team showed some interest in telling a worthwhile story. Co-star Macy notoriously griped to the press earlier this year that the film was being shot without a completed script, and the slipshod storytelling shows. The intriguing subtext of Jurassic Park as the destination adventure it was always meant to be disappears; plot points wait patiently in the hallway, smoking a cigarette until their inevitable appearance. The film does have Macy going for it—a brilliant bundle of fussy, nervous energy who’s easily this generation’s Jack Lemmon—but he’s stranded in a tired family reconciliation sub-plot. It’s thrill-ride filmmaking as we’ve come to expect it, with thrills that aren’t quite thrilling enough.
To its credit, as cinematic “Part 3’s” go, Jurassic Park III proves nowhere near as ghastly as one might fear. It comes in at a tight 94 minutes, and keeps the satisfying moments and goofy referential jokes coming often enough to stave off boredom. But there’s no way it can re-capture the excitement of witnessing dinosaurs come to life. It’s a time-passer, a franchise vehicle with nothing provocative to offer. That’s where this franchise is likely to languish—at least until someone figures out how to make holographic raptors leap into your theater seat. Now that would be worth lining up for.
Jurassic Park III (PG-13) HH Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Sam Neill, William H. Macy and Téa Leoni.