The original Jurassic Park was a revelation when it first released. The special effects were nothing short of astonishing and it really did push boundaries, breaking new ground in visual effects technology that unquestionably changed the way that films were made, for better and worse.
It wrapped up its story fairly neatly though – and it said everything that needed to be said about the danger of messing with Mother Nature. Or so we thought.
There was little reason, at least narratively, for a sequel to Jurassic Park to exist. Nevertheless, both Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg caved to fan and commercial pressure with their book and film sequels to the original, to drastically lesser, very unsatisfying effect.
If there was little reason for one sequel to exist, well – there was definitely no reason for another. Yet Jurassic Park III still came along, albeit somewhat belatedly – again, seemingly as a result of commercial concerns, rather than there being an interesting story to be told with the material. That’s unfortunately very obvious this time; even more so than with The Lost World, which tied itself in knots in an attempt to give itself a reason to exist.
With no book to even loosely base the story on this time – and no Spielberg at the helm – it was left to longtime Spielberg collaborator, director Joe Johnston (who has, admittedly, made some brilliant adventure films, including the underrated period superhero movie The Rocketeer) to steer the ship. With less clout than Spielberg – and likely, a lot less control over the proverbial ship as a consequence – we have a functional but very underwhelming film, with a few decent action sequences but little else.
The story this time around is that of – again – Site B, which has become an attraction for thrill seeking tourists. Though they don’t actually set foot on the island, tourists can pay to parasail close by, in the hope of spotting the exotic wildlife. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for this to go horribly wrong, ending up with a kid being stranded on the island. His parents – estranged husband and wife William H. Macy and Téa Leoni – find themselves unable to get help from any Costa Rican or American government authority, leaving them with little choice but to reach out to someone with intimate knowledge of both dinosaurs and the Jurassic Park facility: the first film’s palaeontologist, Alan Grant. With a small team of mercenaries and a student of Alan’s in tow, can they rescue the kid and escape Site B?
Bar a few very minor – and somewhat inconsequential – twists in terms of the intentions or identities of a few characters, that really is the entire plot. It’s very thin; bolstered only by a somewhat protracted introduction that gets us up to speed on where Alan is after the events of the first film. It’s a real downer; Alan has split up with Ellie Satler and she’s now married with two young children – Alan, meanwhile, is still digging up fossils and theorising about the behaviour of Velociraptors despite seeing them up close and personal just a few years beforehand.
It feels like a mistake to split the couple up after the hopeful ending of the first film; especially as the ending hinted at Alan finally coming around to the idea of having children himself, having spent the majority of his time taking care of John Hammond’s grandchildren. It’s a bit odd to see Ellie move into the role of housewife and mother too, with little involvement in the overall story, though she proves pivotal to the outcome.
At least Alan gets some screen time and a decent amount of backstory though; many of the other characters featured are little more than dino fodder and are quickly dispatched. A potentially interesting development for Alan’s student, Billy (played by Alessandro Nivola), is squandered when the discovery that he’s stolen Velociraptor eggs from a nest the group happens upon is waved away; the potential for this to have been something more sinister or conspiratorial is lost.
The couple who trick Grant into going to the island are not who they say they are, though this is fairly inconsequential by the time we find out and affects nothing more than Alan’s mood. That said, William H. Macy is brilliant as always, with some great comedic lines; though Téa Leoni is decent enough alongside him, she’s used as a walking, uncomfortable cliché – the shrill, emotional female – far too often.
Of course, the real stars of the show – what everyone really wants to see – are the dinosaurs. There’s a decent variety this time around, with some new ones alongside the more familiar species. Even the velociraptors get a lick of paint, with them now having a sort of feathered crest.
The velociraptors are pretty central once again, though the Big Bad of the film is one we haven’t seen before – the Spinosaurus. Early on we get a showdown between a T-Rex and the Spinosaurus, perhaps to demonstrate how deadly our new spiny animal is; it doesn’t end well for the Rex. It’s pretty well staged, to be fair – a crunchy, large scale tussle that’s only hampered by shoehorning the characters into the middle of the action.
The effects this time are massively variable in quality. There’s still some astonishingly good puppetry and animatronic creature work here (courtesy, once more, of Stan Winston Studios), but much of the CGI work is pretty bad, even in comparison to the two previous franchise entries. There’s some terrible blue/green screen work even when there’s no dinosaur action involved (the opening parasailing scene is horrendously bad in this respect, with no creatures in sight). There’s a scene with Brachiosaurs that looks terrible from an effects point of view; instead of being impressed and in awe, as the characters are, we’re just reminded of better handled scenes from the previous films.
There are some bright spots; the Pteranodon spotted at the end of the second film leads to a whole colony of them making an appearance here – they are brilliantly threatening and, for the most part, well rendered from an effects point of view. The aerial nature of the threat feels like something we haven’t seen before in the franchise, which avoids the unoriginal, repetitive feel in many of the other scenes. There’s a deadly, viciously nasty trap laid by Velociraptors that’s creepy and well staged too. A well shot, tense waterborne attack has shades of a scene from the first novel that hadn’t made it to screen in either of the previous two films.
However, just as it’s difficult for the characters to escape the island (again!), it’s also difficult to escape the feeling that we’ve seen most of this before – and the law of diminishing returns definitely strikes. Though it’s almost a relief to have the narrative stripped of any complications and have a straight action/chase movie, it also feels like there should be more meat on the bones of a Jurassic Park film. The overly complicated nature of the competing factions/characters in the otherwise simplistic hunt of The Lost World has gone, but so has most of the science vs nature debate in Jurassic Park. It’s not an out-and-out terrible film, but it’s not a good one either. It certainly has its moments, but it’s no wonder that it killed interest in the franchise for 14 years.
Does 2015 release Jurassic World reverse the downward trajectory of the series though? You’ll soon find out if you don’t already know; a review will be coming soon…
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