Déjà vu in Dinoland

Jurassic III is an entertaining piece of B-movie fluff

DINO HAPPY MEAL The newest and biggest carnivore in Jurassic Park tears open an airplane-shaped box to find a group of tasty actors including Tea Leoni, Sam Neill and William H. Macy.

DINO HAPPY MEAL The newest and biggest carnivore in Jurassic Park tears open an airplane-shaped box to find a group of tasty actors including Tea Leoni, Sam Neill and William H. Macy.

Jurassic Park III
Starring William H. Macy, Sam O’Neill and Tea Leone. Directed by Joe Johnston, Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

So, didja hear the one about a black, a Hispanic, and an Italian who get on this airplane with a handful of whitebread types?

Right, it does sound like a bad joke. But if you recall the first Jurassic Park, you also know why these poor schmucks were invited along for the ride in the first place … dino bait. Nothing much has changed in this Spielberg/Crichton universe. Rule No. 1 is to make sure that there are enough “expendable” types littering the scenario—mercenaries, minorities, lawyers and the like—that you never have to kill off any of the “names” or obligatory kids. Unfortunately, that also means that there is never any real suspense, in that 10 minutes into the movie you can already pretty much tell who has the Grim Raptor looming over their shoulders.

Although a few years have passed since the original InGen snafu at Isla Nublar, Dr. Grant (Sam Neill)—while unscarred by having avoided appearing in the abysmal sequel—still finds himself haunted by his experiences in the first movie. Disenraptored with biological anachronisms, he thinks that nothing—absolutely nothing—could convince him to return to Nublar. Yet back in Montana he is finding that the funding for digging up bones has dried up, especially since actual living fossils still breathe and roam about on those couple of islands off the coast of Costa Rica.

One day at the dig, he is visited by thrill-seeking yuppie couple Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni), who wave a blank check under his nose as bait, insisting that he’d be the perfect guide for their flyover of not Nublar, but sister Isla Sorna. Grant shrugs and gives in, “Shucks, just a flyover can’t be all that bad. …”

Uh-huh. Next thing he knows, the airplane is shards of tin scattered across the island and a hey-kids-it’s-even-bigger-than-a-Tyrannosaurus! dinosaur has finished off all the dark meat on board and is hot on the heels of the entrée (that being Dr. Grant, his hunky assistant, and the Kirbys) as they scurry about through the Green Inferno. Worst of all is the realization that if only he’d have tried to cash that check before boarding the flight, he’d have saved himself a whole lot of grief. …

Despite the fact that all the familiar elements are here and firmly in place, JPIII is actually a rather entertaining piece of B-movie fluff, with white-knuckle set-pieces arriving at such a regular clip throughout the refreshingly short thriller that one doesn’t really have time to think about how empty-headed the whole exercise is. Although the script was originally written by playwright Peter Buchman, it was supposedly “polished” on the fly by hired gun and honorary Chicoan Alexander Payne (who wrote the screenplay to Citizen Ruth while living here, before breaking through with Election), and is wittier and more dark-humored than one would expect, with occasional forays into the just plain silly (including the misadventures of a cell phone that ends up turning into the goofiest deux ex machina in recent memory).

Unfortunately, no amount of polishing can remove the patina of “been-there-seen-that.” In addition to the once awe-inspiring effects that today seem pedestrian, we’ve got the precocious kid in peril (see the not-as-they-appear Kirbys), we’ve got the panorama of hulking herbivores (right before the obligatory stampede), and of course we’ve got the return of the Hannibal Lectors of lizards, the raptors (which amazingly have managed to pick up the fundamentals of language in just a few years … although still not as impressive as Dr. Grant, who in the climax illustrates how superior the warm bloods still are by getting a grasp on the raptors’ language seemingly overnight).

In order to make this excursion not appear as if Speilberg is flogging dead horrors, the reins of the franchise have been handed over to director Joe Johnston (Rocketeer, October Sky). Good move, in that the suspense level is automatically upped just because it isn’t Speilberg behind the camera. Johnston promptly kills off T-Rex, the ostensive big guy in the dino-kingdom, and replaces him with the Spinosaurus and a flock of flapping Pteranodons, thereby upping the tooth quotient but begging the question, “Damn, how busy were those guys at InGen before the guano hit the fan?”

On the other hand, the less said about the ending, the better.