Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2001)

7. Jurassic Park III

During the early production of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” for a minute it looked like Steven Spielberg might not direct the sequel. During this brief time, Joe Johnston expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. When Spielberg inevitably took over the director’s chair, Steve made Johnston the promise that, if a third trip to Jurassic Park happened, he’d get the gig. Sure enough, when production started moving on “Jurassic Park III,” Johnston directed it. The film had a troubled shoot. The original script was abandoned weeks before filming began, forcing a new story to be cooked up quickly. Much of the film was shot without a final script. “Jurassic Park III” is a love-it or hate-it affair for fans, representing either the franchise’s nadir or a goofy popcorn muncher.

In the years since the original “Jurassic Park,” Alan Grant has grown a little bitter. He finds it difficult to muster enthusiasm for dinosaurs after almost being eaten by one. Meanwhile, the existence of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna – the second island explored in “The Lost World” – is well-known. In hopes of getting close to it while jet-skiing, a teenage boy and his guide disappears on the island. The boys’ divorced parents tricks Grant into taking them back to the island. Soon, they are stranded on Site B and being pursued by another batch of killer dinosaurs.

“Jurassic Park III” has a wildly different tone then either of the previous two “Jurassic Park” movies. Both features had plenty of humor in it. However, thrills and awesome sights took precedence. Part three, meanwhile, is an intentionally goofy flick. Early on, Grant has a day-dream about a raptor speaking with a human’s voice. The heroes have to dig a satellite phone out of a pile of dino scat. An attempt to contact Dr. Stattler with said phone is interrupted when her toddler son is distracted by Barney the Dinosaur playing on the TV. Part three has a light-hearted, goofy tone. While the first two films felt like major events, the third feels like a silly B-movie, with more absurd action, broader characters, and sillier comic relief.

The biggest example of “Jurassic Park III’s” B-movie roots is its brand new antagonist. Minutes after arriving on the island, a human by-stander is picked off by a spinosaurus. The spinosaurus is, indeed, the biggest theropod predator thus discovered. However, paleontologist theorize that it mostly ate fish. “Jurassic Park III’s” spinosaurus, meanwhile, is a determined killer that spends the entire movie chasing the heroes. A genuinely thrilling sequence has it rolling the fusillade of the airplane around, trying to get at the prey inside. Later, it drags the cage the humans are hiding inside into the water, another thrilling sequence. It smashes through a fence in pursuit of its queries and emerges from the waves in order to get at them. So the dinosaurs have evolved from partially plausible predators to movie monsters, pursuing their prey at all cost.

In order to establish that the spinosaurus is the biggest bad-ass around, the creature duels – and quickly dispatches – the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While I am fine with the spinosaurus’ goofery throughout the film, this is a bridge too far. We get it, movie. This new dinosaur is not to be fucked with. Sloppy writing like this is far from the only indication that this was a hastily written production. The lies that Kirby tells Grant, that he swallows without further evidence, seems unlikely. The sudden reappearance of a whistle mimicking the velociraptor’s cries is a blatant Chekov’s gun, set up early in the film. The resolution features a sudden, mostly unexplained rescue by the Navy. (Which was apparently inserted at the insistence of the Department of Defense.) So, yes, it is very evident that this movie didn't have an ending when filming began.

As ridiculous as the stuff involving the spinosaurus is, it’s actually not the silliest dinosaur related stuff in “JP3.” Does anyone else remember that episode of “The Critic” were they joked about the raptors getting smarter in the “Jurassic Park” sequels? In this one, they actually do get smarter. They yap at each other, communicating via shrieks and yelps. One scene has a velociraptor climbing a fence, in order to get at the humans on the other side. The most absurd moment is when the dinosaurs actually set a complex trap, snapping the bait human’s neck afterwards. Once again, this strains believablity, pushing the movie out of the realm of serious sci-fi/fantasy into goofy exploitation antics. I’m not sure how to feel about the lightly feathered new designs either, which strike an uneven balance between the scientific consensus of feathered dinosaurs and the Hollywood-preferred style of naked dinosaurs.

