20 Years In The Making: A New Look At Jurassic Park III – It’s understandable why there will be little fanfare for the twentieth anniversary of Jurassic Park III. The arrival of the first film, which marked a new milestone in film special effects and won over audiences across the globe, will rightly be noted and celebrated. Its second sequel was not as much of a technological advancement and, making nearly half at the box office what the in-between entry The Lost World: Jurassic Park did, it is the lowest-grossing film in the franchise to date.
If looked at objectively though, in this writer’s humble opinion, it is the best film of the whole Jurassic Park series. There is one simple answer for this, one which made critics sniffed about during its theatrical run: it is almost entirely action scenes with dinosaurs. Good ones at that.
The dinosaurs have always been the best part of any Jurassic film, and while it has come up with some memorable human characters over time, they were ultimately best used as live bait. At ninety-five minutes long, as well as not overstaying its welcome, JPIII has maybe the highest dinosaur-to-minute ratio in cinema. Taking over the director’s chair from Steven Spielberg, Joe Johnson cuts through all the dead weight and gets to the USP of the series: dino action.
Almost from the start the filmmakers here show an understanding that is what they and the audience are both here for. At this point in the Jurassic Park series we all know there is an island inhabited by dinosaurs, ones some of the best technical crafters in the business have made to look so believable. All that’s needed is a reason for the characters to be there and even that is discussed in as little detail as possible.
Sam Neill is back to headline this film as Dr. Alan Grant (Laura Dern reprises her role as Dr. Ellie Satler for a cameo). Along with his assistant Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola), he heads back to dinosaur-strewn Isla Sornar under false pretences: to act as guides to an adventurous wealthy couple. In fact, they are looking for their thrill-seeking son who went missing in the area while parasailing.
Yes, it is preposterous, but it’s also the first fifteen minutes of JPIII. From there on it is what we came for: seeing this party at the constant mercy of the island’s dinosaur inhabitants. The most memorable is the big baddie of the piece, the Spinosaurus. Outweighing any other dinosaur in the series – both in its CGI form and as an animatronic, which was the largest every built for a film – it has a voracious appetite for humans and makes for an imposing and tenacious enemy.
The Spinosaurus makes its presence first felt when it plucks the heroes’ crashed plane out of a tree with its teeth and, in the ensuing chase, ends up taking on the star reptile of the Jurassic Park universe, the T-Rex. It’s not done yet, though: later it turns up to give chase to the human party at a moment when things are starting to look up and later ambushes them at a river in the middle of a storm.
They are also pursued by a pack of velociraptors and come across a mysterious, fog-strewn enclosure they hope is empty, but soon though soon find themselves face-to-face with the inhabitants: Pteranodons. Unlike the others, these are foes the party can’t escape on foot – fortunately they have a discarded parasail they can put to use in the most memorable, gleefully absurd and exciting of JPIII’s action set pieces.
While the dinosaur action is the main focus of the film, that’s not to say it is a completely brainless exercise and some moments of character are allowed. For example, the couple who instigate the expedition to the island, Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H Macy and Tea Leoni) are divorced and have to work together in order to find their son, despite it being awkward for them at first.
Both wanting to re-united with their son, they learn to work together and, in surviving the island, newfound respect and admiration for one another grows. At the same time Dr. Grant wants to get back to civilisation as soon as possible, which leads to tense disagreements with Billy, who sees this as a big opportunity to learn more about dinosaur behaviours. The doctor does start to find a new appreciation for the reborn beasts with help from the best of the new characters, Eric Kirby (Trevor Morgan).
It may not be the most complex character developments, but compare them to those in Jurassic World, this film’s successor and the first in the series to make $1 billion at the box office. There the humans get as much screen time as the dinosaurs, but as well as few showing any genuine likeable qualities, they are all shells. Supposed character traits and backstory are just dropped in when the film feels a need to present them and are ignored and never resolved when the dinosaurs break loose.
JPIII may not have the deepest character arcs but they are enough to want to see these characters through and everything the film sets up, it goes on to resolve. The third film understands trying to add character complexities which are pushed aside in favour of action is unnecessary. It knows the characters need just one primary motivation: to get off the island alive.
Joe Johnson’s film is not without its problems: its breezy pace doesn’t do much for resonance and the dialogue ranges from perfunctory to trite. (One exchange goes: “It’s a birdcage,” “For what?” Well, what normally goes in a birdcage?) In a sense that isn’t so important, JPIII knows exactly what it is: dumb, absurd fun, a fact is never shies away from and with no higher aspirations than that.
It’s not the most sophisticated actioner around, but that’s not what people come to a Jurassic Park film for. They come to see desperate protagonists in a series of increasingly desperate life-or-death clashes with dinosaurs, on which Jurassic Park III delivers. It is a much-maligned entry in the series but now, twenty years on from its first release and in the wake of far inferior follow-ups, the time has come for Jurassic Park III to have its dues.