Jurassic Park III
Jurassic Park has to be a prime contender for the most doggedly formulaic of all blockbuster franchises. The Lost World went a bit darker, and even broke out of the park for one sequence, but it was otherwise so unadventurous that it even conjured a previously unmentioned second island out of nowhere. Spielberg couldn’t even be bothered to return for the second sequel, and it isn’t hard to see why. An inane contrivance to get (one of) our protagonist back on the island (or rather, the different island, and not even the interesting protagonist) and new characters with a high annoyance quotient ensure the only things in Jurassic Park III’s favour are its lean running time and a couple of inventive plot devices and/or dinosaurs.
This is the one where Sam Neill’s Dr Alan Grant (he’s the boring protagonist, mixing out Jeff Goldblum’s chatty geek chic from The Lost World) is lured to previous movie’s island (Isla Sorna) by the promise of a big fat cheque to keep him in archaeological digging for a few years to come. This is at the behest of a couple of divorced parents (William H Macy and Tea Leoni as Paul and Amanda Kirby) attempting to rescue their son and her boyfriend (whom she can’t be that into as she couldn’t give a flying one about him snuffing it). They managed to imperil themselves by going on a paragliding trip right next to the island. Doh!
The dumb opening sequence, aside from some very obvious green screen, sets up the kind of scenario one would expect from a ’70s cheapie sequel. What may surprise here is that the script is credited to Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor and Peter Buchman. The first two on that list are responsible for Oscar bait offbeat comedies such as Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. Perhaps action fare isn’t their strong point (they also wrote I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, so perhaps Adam Sandler comedies aren’t either). To be fair to them, it sounds like Spielberg and Johnston made a right balls-up, rejecting an original script, involving Pteranodon attacks on the mainland, only five weeks before filming began. The one before that sounded even worse, with teenagers marooned on the island.
They were probably also weighed down by Spielberg playing it ultra-safe. He drafted in Joe Johnston to direct, a former visual effects guy whose first feature (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) remains easily his best. Jurassic Park III at least has a bit more zip than some of his more listless moments (Captain America: The First Avenger), and visually it’s of a piece (courtesy of cinematographer Shelly Johnson – not Twin Peaks’ Shelly Johnson). But it’s so narratively banal, technical competence cannot save it.
It’s a checklist of elements being met that is no more inventive than the Jaws sequels Spielberg pointedly eschewed. This is something Jurassic World, for all it being announced as something different, is still servicing. The wonder and awe of the first movie (and, being cynical, it was never that wondrous or awesome in the first place) has now thoroughly dispersed, so the John Williams score feels wholly out of place (Williams couldn’t be doing with it, so Don Davis is called upon, like Johnston and special cinematographer Johnson, to hit all the right beats). Ineffectually twee even (not that you’d expect sentiment from a Spielberg production). This is a production line sequel in the most unrepentant fashion, and the symptoms of this speak loudly when you compare the grosses of this franchise; each has made about a third less than the previous one.
Presumably Spielberg et al thought the “Park” part was essential. Which meant the island part was. As was having a wee kiddie as one of the main characters and an unhealthy dose of surrogate parenting, or at least re-bonding. All these elements look to be back in Jurassic World. The natural next stage for this franchise would have been a proper monster movie in a thriving metropolis, as suggested by the end of The Lost World. But this is essentially a toothless series, one too lily-livered to allow its monsters to be proper monsters; they’re scary, but you can’t stab them, shoot them full of holes or blow them to smithereens. They can be as mean as they want, but the unironic conservation element underlying these genetically engineered endangered species hamstrings the picture. The result can only be “run away” plotting, so it’s very limited in possibilities. If humans fight back it becomes Aliens.
This may be why the new movie has come up with a fully-fledged genetically enhanced dinosaur. You probably can destroy a fake dinosaur up with impunity. Nothing off message there. Grant’s unimaginative correction of one of Laura Dern’s kids (playing with plastic dinosaurs), that they shouldn’t be fighting because one is an herbivore, is the kind of restraint that has severely limited the potential of the franchise. Perhaps they should have gone the full Westworld hog, and had Jurassic World with insane robot dinosaurs. Ones that can go berserk, fight real dinosaurs and be exploded all over the place.
