Digital Dinosaurs in Digital Stereo
When Steven Spielberg’s film of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was released in 1993, most critics noted that Jeff Goldblum, as the smug, smirking chaos theorist Malcolm, gave the best performance in the film (at least he had the best lines: “Faster . . . Must go faster”). But no one really cared much about the performances or dialogue. We cared about seeing dinosaurs. And the film delivered several set pieces (the first T-Rex attack, the raptors in the kitchen) that stand as minor classics of their genre, genuinely thrilling pieces of cinema. If nominal hero Sam Neil lacked a little something in star quality and Laura Dern was stuck doing the Sigourney Weaver/Linda Hamilton workout, the “Oh, WOW!” factor made up for it, for the most part.
But because the other characters in Jurassic Park were so weak, it seemed promising when word came that Malcolm would be the lead in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, rather than letting the second film reflect Malcolm’s smart, ironic point of view, the sequel forced him into the tired “hero” role, even providing two damsels in distress (one his girlfriend, the other his daughter). The result made the first Jurassic Park look like Notting Hill when it came to warmth or human interaction. Worse, the dinosaurs weren’t as awesome the second time around, and the film contained no scenes to equal the best in the first. If the first movie was like a theme park ride that showed some signs of wear but still worked, the second was like that ride stripped to its bare bones. The wobbling and creaking were too overwhelming.
Without a sound structure in place, any ride is going to go off the rails eventually, and Jurassic Park III does just that. The script (credited to three writers, including Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who wrote Citizen Ruth and Election) lays out the premise as expediently as possible, so we can hurry up and get to the dinosaurs. Though it’s spared having to set up our willing suspension of disbelief (as the first film had to do), it has the same problem the second had: it must convince us that someone—Malcolm in the second film, Neill’s Alan Grant here—who has survived being hunted by dinosaurs once would tempt fate by exposing himself to them again. The real reason is, someone somewhere decided to connect the films by having one character from the first return in a major role in each sequel, with a cameo for another (Dern here, Richard Attenborough in Lost World). It’s not really necessary. The only constant element required of all the films in this series is, obviously, the dinosaurs. The rest are interchangeable. It’s not as though this is an actor-driven franchise such as the Die Hard films (no Bruce Willis, no movie). But it does make me wonder which characters are going to show up in the reportedly already planned Jurassic Park IV.
My expectations for the second sequel weren’t high. Here’s what I knew, going into the theater: Sam Neill is back as Grant, not a good sign (I admit, I have never warmed to Neill as an actor). William H. Macy is Paul, the man who entreats Alan to return to an island filled with dinosaurs. This is a little better news: Macy is a strong actor (though it’s a given that this film won’t provide him the opportunities of, say, Boogie Nights). Tea Leoni is Paul’s wife Amanda (I was neutral on this: she’s great-looking, and showed a merry way with physical comedy in Flirting With Disaster, but I’ve yet to see anything that suggests she is anything more than a leading-lady-o-matic, better than some, worse than others).
The “macguffin” of the film is Paul and Amanda’s young son, Eric, played by Trevor Morgan, who is stranded alone on “site B,” the second island of dinosaurs revealed in the last movie. A “macguffin,” as defined by Hitchcock, is that element of a film that you need to get the story going, though no one really cares. But here’s an idea that seems to have been overlooked by the filmmakers: When the group finds the boy (I don’t think I’m really breaking the pinata by revealing that much), he has survived alone on the island for eight weeks. Hello? A 12-year-old boy, dumped in the middle of an island full of dinosaurs, some of them man-eating, manages on his own until help arrives? That was your story, guys. That’s got “boy’s adventure tale” written all over it. That’s the film you should have made, and the sort of story I hope you’ll tell next time.
At the very least, crosscutting between Eric’s struggles on the island and his parents frantically putting together a rescue party would have given us a fresh perspective on the dinosaur story that has now been reworked three times: First, scientist heroes are brought to island inhabited by species of cloned dinosaurs; when things go wrong, they must rescue children from beasts and get themselves the hell off the island (Jurassic Park). Second, scientist heroes are brought to island inhabited by species of cloned dinosaurs; when things go wrong, they must rescue child from beasts and get themselves the hell off the island. Then, cloned dinosaurs are brought to land inhabited by species of scientist heroes . . . when things go wrong, scientists must rescue dinosaur child from beastly humans and get them the hell off the land (The Lost World). And third, scientist heroes are lured to island… You get the idea. Although Lost World had a trick in the tail, with its Godzilla homage (a T-Rex stomping through San Diego), it was just slightly fresher icing on a stale cake.
