Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

back to main contents page of John Kenneth Muir's Transmission: Editorial at Deep Outside SFFH

August 2001


Jurassic Park III Awakens Prehistoric Memories

Okay. First off, I have a confession to make. I love dinosaur movies and always have. I must admit to lacking any objective, critical or scholarly reason for this unusual entertainment preference, but it's a fact nonetheless. Perhaps it has something to do with nostalgia for my misspent youth: those long ago Saturday mornings glued to the television watching Sid and Marty Krofft's dinosaur adventure, Land of the Lost (1974-76) and reruns of King Kong (1933). In particular, I remember myself as an impressionable six-year old, being completely astonished by the stop-motion Kong/T-Rex bout in that classic Schoedsack production. Back in those days, that scene was about as real as dinosaur movies got. Then there was my bedroom, a virtual shrine to the world of prehistory, filled with dinosaur model kits and toys of all varieties, and dinosaur books to boot. Hell, every red-blooded kid in America loves dinosaurs, right? I don't think I'm alone in this…at least I hope not. There's just something endlessly fascinating about those prehistoric monsters and about the magical films that have pitted modern man against the oversized and beautiful beasts.

The year 1993 brought Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park to the world, and I loved it with the same irrational, non-critical devotion that made King Kong, Land of the Lost, The Last Dinosaur (1966) and The Land that Time Forgot (1975) such thorough dino-pleasures. Sure, it mangled Michael Crichton's bestseller almost beyond recognition and featured some truly dreadful emoting from Laura Dern. Yeah, I was one of the millions of viewers who hoped the obnoxious kids in the film would become raptor appetizers. And yes, the film's dialogue was pretty atrocious (anyone remember the "flea circus" scene about two-thirds of the way through? Ugh!). Jurassic Park even showcased Spielberg's only real flaw as a filmmaker: his tendency to over-sentimentalize "human" scenes and thereby transform them to schmaltz.

Yet Jurassic Park easily passed the biggest test of all dinosaur movies: the dinosaurs looked incredibly real (thanks to Stan Winston, Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet), and the film featured many thrilling scenes of the oversized beasties chomping down on unsuspecting humans (or even better, lawyers!). One of the most breathtaking special effects moments in modern cinema remains the film's final glimpse of the T-Rex inside the Park Visiting Center as a banner proclaiming "when dinosaurs ruled the Earth…" flutters to the ground near the colossal, roaring predator. It's a beautifully composed shot, and that CGI dinosaur looks amazing, even eight years later. I loved every minute of Jurassic Park - dramatic flaws and all.

And I loved The Lost World: Jurassic Park too. If anything, this sequel had even more serious structural flaws than the original. The film's real plot (about a dinosaur hunt on Isla Sorna or "Site B,") ended at about the 90-minute point, and then a new plot (with a T-Rex on the loose in San Diego) commenced in its stead. These two story strands were so lazily connected that some of the main characters (including Vince Vaughn's environmental crusader) disappeared without so much as a word of explanation. And there was another obnoxious kid in the mix too…who just happened to be a brilliant gymnast (a helpful tool when trapped with velociraptors, apparently). But Spielberg's sequel also passed my dino-test with flying colors. The animals looked great, the action (particularly a dinosaur safari) was breathtaking, and the pace was non-stop. Only a curmudgeon (or a jaded movie critic) could have resisted The Lost World's charms. In spite of my training as a film reviewer, I would have given it an enthusiastic thumbs-up based solely on the scene in which a Mommy and Daddy T-Rex double team an SUV and then lunch on an unlucky adventurer. Also particularly fun was the scene in which a swarm of little dinosaurs pecked a nasty hunter to death. (There was even a great, exploitative, bloody close-up of one of the wee monsters clamping down on the guy's lip!) It wasn't art, but boy was it entertaining.

Now, in the summer of Lara Croft and Shrek, arrives Jurassic Park III. The advance word on this new sequel was not good. Industry gossip suggested the film had started shooting without a completed script (never a good sign…) and director Joe Johnston was helming the picture instead of thrill-master Steven Spielberg. Then the reviews started sliding in on Wednesday and Thursday (July 18 and 19th), and were more poisonous than a spitting dilophosaurus. Even the film's scant running time (89 minutes) was suggestive of a summer sequel letdown. The first two films in the series were over two hours long, so this "shorter" visit to Jurassic Park smelled of a quickie job designed to pack more people into the theaters quicker - before the bad news got out.

