Tuesday, March 17, 2009


“Jurassic Park 3” (*1/2 out of ****) doesn’t take itself seriously like its predecessors and neither should you. Director Steven Spielberg and bestselling author Michael Crichton, who collaborated on the superlative “Jurassic Park” (1993) and its knockout sequel “The Lost World (1997), had something to say about scientists who play God and the dangers of cloning. (I’m not given to handing out high praise to anything Spielberg does, but the first two “Jurassic Park” epics, like “Jaws,” are exceptions to the rule.) Sadly, Spielberg and Crichton had nothing to do with this sequel, and former “Star Wars” art director Joe Johnston of “October Sky” (1999), “The Rocketeer” (1991), and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989) replaced Spielberg at the helm. You’d think Johnston’s experience on “Jumanji” (1995) where zoo animals stomped everything in sight, would have made him the ideal candidate. Unfortunately, it didn’t. You can count the major differences between Johnston’s “Jurassic Park” and Spielberg’s “Jurassic Parks” in minutes. “JP3” clocks in at about 90 minutes, while both Spielberg epics exceeded two hours. Although it isn’t as pretentious—we’ll say—as the first two movies, “JP3” relies far more on humor than horror to its detriment.

This lukewarm, less-than-savage installment in the cloned-dinosaurs-run-amok series makes references to its predecessors that only hardcore, nitpicking “Jurassic Park” fans could catch. The joke about Jack Horner was cute. The dinosaurs are just as menacing, even though bloodthirsty moviegoers may feel cheated. (Imagine what Italian gorefest cult director Lucio Fulci would have done with a “Jurassic Park” movie.) Missing this time around is ‘chaos theoretician’ Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum of “Independence Day”), who enlivened both the original and the follow-up with his sarcasm. Paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill of “Jurassic Park”), who skipped out on “The Lost World,” returns as the dullest of dull heroes, while Grant’s former colleague Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern of “October Sky”) reappears in a welcome cameo. Grant visits her in the opening scene and finds her happily married to a U.S. State Department official with a toddler son and baby daughter. Before she waves goodbye, Ellie reminds Grant to call her if he ever needs her help. Predictably, freshman scenarist Peter Buchman, along with writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor of “Election” and “Citizen Ruth” don’t let her welsh on her promise. Film scriptwriting manuals classify this as ‘foreshadowing,’ setting up some future action so it doesn’t appear to haphazardly pop up out of the blue.

Basically, “JP3” follows the formula that “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” created with greater detail and daring. Reportedly, after Johnston perused the shooting script, he tore it up and ordered rushed rewrites. If this was the best they could contrive, no wonder “JP3” is so forgettable. Not only did “The Lost World” raise the stakes, but it also surpassed the original with its thrills and chills. Clearly, the third time wasn’t the charm. “Jurassic Park 3” is as pedestrian as “Jaws 3.” If you’ve seen the others, you know Laura Dern’s cameo at the outset is standard “Jurassic Park” practice. In “The Lost World,” Malcolm reunited briefly with John Hammond (Richard Attenborough of “The Great Escape”) and his grandchildren: Timothy ‘Tim’ Murphy (Joseph Mazzello) and Alexis ‘Lex’ Murphy (Ariana Richards) in an early scene. Children cannot die in the “Jurassic Park” franchise. Neither apparently can mother nor fathers. So much for suspense. Like “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic Park 3 has our desperate heroes plundering piles of dinosaur dung in search of a satellite phone that could serve as their salvation. That stinking satellite phone infuriated me initially when I heard it ring. I figured that some fool had left their cell phone ringer on in the theatre! Nevertheless, Sarah Harding owned a tattered camera bag she called her lucky bag, just as Belly Brennan sorts a similar camera bag. The scene where Tea Leoni hangs from a tree as ravenous raptors leap up at her alludes to the kitchen scene near the end of “Jurassic Park.” Instead of being jostling about in small recreational vehicles, Dr. Grant finds himself slammed around in the wrecked fuselage of a plane by a dinosaur. This scene lacks the sheer terror of the T-Rex’s introduction in “Jurassic Park” and doesn’t generate the suspense of “The Lost World” cliffhanger scene. Billy steals raptor eggs, and the mothers pursue them across Isla Sorna in a variation on “The Lost World” heroes that freed an injured T-Rex baby with a broken leg and found its irate mother pushing their motor home over a cliff. “The Lost World” T-Rexes subjected the motor home to more hair-raising demolition than the “JP3” T-Rex does to the plane. This time around baby Pterodactyls attack a teenager, much as “The Lost World” lizards swarmed after a little rich girl. The major revelation here is the raptors can communicate with each other and might possibly have supplanted primates. Wait, didn’t those same raptors communicate with each other back in “Jurassic Park” in the kitchen scene?