As was the case with The Lost World, a decent cast has been assembled. Unfortunately, they’re awarded one-note characters to a thespian. Macy does his usual unheroic but well-meaning shtick. Leoni is saddled with the “bloody silly woman” part you rather hoped had disappeared from movies circa The Poseidon Adventure. Shouting, screaming, running away, doing all the things you shouldn’t do in a dangerous situation, unless you’re being pursued by Jason Voorhees.
Alessandro Nivola, a good actor who, for some reason, has never really made it big (but was still just about a rising next-big-thing at the time, thanks in no small part to Face/Off) gets to be the young hot head protégée of Grant, one who apparently knows bugger all about dinosaurs since he’s responsible for stealing two raptor eggs. Still, he’s not so bad, apparently, as they don’t kill him off (Billy’s reappearance in the last scene stands out glaringly, and was reportedly a result of Nivola protesting about his demise to Johnston).
Grumpy Grant is reteamed with a sprog (Trevor Morgan’s Eric), whose ability to defend himself from dinosaurs isn’t quite as ridiculous as the gymnastic girl in The Lost World, but still takes some swallowing. Like Aliens’ Newt, but with gas grenades and a camouflage gear, Eric manages to survive in the jungle for eight weeks when he should have long since been dinosaur breakfast. He even knows to fend off dinosaurs with a bottle of T-Rex pee. It just so happens he’s a huge fan of Grant, and has read all his books. I liked the dig at the rivalry between Grant and Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, though. Eric’s critique of Malcolm’s book, that it was “kind of preachy” and it “seems like the guy was high on himself” finds Grant readily concurring. If Jurassic World births a new trilogy, it would be nice to see the old guys back and butting heads at some point.
Grant’s actually better before he goes back to the island. During a post-lecture Q&A, a host of hands go up. “Does anyone have a question that does not relate to Jurassic Park?” he clarifies. When only most of them go down, he adds “Or the incident in San Diego which I did not witness?” One or two are left up. His snoozing on the plane with his hat over his face only draws attention to how he very much he is not Indiana Jones, however. He’d have been better suited to Steven Spielberg Presents Time Team.
Still, the theory is audiences are showing for the big dino set pieces, and Park III at least manages to throw in a couple that save the picture from being completely redundant. The spinosaurus, the new dinosaurus that can put paid to a T-Rex, isn’t really all that impressive or fearsome. It lacks the same predatory sleekness that makes the T-Rex or the raptors so effective. The writers come up with the occasional coup, though. Early on, Grant is pursued by a T-Rex, running into the spinosaurus, which leads to the two titans duking it out. Most inventive is the running device of Paul’s satellite phone, which turns out to be inside the spinosaurus. And later, buried in a big pile of its shit.
The raptors are still the main attraction here, JP’s equivalent of xenomorphs. Like the Alien franchise, however, familiarity lessens their fear factor. Now a jungle boy with some smoke can scare them off. The final standoff is quite effective, but still; much has already been made of how smart they are (“They were smarter than dolphins or whales. They were smarter than primates”), yet they seem to have qualms about picking off the group simply because there are a couple of eggs in their possession? And because Grant uses the imitation raptor larynx (made with a 3D printer!) to confuse them? Still, there’s always the ice-cold way one snaps Michael Jeter’s neck. The best moment is still of the good old-fashioned shock variety; coming across a derelict lab, Amanda sees a raptor preserved in a glass case. Then said raptor blinks…
The appearance of Pteranodons ought to have been the star exhibit, but Johnston fails to make the best use of them. Ironically, their first appearance is not in flight but walking on a fog shrouded bridge, and it’s much eerier and more impressive than the subsequently rather daft sight of them carrying of Eric and Billy rescuing him with a feat of paragliding.
One seriously has to wonder at the safety precautions of quarantining this island too. As in, it’s scarcely feasible that it would be left so accessible, that it would be left to run amok, and that flying dinobirds would be allowed to take off to form colonies God knows where.
Dr Grant’s rather trite moral, on discovering Billy has stolen the eggs is, “Some of the worst things imaginable are due to the best intentions”. You couldn’t accuse the makers of Jurassic Park III of having the best intentions. This is the most half-hearted of attempts to squeeze some cash out of a steadily floundering franchise. It’s no wonder it has taken fourteen years for a fourth instalment to arrive, and I’m dubious even then that it will be different enough to truly reinvigorate it. That discarded John Sayles script, with the intelligent, genetically engineered raptors working for the military might have provided partial inspiration for Jurassic World, but from the trailers it doesn’t look as if it has providing anything quite different enough.