But, to my delight, when I sat down to view Jurassic Park III this weekend, I was pleasantly surprised. Don't heed the negative buzz. This adventure is a sleek, non-stop roller coaster ride with amazing special effects and the most interesting batch of cinematic dinosaurs yet animated. I appreciate that the makers of the film have kept abreast of current dinosaur research and decorated the giant animals not only with colorful patterns on their skin, but even, in some cases, with hair-like feathers. Grumpy, the dull-gray lizard king of Land of the Lost, is now truly extinct.

Right off the bat, it's obvious Jurassic Park III isn't a Spielberg signature picture. There's almost no sentimentality in the story whatsoever (at least until the last five, corny, minutes…). It's sort of "anti-sentimental" by design. The film opens with Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant visiting his old flame Ellie (Laura Dern). Only now she's married to someone else (a cold-blooded lizard-type, himself) and even has a child by him. This is a terrific (and nicely realistic) touch because the original Jurassic Park labored to suggest that Grant's experiences with Hammond's grandchildren had "reformed" him and somehow made him "kiddie" friendly. It was a contrived subplot, and one of the worst elements of that film. This new picture undercuts that idea in its opening scenes. Ellie has moved on with her life rather than waiting for Grant to grow up, and a cynical Grant still lives alone and still gives more attention to dinosaurs than his own personal life.

Once Grant and a planeload of "tourists" (including William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) crash at Site B early on in this sequel, there's even less time and opportunity for sentimentality. About a third of the cast gets eaten or slashed in one minute flat (including a disgusting moment on a runway…) and then there's a vicious, lightning-fast wrestling match between a T-Rex and a Spinosaurus…and for once in a Jurassic Park movie there's no stupid gawking at the dinosaurs. Better just to get out from under foot. "It's their world now" states the film's ad line, and it is appropriate. This is a very, very dangerous place.

I also liked how this sequel handled its obligatory child character. He's not nearly as obnoxious or whiny as his predecessors, and the director doesn't spare him the wrath of the dinosaurs. In one truly riveting and well-visualized sequence the kid gets assaulted (and even bloodied!) by baby pterodactyls. Again, it's something that the contemporary Spielberg probably wouldn't have contemplated had it been his film, but it makes logical sense. Dinosaurs don't play favorites, after all. Jurassic Park III also has a great joke in it, one involving a cellular phone. It reminded me of Captain Hook and the crocodile, only on a grander scale…

This Jurassic Park doesn't waste much time with pretentious debates about the moral implications of genetic engineering. It doesn't pause to feature a "sense of wonder" about the dinosaurs (except in one well-orchestrated scene on a river), and it doesn't pad its running time with schmaltz. It's just a rock'em, sock'em action flick with one thrill and one special effect after the other, all combined in a tight, riveting package. And, I must confess, I grooved on every minute of it. Sometimes, I just shake my head in disbelief at the critics who dismiss movies like this, as if they really walked into a movie called Jurassic Park III expecting Shakespeare or David Mamet (or even Kevin Williamson…). I sat down in my seat hoping to be entertained, thrilled and a little bit scared, and director Johnston delivered on all counts. He's directed a 90-minute amusement park attraction, and I appreciate his sense of pace. The dinosaurs get their licks in, the actors talk just enough to keep us interested in the story, and the whole thing is done before the silly plot wears out its welcome. My only disappointment with the film is that, had it been made in the 1960s and in the tradition of most great dinosaur movies (and actresses Fay Wray and Jessica Lange), Tea Leoni would have shed more of her clothing by the time of the finale…

There will be those who claim that Jurassic Park III is a heartless special effects movie. I find myself disagreeing with that assessment. There's a welcome scene in this movie where Neill's contemplative, slightly world-weary Grant notes the difference between children who become astronomers and those who become astronauts. That scene struck a chord with the dino-loving kid in me, the six year old who was mesmerized by King Kong, Land of the Lost and the rest, and who, more than anything, just wanted to see a T-Rex for real. Jurassic Park III may not speak to important or controversial themes, but it gets us as close as we can get to that childhood dream.


click for top of page

Content Copyright © John Kenneth Muir 1998-2007 All Rights Reserved.

Website Copyright John T. Cullen as indicated on this label. Editorial content copyright John Kenneth Muir as indicated above