Despite not even having the fresher icing, Jurassic Park III is a good sequel. It does what a sequel is supposed to do, and it does it better than Dr. Doolittle 2. The special effects are as great as we expect them to be, and there are more true thrills (such as when the characters try to avoid one herd of dinosaurs by merging with another) than in The Lost World. The performances are acceptable, which is all they really need to be in this kind of film. Neill is actually better in this than he was in the original. Where Goldblum’s Malcolm was blander and more like Neill’s Grant in the last film, here Grant is given some of Malcolm’s early wit. Which brings up another idea for the next film: If you must bring back characters from the original, why not bring both Grant and Malcolm back and have them realize they’ve become more like each other than they care to admit? Granted, the buddy film isn’t the freshest genre around, but done right, it can be a lot more effective than the “parent trap” reconciliation between Paul and Amanda this film provides. (Yawn, the boy’s parents are separated but in the course of searching for their son they realize how much they really love each . . . zzzzzz).
Macy was, by some reports, unhappy on the set and it shows. Without material that requires the full attention of an actor of his caliber, he seems on autopilot. Leoni gets to play counter to the hyper-competent heroines of the first two films (Dern, Julianne Moore). Her character is, at least, not a carbon copy of them. She’s a screaming bimbo. It’s still impossible to tell how good Leoni is or isn’t. Morgan does well (file under amusing bit of trivia: he also appeared in the Barney movie). Maybe he’s not another Henry Thomas (Elliott in E.T.), but I certainly wouldn’t mind if he turned out to be the link to the next film (along with, say, Ariana Richards from the first). The series doesn’t really need stars, so why not give youth a chance?
There isn’t room here to discuss the good (there’s much) and the bad (there’s arguably even more) of Steven Spielberg’s career. Suffice it to say that at his peak (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), there was no one who made his kind of “thrill-ride” movies better. Jurassic Park came over ten years later, and though he pulled it off, the tricks were getting kind of old. By Lost World, he hardly seemed to be trying anymore. Then again, would you put all your best efforts into the same sort of thing you did 15 or even five years ago? The series needed some young blood, and it gets it here in director Joe Johnston. Johnston is actually a good choice to follow in Spielberg’s footsteps. Early in his career, he shared an Oscar for Raiders’ visual effects, and his work as a director includes the enjoyable Honey I Shrunk the Kids and the flawed but underrated Jumanji. The latter suggested that Johnston knew performances in an FX-heavy film should carry equal weight; what stays with me is Bonnie Hunt making her every line come alive with humor.
What Johnston and team have given us here is a film that is not as good a ride as the first, but a damn sight better than the second. It’s not as good as the first because Johnston is not as good a director as Spielberg, and doesn’t get as good results from his cinematographer (Shelly Johnson) and editor (Robert Dalva). Where the first film gave us long, unbroken, moving shots of the dinosaurs, especially when introducing them, the third provides too many quick-cut scenes. It seems Johnston wants to keep up the pace, but he does so at the expense of wonder. We need a moment to say, “Oh . . . my . . .” All of this is not necessarily only Johnston’s fault. Yes, the film needed new blood, but it also needed . . . repeat after me, students, all films need . . . a good script. According to the New York Post, JP3‘s original script was thrown out six weeks before filming began, and rewrites continued throughout shooting, with some scenes completed just two days before being filmed. (Imagine what the plot they threw out in its favor must have been like.) With this knowledge, I find it amazing that the film is as good as it is, and not at all surprising that the end feels like a long wait for another shoe that never quite drops. Its perfunctory thrills fill out 90 minutes and end in an arbitrary fashion.
But, again, none of that really matters. With the first two films firmly perched in the top ten of all-time most successful films, anticipation for this third installment was clearly high, and it delivers what it promises: Digital dinosaurs in digital stereo. It will no doubt sell lots of popcorn and soda.