I’m not saying that “Jurassic Park III” isn’t thrilling. It’s actually full of fun, entertaining stuff. The raptors chase the family through a research facility, pretending to be hiding inside a glass tube. One genuinely clever moment is the reveal that the teenage boy has successfully been surviving on the island, when he tosses smoke grenades at the dinosaurs. Most importantly, “Jurassic Park III” finally devotes a set piece to the pteradons. While diving through a valley, the winged reptiles swoop in, attacking and biting. It’s probably the most genuinely thrilling sequence in the film. As a life-long pterodactyl fan, it’s just really, really cool to finally see them realized on-screen. (Another fan favorite dino, the ankylosaurs, also have a much more minor appearance.)

Joe Johnston’s direction matches the movie’s campy tone. “Jurassic Park III” was made before the revival of 3-D. At times, however, it feels like it was made for the format. Dinosaurs repeatedly leap towards the camera, snapping their jaws in the air. Johnston actually seems obsessed with shoving the dinosaur’s faces, along with swinging skulls and airplane wings, into the audience’s faces. However, Johnston does a good job of imitating Spielberg’s style. One of the few times the film slows down involves the humans floating on a boat and seeing a herd of plant-eaters on the shore. The camera soaks in the sight of the dinosaurs, their grandeur and sheer size. It’s a nice, quiet moment, even sort of touching.

Likewise, the special effects in “JP3” are fantastic. Well, let me clarify. The practical effects are phenomenal. The spinosaur is brought to life by a massive puppet that can snap its jaws and swivel its head with lightening speed. The velociraptors have especially expressive faces, tilting their heads and squinting their eyes. There’s even a giant probe pterodactyl head used at one point. All of this stuff, courtesy of Stan Winston Studios, is great. The movie’s CGI, on the other hand, hasn’t aged as well. It doesn’t make any sense to me that the CGI in 1994’s original “Jurassic Park” holds up so well but the digital effects in the sequels are increasingly phony looking. When scene, where Alan Grant is diving below the CGI spinosaurus’ tail, is especially fake looking.

The third entry in the series seems to continues “The Lost World’s” interest in family. At the film’s beginning, Paul Kirby and Amanda Kirby are nearly divorced. Their relationship is cracking apart, not helped by Paul’s milquetoast attitudes. Their quest to find their son, however, brings them back together. The parents are cheerfully reunited with Eric. After finding their son, they reflect on why their relationship failed. After Amanda worries that Paul may have been eaten by the spinosaur, she cries out for him. As in part two, the movie attempts to awkwardly tie the dinosaurs in with the human subplot. The velociraptors’ pursuing their stolen eggs mirrors the Kirbys searching for their lost son. It doesn’t add much depth to the film.

Something that truly differentiates “Jurassic Park III” from “The Lost World” is the presence of Sam Neill. Absent last time, it is nice to have Dr. Grant back. The character is given a fairly routine character arc. Considering the events of the first film, Grant has gone from being a lover of dinosaurs to despising them. (His ascertain that it's hard to like dinosaurs after one tries to eat you seems fair.) By the end of the film, after first-hand witnessing the intelligence and grace of these animals, that love is renewed. It's hard to tell how invested in the material Neill is. He nods and tells jokes throughout, seemingly having a good time. Yet, at other moments, he seems more like a cog in a massive machine, just going through the motions.

Dr. Grant's arc is the only routine piece of writing in the film. At the start of the film, Paul and Amanda Kirby are on the verge of divorce. Their relationship is straining and the disappearance of their son has pushed things even further to the breaking point. However, throughout this wild and dangerous adventure, they are reminded of why they care about each other again, their love renewed. If you've ever seen any disaster movie, you may recognize this extremely common concept. The cast, however, goes a long way towards patching over the routine writing. William H. Macy is playing an extremely William H. Macy type, a slightly pathetic guy that has lied about how important he is. Macy is, of course, excellent at embodying this type of role. Tea Leoni is similarly appealing as Amanda, especially once she's reunited with her son and her Mama Bear instincts kick in.

“Jurassic Park III” has the good sense to get out before we can think about it too much. Compared to the epic two hour-plus run times of the previous films, this one runs a slim 97 minutes.  Audiences clearly didn't mind the shorter run time. Despite largely negative reviews, “Jurassic Park III” grossed over 300 million dollars at the box office, becoming the ninth highest grossing film of the year. This was about half what “The Lost World” made, which about half of the original. That's probably why Universal rebooted the franchise a decade later. “Jurassic Park III” is silly as hell, and doesn’t compare much to the original, but it is an entertaining flick. Despite its blockbuster budget and cutting edge special effects, the heart of a slick, goofy B-movie beats inside it. And that’s okay. [Grade: B]

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