If all the Jurassic Park films were embodied as famous monsters, then the original film would be the king lizard Godzilla, The Lost World would be the sympathetic and hulked-out King Kong, and the third movie would be Barney the Purple Dinosaur. In other words: it’s impossible to take 2001’s Jurassic Park III seriously, making it equally hard to get too worked up about its blatant terribleness. But I’ll try!
Attacking Jurassic Park III in an efficient way would be a lot like a pack of raptors planning their attack on Muldoon in the first film; organized, intelligent, and ultimately, brutal. Still, I feel like this brand of takedown is a little bit sad and has been done before by the film critics who reviewed this bummertown afterthought sequel at the time it was released. So this is hard. I don’t want to beat a dead dinosaur after it’s already been fossilized, you know? The nicest thing you can say about Jurassic Park III is that it’s upfront about its badness and wears an obviously troubled production history very clearly on Dr. Grant’s plaid sleeve.
Jurassic Park III telegraphs out how much it’s going to suck very early in the film when the first face of a Velociraptor we actually see is one that is talking to Alan Grant in a dream sequence. Infamously, this is a raptor with a little plume of a feather on its head, and it’s saying to Dr. Grant in the dream “Alan, wake up, wake up!”* as if it’s trying to remind him he was once in a good Jurassic Park movie. The movie Alan Grant awakes to is infinitely worse than the one the talking dream-raptor may have inhabited.
*This actually happens.
At this point in what we’ll call “the plot,” Alan Grant is sleeping on a plane headed for Isla Sorna otherwise known as “Site B” otherwise known as “not actually Jurassic Park.” He’s there because William H. Macy and Téa Leoni have written a blank check to Grant and his young paleontology apprentice Billy, in order to enlist them on a mission to find their missing son who was on an illegal dinosaur safari with Téa Leoni’s boyfriend above Site B. Téa Leoni and William H. Macy have teamed up with some gun-toting mercenaries and really don’t have any money, meaning Dr. Grant fell for the classic blank-check-to-dinosaur-island scam. This is exactly the same scam he fell for in the first movie when Old Man Santa Claus told him that he’d fund all of Grant’s digs and research if he’d come out to Jurassic Park. And at that point in his life, Grant had never almost been eaten by a dinosaur before, so it kind of made sense how excited he and Ellie were to go on that all-expenses-paid-trip-to-dino-land. Santa even poured them champagne. Two movies later, William H. Macy and Téa Leoni buy Grant and Billy cheap yellow beers in a crappy dive bar while Randy Newman is playing, and that’s enough to convince Alan!
This aspect of the film is annoying and seemingly just a rehash of the plot contrivance of the first film, but it is surprisingly convincing in one specific way. If you consider that Jurassic Park III deals with the obvious full-on depression of Dr. Alan Grant and what happens when depressed people feel isolated or frustrated, the movie is a little more palatable. Grant’s old flame Ellie (Laura Dern) is now clearly the one-who-got-away, as she’s now married to some boring guy, who we know is boring because he wears a tie. What a square! Meanwhile, when Dr. Grant gives academic lectures about how dinosaurs probably would have evolved into super-intelligent reptiles (like in V!) NO ONE CARES and only wants to ask him about almost getting eaten by a T-Rex. This emotional turmoil combined with a lack of career legitimacy leads Dr. Grant to make a real bad decision and trust total strangers with zero credentials, hence the trip to fake Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park III’s screenplay went through numerous writers during its totally messed-up pre-production process. (There wasn’t actually a completed script when they started shooting.) At one point the script was being re-jiggered by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the screenwriters of the excellent films Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt. What does all this mean? Well, Payne and Taylor are really good at writing films about people who are dangerously depressed and Alan Grant in Jurassic Park III is certainly that. If any good or realistic plot elements survived from Payne and Taylor’s versions of this screenplay, it’s definitely the weird, moody Alan Grant stuff.
However, everything else in this movie is a total mess, mostly because of two major flaws. The first problem is that other than Grant (who is depressed), we don’t care about any of these characters and are instead actively hoping they all get eaten by dinosaurs. The kid is totally interesting and just kind of a faux-version of Tim, only a bit older. Billy seems unrealistic and sort of jerky, and the less said about William H. Macy and Téa Leoni’s fake relationship and their merry band of mercenaries the better.
But, beyond the flat and boring people, we have no conception of spatial relationships on Isla Sorna. To put it another way, it’s hard for us to believe in any of these escapes, because we have no idea where anything is at any given time. In the first Jurassic Park, we’re shown exactly where all the fences are and exactly what the boundaries are of the park. We have a good idea how far the T-Rex paddock is from the visitors’ center, etc. This means, when everything goes to hell, the audience feels like they know just how hard everything is going to be. In terms of location, the original Jurassic Park brings everything full circle back to that visitors’ center where the T-Rex towers over its own recently destroyed skeleton, which, of course, we saw like 45 minutes prior when everything was calm. The “park” aspect of Jurassic Park feels real-ish in the original Jurassic Park.
In contrast, Jurassic Park III treats locations like a video game: we have no idea what the next environment will hold until we get there. Billy leaps from rock platform to rock platform, avoiding Pterodactyls like they are cartoons. Dr. Grant and company drive a boat down a dangerous river, with seemingly no destination other than “the beach,” which is confusing because it’s an island, so which beach do you mean? Jurassic Park III’s poorly structured plot is at least partially the result of this unconvincing spatial layout. Great fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings give us an idea of where we’re going and where we’ve been, and though there might be a good map of Isla Sorna out there, what ends up on the screen is a jumbled contrivance; an environment seemingly built only to house these specific scenes and nothing else. Here, buying the concept of cloned dinosaurs isn’t the problem for the audience, it’s believing in the island they live on.
In the end, Jurassic Park III has two deus ex machinas, one false, and one real. The false one is when Dr. Grant tries to communicate with the raptors by using his little synthetic raptor-call vocalizing chamber. The movie makes a big deal about how the raptors can “vocalize,” which is treated like a totally new revelation. This is silly, because we already heard the raptors bark at each other in the first movie. Making matters weirder, when Grant makes these noises, it doesn’t change the outcome of the situation too much other than to delay the raptors for a second. (Plus, it’s like the Star Trek IV whale probe conundrum: even if Grant can simulate the sounds, he doesn’t speak the raptors’ language, so why bother?)
But, the film’s real deus ex machina occurs at a different time when Alan Grant uses a satellite phone to call up Ellie back in the states. When he calls, her toddler answers the phone and absent-mindedly puts the phone down a few times to watch Barney on television. Here the movie is obviously attempting a joke: we know this purple dinosaur on TV is not dangerous and the ones Grant and co. are facing, are. And yet, because Barney distracts Ellie’s kid, Barney is equally as dangerous as the Spinosaurus in the river. Jurassic Park movies should have “vocalizing” dinosaurs, but they should never have talking dinos, and counting the raptor in the dream sequence, this movie has two.
True, the satellite phone call to Ellie eventually results in the military coming to rescue Grant and these morons from Isla Sorna (WHAAATTTTT???) but when the call is happening, Barney is dancing and jiggling around and Dr. Grant is drowning. Grant technically survived, but the “Jurassic” movies drowned right in that moment as Barney told us he loved us.
Can Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard resuscitate this beloved franchise? Jurassic Park III was the last JP movie before the impending Jurassic World. Seemingly the only thing World needs to do to be better than JPIII is to feature characters we’re worried about, a location which we understand and fewer people who are depressed.
Oh. Also. No talking dinosaurs. Especially ones that dance and sing.