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Jurassic Park III, 2001. Directed by Joe Johnston. Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl, Laura Dern.

Synopsis: Palentologist Alan Grant has a problem.  In the wake of the Jurassic Park debacle and the ensuing disasters at Site B on Isla Sorna and in San Diego, his profession is in danger of becoming obsolete.  At a seminar, no one wants to hear about his new theories concerning the behavior of velociraptors; they want to know about his encounters with the real things. One audience member notes that digging for fossils to find out about dinosaurs is passe, since one could make the trek to Isla Sorna and observe them in the wild.  Grant is having trouble raising the funds to keep his dig in Montana running, and even though he claims that "no force on Earth" could compel him to set foot on an island teeming with real dinosaurs, when rich adventurers Paul and Amanda Kirby wave a checkbook in front of his face to act as a guide on a flyover of the island, he reluctantly accepts.  The Kirbys have an ulterior motive, however.  Their son vanished while parasailing off the coast of the island and they fully intend to land their plane to look for him.  Once on the ground, nature takes a hand and the dinosaurs make short work of our intrepid explorers and their hired mercenaries.  Soon they are left with only Grant and his assistant, Billy to guide them to safety.  "You realize, of course," Grant warns them,"that you probably won't get off this island alive."....

Third Verse, Same as the First: I never wrote a review of the original Jurassic Park.  There didn't seem much point to it, really, since it was a cultural phenomenon. It was largely critic-proof.  Eight years further on, I can honestly say that I am ambivalent towards it.  The characters are shallow, the science is bad, the plot is preposterous, and the resolution to the movie smacks of cheating.  The dinosaurs, however, were miraculous.  When there were prehistoric reptiles on the screen, all other considerations were brushed aside. Those sequences reduced me to childhood, gawping in wonder at the sights I was seeing.  Despite my disdain of the cinematic elements of the film, I still own the thing in an expensive CAV laserdisc edition. The second film, on the other hand, didn't have nearly the same impact. It was disjointed, clumsy, and filled with actors with whom the audience has difficulty identifying.  Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, and Vince Vaughn aren't exactly the most accessible performers.  Steven Spielberg could have made this in his sleep and had it come out okay, and I suspect that that is exactly what he did.  He had moved on to bigger and better things in the interim between the Jurassic Park films.  The quality curve being what it is, one wonders why anyone would make a third film.  I mean, these films ran out of ideas halfway through the first installment.  The answer is money, of course. Given this particular cinematic pedigree, and given that Joe Johnston, Spielberg's replacement on the project, was given a truncated schedule and a screen treatment that was still being tweaked, its a miracle that something remotely watchable survived...imagine my surprise.

Sweet Relief: Jurassic Park III, while lacking something in the originality department, has two important characteristics that elevate it above the usual summer blockbusters.  First: it's edited at a reasonable pace.  The audience can follow the action as it unfolds onscreen.  Second: it's short. This last point might be a disappointment to some filmgoers who want the maximum dinosaur mayhem that their money can buy, but I'm just relieved that the film hasn't expanded beyond what the audience can bear.  It has no aspirations as an epic. It's an old-fashioned monster movie, and on that score, it delivers in spades.  This is a case of the constraints bringing a project into focus. Joe Johnston has built his career on solid, workman like entertainments and he brings a no-nonsense pragmatism to assembling his set pieces here.  The truncated schedule for filming this means that it didn't go through six levels of producers to get to the theater. There is something to be said for that.

Performances: Sam Neill, our hero here, brings a warmth to his role that is enormously more appealing than Jeff Goldblum's similar turn in the second movie.  He has a crooked grin and looks comfortable in his Indiana Jones fedora.  He plays a couple of marvelously understated (and completely unexpected) scenes with Laura Dern early in the movie that give his character a life outside of the mechanics of the plot, which makes him a rarity in summer blockbusters.  He's not a cardboard cutout.  William H. Macy is pretty good, too, in full panic mode.  Tea Leoni, on the other hand, is so annoying that the audience can't help but hope that she gets eaten by a dinosaur.  There is a downside to the performances here: most of these characters are given absolutely stupid things to do to move the plot along.  I mean, why would a bright paleontologist like Grant's assistant, Billy, swipe eggs from a velociraptor nest? And why would a woman who has just witnessed three men get chomped by dinosaurs, persist in calling for her missing son at the top of her lungs, as if she didn't realize that she might be attracting dinosaurs. I once said to someone that the original Jurassic Park  could be summarized in the sentence, "Dinosaurs good, people bad."  That statement continues to hold true through two sequels.

Set Pieces: Where Jurassic Park III really shines is in its set-pieces and special effects.  The dinosaurs in this movie are palpably real.  The combination of CGI with Stan Winston's animated puppets is seamless.  The film has three standout set-pieces, really:  the initial encounter with the spinosaurus (in which it makes short work of the Kirby's chartered jet and hired mercs), the brutal and exquisitely filmed fight between the spinosaurus and the T-rex, the descent through the pteranodon birdcage, and the final, waterbourn duel with the spinosaurus.  All of these are filmed with an economy of action and edited without showboating or annoying flashiness.  The fight between the spinosaurus and the T-rex, brief though it is, is filmmaking that would make Willis O' Brien weep with envy.  And, man, the pteranodons are scarier monsters in this film than the velociraptors ever were.

In sum, I have to wonder just how much my enjoyment of this particular film stems from the fact that the summer of 2001 has been particularly short on entertaining movies.  But what the hell. Jurassic Park III is very good at being what it is: an unpretentious B-movie adventure.  It's not transcendent, but not much is anymore. Alas...