No matter where Dr. Alan Grant lectures, everybody only wants to quiz him about Isla Nublar and the San Diego disaster. He refuses to answer any questions about the first and reminds everybody that he wasn’t around when the dinosaurs stormed the California mainland. He insists fossils still provide the only legitimate source of information for paleontologists. “No force on Earth or Heaven will get me back on that island,” vows an incredulous Grant when tycoon Paul Kirby (William H. Macy of “Fargo”) and his ex-wife Amanda (Tea Leoni of “Deep Impact”) wave their checkbooks at him. No, we never learn what price Dr. Grant put on his services. While this dearth of information is deplorable, had we known Grant’s fee we might have felt less sympathetic toward him. All the Kirbys want him for is to serve as their guide as they fly over Isla Sorna, where “The Lost World” took place, and snap pictures of the wildlife. Paul assures him his import/export business contacts have cleared their flight with Costa Rican authorities to fly closer than anybody since the hurricane swept the island. Reluctantly, Grant changes his mind when his new assistant Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola of “Face/Off”) reminds him that they need funds to maintain their latest archeological expedition. Grant realizes his error when they land on the island. By the time he regains his wits they have landed. Watching them knock Grant out make him appear even more sympathetic. Kirby’s crew consists of Udesky (Michael Jeter of “The Green Mile”), the big-gun toting Cooper (John Diehl of “Pearl Harbor”) and pilot Nash (Bruce A. Young of “Trepass”). These expendables should have worn numbered jerseys in the order of their deaths by dinosaur. Anybody who has seen John Diehl in anything knows that he has become strictly a bit player since being one of the back-up narcotics partners in “Miami Vice.”

Director Joe Johnston misses the mark with “Jurassic Park 3.” Every movie he has helmed since “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” has been an improvement. Unfortunately, along with an abysmal, cut-rate script, Johnston never establishes the proper tone of terror. The talking dinosaur in Dr. Grant’s nightmare gets things off on the wrong foot. Tea Leoni’s ad nauseam scream sequence when a decaying skeleton dangles from a tree in classic textbook horror fashion struck me as a bad Mantan Moreland impersonation. She spends too much time dancing in revulsion. The scenarists shoulder part of the blame for their predictable, uninspired screenplay. Of course, the characters least attached to the audience die first. Neither Johnston nor his scribes spring a surprise until the abruptly quirky conclusion. Don’t look for character depth or development. The filmmakers didn’t have enough time. Obviously, violence was curbed for a family friendly PG-13 rating. Johnston never focuses on a death scene after the first chomp and keeps the aftermath pretty spotless. Munched bodies don’t bleed; though our heroes do extract human bones from dinosaur dung. Instead, to his credit, Johnston keeps the action moving at a gallop. Ultimately, “Jurassic Park 3” degenerates into a mediocre “The Most Dangerous Game: rehash with the dinosaurs stalking humans rather like a big game hunter stalking a human. Universal Studios must have blown the better part of their budget on the dinosaurs because “Jurassic Park 3” looks almost as low tech as “Alien3.”
Although Dr. Grant fires a flare gun once to distract a dinosaur, nobody packs a real gun for any length of time. The plot boils down to a series of random encounters in the jungle on their trek to the sea and a boat. Johnston stages none of these scenes with any verve.

Apparently, their 14-year old son Eric Kirby (Trevor Morgan of “The Sixth Sense”) and his guardian Ben Hildebrand (TV actor Mark Harelik) disappeared eight weeks ago while paragliding dangerously near Isla Sorna, and the Kirbys have launched an impromptu rescue mission without the consent of Costa Rican officials. Kirby carps about how useless the State Department is, and ironically his complaint comes back to haunt him in the end. Worse, Kirby confesses he is not a millionaire, merely a plumber. When our heroes discover it was a bad idea to land, they try to take off, and a dinosaur knocks their aircraft out of the air. They spend the remaining 75-minutes searching for Eric and dodging ravenous T-Rexes, velociraptors, flying Pteranodons, and a new lethal lizard called a Spinosaurus. Half of the fun of any horror movie is watching the idiots wander off from the main group and imperiling themselves. Nothing drastic enough occurs to get you to talk back to the screen about the characters behavior in “Jurassic Park 3.”

“Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” definitely weren’t for the squeamish, but “Jurassic Park 3” should give nobody nightmares. As in the first two entries, the genetically engineered dinosaurs walk tough, howl vividly, and snap up hapless humans in their jaws. Indeed, the visual effects technology has improved exponentially; sadly, the art of scriptwriting has regressed just as much. Unlike Spielberg, Johnston takes neither the plot nor the stakes to a higher level. Moreover, nothing in “Jurassic Park 3” matches either the T-Rex gobbling up the lawyer, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero of “Get Shorty”), in the original or the scenes from “The Lost World” where two T-Rexes tore poor Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) apart. Grant calls Ellie when a real dino tries to chomp and/or drown everybody. Hilariously, her young son delays taking her the phone so he can watch his favorite Barney the Purple Dinosaur episode! The out-of-place Barney scene deflates any suspense and tension that the Site B dinosaur causes as he rips away at a cage housing our heroes. Anybody who thrilled to the first two “Jurassic Park” creature features will probably roll their eyeballs in disbelief at the infantile idiocy of “Jurassic Park 3.”