There are any number of reasons to expect the worst from Jurassic Park III. It’s the second sequel to the original Jurassic Park, and sequels, as a rule, are supposed to get progressively worse. In addition, it has been eight years since the first film came out, and the computer-generated lizards that seemed so ground-breaking back then have become all too common; thanks to Godzilla, Dinosaur, Evolution and similar films, the presence of larger-than-life reptiles virtually guarantees a film’s mediocrity.
As if these factors weren’t enough, Jurassic Park III is, at about an hour and a half, unusually short, so audiences may think they aren’t getting their money’s worth; and the creative minds behind the first two films — director Steven Spielberg and novelist Michael Crichton — had little to do with this entry in the franchise.
But surprise, surprise, Jurassic Park III turns all these weaknesses into strengths, and in doing so, it just may be the purest thrill ride of the summer. If the film is short, it’s because director Joe Johnston — whose past adventures include treks through the effects-laden jungles of Jumanji and the super-sized backyards of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — doesn’t waste time on preachy lessons about the evils of capitalism, the lessons of chaos theory, and the virtues of trusting in nature. Instead, he takes us, as briskly as possible, from one narrow escape to the next, and along the way, he throws in just enough new creatures to make the whole experience seem fresh again.
It helps that Johnston has a talented cast at his disposal, and that he plays with our expectations in the early scenes. Sam Neill is back as Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist who narrowly escaped becoming raptor food in the original film, and when we first see him, he is trying to explain the difference between herbivores and carnivores to a small child. Then Ellie (Laura Dern), his assistant from the first film, walks up. Have they married and settled down?
Actually, no — the child is Ellie’s, but she has married someone else, and Dr. Grant is just paying a visit, to share his latest theories about velociraptors with her.
Then Dr. Grant, who is struggling to raise funds for his work, gets an offer he can’t refuse from Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni), a seemingly wealthy couple who want Dr. Grant to guide them on a flight over one of the dinosaur-populated islands. The Kirbys act as though they could buy anything they wanted; will they turn out to be greedy villains, as most millionaires are in these films?
Actually, no — once their plane crashes on the island, it turns out they are really a divorced, middle-class couple who have temporarily reunited to find their son Eric (Trevor Morgan), who went missing while para-sailing near the island with Amanda’s boyfriend.
Well, if the film still needs a villain, who will it be? Perhaps Dr. Grant’s new assistant, Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola), who steals a couple of velociraptor eggs, in the hope of selling them when they get back to land?
Questions like these keep the audience guessing, but they don’t really matter in the end. What does matter is that the dinosaurs are, in some respects, even nastier than before. The T-Rex makes a brief appearance, but it promptly gets its ass kicked by an even larger meat-eater called the Spinosaurus, which not only has a more powerful set of jaws but can swim, too, its sail poking out of the water ominously like the fin on one of Spielberg’s sharks. (A recurring gag involving a satellite phone swallowed by this beast brings to mind the crocodile that ticked like a clock in Peter Pan.) Even better, this film introduces us to the Pteranodons, flying dinosaurs that live in nests high, high above the ground. Although they normally soar through the air, the first one we see makes his entrance walking out of the fog, stalking his prey on a narrow steel bridge. It’s one of several great moments in this film.
If one wanted to nitpick, one could certainly complain about the script, which creates new loose ends without resolving any left over from the previous films, and implausibly puts the characters through incredible physical abuse while allowing them to emerge virtually unscathed. But, as written by Election director Alexander Payne and two other credited writers, Jurassic Park III is cynically amusing, not least when it takes digs at the previous films, and, most surprising of all, it actually may leave you wanting more.
– A version of this review first appeared in the Vancouver Courier.