Monday, June 8, 2015

Jurassic Park III movie review.

What more can I say about Jurassic Park that I’ve never said before? It’s my favorite movie of all time. I adore everything about it. Unfortunately, its legacy isn’t perfect. We’ll see if Jurassic World somehow rectifies this, but the series has never generated the best sequels. The Lost World was a major disappointment that left a bitter aftertaste for years to come, but was still very successful at the box office, and in the CGI overload that dominated the late 90’s, that was enough to get another sequel in production.

Jurassic Park III was the first film in the series not based on one of Michael Crichton’s original stories. Originally, he did meet with producers to get story ideas, but none of them (including where teenagers became stuck on the island) made the final cut. Steven Spielberg also stepped down as director to turn the reigns over to Joe Johnston, best known at the time for Juamnji. When the film was released, critics were once again mixed, but it was still a success at the box office, albeit to a lesser degree.

Even as someone who enjoyed the movie when I was younger, I was quite disappointed in it. Then as the years progressed, I became angry with it. I have talked about it several times before, but in the years since, I’ve heard varying points of view, including a common defense that it can be enjoyed as a B-Movie, a fun action movie that exists to get a group of people on and off an island in a short amount of time. I like to think of myself as reasonable, and I like to think that age has mellowed me. Coupled with more critical experience in my years, you’ll probably be surprised to know-


Four years after the rampage in San Diego, Isla Sorna has now been restricted by the government. Following a quick accident in the opening, Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni respectively) recruit Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) under the guise of advising them on the different dinosaur species while on a legalized (not really)  flightplan over the island, but is really a rescue mission to find their son that went missing in the accident. With their plane crashed, and at the mercy of the predators on the island, the group sets off to find Eric, and then find the coastline in order to get off the island, reluctantly banding together in order to survive… Yet again!

Before I even proceed any further, the opening sequence alone clues you in on the horridness that is to follow. We see young Eric Kirby (Trevor Morgan) and friend Ben Hildebrand taking part in a black market parasailing tour around Isla Sorna. If the terrible green screen and botched arrangement of the Jurassic Park theme (who screws up the Jurassic Park theme?) aren’t enough to aggravate you, the logic behind the entire sequence will. This island is restricted, and is obviously continually monitored in order to steer unauthorized airfare to travel within a specific vicinity of the island. If someone weren’t smart enough to be able to track down the illegal business by traditional methods (a business that has its own name and phone number across a parasail), then they’d clearly be able to track it by their current radar and technology. I know it seems like I’m nit-picking now, but that’s exactly the thing with the rest of Jurassic Park III. It really is all that coincidental.

One of the most egregious faults in the film is the writing. Co-written by Peter Buchman (whose only other notable credit is 2006’s Eragon) and the duo of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Election, Sideways, lots of other great things), the film is a collection of mashed-up ideas with no consistent logic, riddled with plot holes, and sketches every character in the film thinly. You thought Jurassic Park’s characters weren’t deep? Wait until you see them reduced to a single personality trait here. Grant is tough, Paul is a buffoon, and Amanda is the human embodiment of nails on a chalkboard.

Grant, in particular, has taken a beating since his incarnation in the first movie. In another instance of a character being disillusioned with things he once loved, the film takes that to a whole new extreme. Neill essentially becomes a cipher, taking a back seat to the other characters as little more than an audience surrogate, and is reduced to cynicism that feels completely separate to the childlike wonder of the original film’s interpretation. Take the scene in the first movie where Grant briefly and humorously frightens a young boy with facts about Velociraptors, apply it to his entire character in III, and sap away all the charm and you’re left with a shell of a former character’s self. The film also rubs salt in the wound with the dissatisfying end to his romance with Ellie Sattler, now married to someone else, and rendering his entire arc in the first movie irrelevant. What’s even more annoying is that the two of them still have excellent chemistry with one another, highlighting a change made with no justifiable reason. I’m not saying Sattler has to be shoehorned into the action, but why make a change solely for making a change’s sake? Oh, I forgot. It’s because of foreshadowing reasons involving her new husband, that’s why.

In the film’s most obvious Payne-isms, Paul and Amanda Kirby feel like something out of a dysfunctional family drama than a Jurassic Park film, and try as he might, Payne just can’t adapt his sensibilities to a movie like this. The focus on their relationship is clichéd beyond belief, completely rushed, and tries to add unnecessary drama where none is needed. William H. Macy himself essentially boils down to a classic fish out of water, but isn’t out of place for any of the right reasons. He wanders around the film looking bored despite the talent that he is, and his attempts at humor are sub-par on the part of Payne. However, he’s nothing compared to Amanda Kirby, played to agonizing effect by Tea Leoni. Leoni in this movie comes down to two separate halves. One side is obviously disinterested in everything she’s a apart of, while the other is attempting to overcompensate for that boredom with shrill, ear-bleeding shrieks. If Vince Vaughn was the most imbecilic character, Leoni plays the most insufferable. Do you realize how bad you have to be to make Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom look good by comparison?

Even Eric himself is something of an over exaggerated character. He manages to survive on the island for 8 weeks before the group eventually find him, having been forced to adapt and scrounge, and while I’m all for great child characters, this whole ordeal with him makes no sense. I don’t care how experienced or stubborn he may be, the fact that he’s not only been able to adapt not only for this long, but this quickly feels like a glanced over character opportunity that reduces the character to oversimplified writing, and calls for more suspension of disbelief than we can give.

Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without the signature idiot that nearly gets everyone killed. Enter Billy Brennan, played by Alessandro Nivola. Normally, he’d just be an utterly forgettable cardboard cutout in any other movie, complete with the lucky pack trait Julianne Moore had in The Lost World, but is boosted to extra special status for his boneheaded actions. In a move that’s almost Van Owen levels of terrible, he winds up stealing raptor eggs that put the rest of the group in danger for the purpose of selling eggs on the mainland to fund his struggling dig site in Montana. He at least gets a last chance at redemption, and isn’t a hypocritical character, but he alone brings notice to the fact that the film’s entire premise is hinged on one of the most infamous plot holes in cinematic history.

As said before, his dig site is struggling, and he’s apparently so broke that he and Grant are willing to go to Isla Sorna and potentially put their lives at risk for money (The same thing that got Grant in trouble eight years prior. Has he learned nothing?), and yet, he still manages to scrounge up enough parts and money to invent a machine that recreates the vocal chamber of a velociraptor. Granted, this machine is a ridiculous concept, serving no good use other than to provide a Deus Rex MacGuffina in the last five minutes, and those chambers sound nothing like a velociraptor, but it makes you wonder. If you’re so broke and desperate for cash, patent your technology! Build more! Take it on the road! Reignite interest in paleontology! Sell the vocal chambers as souvenirs! You’ll make more money and lower your body count.

That’s only one of several plot holes in this movie, including a series of coincidences involving the reunion of the Kirby family. The group meets together at a giant steel barrier, but the satellite phone that led Eric that way is not with Paul, but in the stomach of the Spinosaurus (more on him later). Grant and Eric make it out of the barrier, but after the Spinosaurus breaks out, the group finds safety in a small nearby compound. First of all, how did Eric hear the phone? The muscles and organs of the Spino would have suppressed the noise. Secondly, how did it lead Eric to his parents and not straight to the Spino? Thirdly, how is it that the Spinosaurus, which is said to be bigger than the T-Rex (which you’ll remember shook the ground when it took a step), was heard by no one, and was able to sneak up on all the characters. Lastly, how can this dinosaur break through a steel barrier, yet it can’t break through a small compound door?!  Is he related to the aliens from Signs, or something?

As for the Spinosaurus, the new mascot of this movie, he proves an underwhelming substitute for the iconic Rex. In the film’s most notorious sequence, the Spino defeats the Rex in an epic duel, affirming itself as the new top predator. Firstly, T-Rex would have won. It has biological science on its side. Secondly, the actual Rex death is not as much the issue as the abruptness is, the fact that the filmmakers kill off a beloved childhood staple with such little fanfare. Thirdly, Spinosaurus is nothing more than a pushover and a slasher villain. He comes and goes so often in the movie, disappearing for long stretches, and never leaves a lasting impact. Not only that, but whereas the Rex had epic parts to play in the finale, the Spino gets an exit with little fanfare before the movie’s final ten minutes happen, getting scared off by a bunch of fire from a Disney stunt show. Yes, I know fire is hazardous, but you could have done something more imaginative than what we got.

The Spinosaurus, beyond all of that, also encapsulates the thing that I hate most about this movie. The creature is nothing but a monster, and so too are the other dinosaurs. This is where the defense of the film being enjoyable for being a B-Movie completely breaks down. Flash back to the first Jurassic Park, with one line where Grant says to the children “They’re not monsters. They’re animals.” It seemed like a throwaway line, but with that one line, Spielberg ran all the way and did something special with it. In all other dinosaur media before it, dinosaurs were always seen as bloodthirsty, mindless brutes, from King Kong and Harryhausen’s movies, even to Fantasia’a Rite of Spring segment. Even Michael Crichton’s original novel was guilty of this. Then along comes Jurassic Park, reinventing the preconceived notion of what dinosaurs were. For the first time, they were living, breathing, and feeling animals that acted in a sense of grounded realism. They were imposing, but awe-inspiring. They were terrifying, yet graceful. When we saw them, we all felt like this is how dinosaurs would act were they still alive today. What started as a simple line became Spielberg saying “I want to make this movie, and I’m going to make it the right way. These are the greatest creatures to ever walk the earth, and I’m going to treat them with the respect they deserve.” That’s exactly what he did, and it made the film forever legendary because of it. So I don’t know about you, but if you ask me, the idea that the Jurassic Park movies began by flawlessly subverting the brawn over brains portrayal of dinosaurs, and in the third movie became exactly what it set out not to be sounds like a very patronizing regression. They are no longer the graceful animals they once were. They are monsters!

There is no sense of wonder to them anymore, having been stripped away by cynical surface value shallowness, and even in the grand scale and scope that made them so glorious, they are pale shadows of that same feeling here. It’s hard to believe that even with eight years to evolve the CGI, the dinosaurs in the first film haven’t aged a single day, while the ones here already look dated. A lot of this comes down to Joe Johnston’s then inexperience in the director’s chair, as he was a visual effects artist more at home directing his visuals than his stories. He really suffered from a Lucas-esque reliance on CGI here, and without the less is more balance between digital and practical, the effects artistry suffered dearly, looking cartoonish and unfinished. That said, even the animatronics this time around have taken a steep decline in quality. I have no disrespect for the late Stan Winston, an immortal icon in full motion technology, but even he got to the point of laziness with this movie. The practical dinosaurs move in a jarring, rubbery and disjointed fashion, completely derailing the illusion they were going for. These would look fantastic at one of Universal’s theme parks, but not in a major motion picture. It also doesn't help that the film also features obvious green screen effects, cheap miniature effects, and some of the most blatant matte paintings I've ever seen. The appearance of the animatronics themselves are also jarring and at odds with the original designs in that they show just how much Jack Horner, despite being the incredible consultant that he is, really wanted to shove his agenda down the throats of the filmmakers, including the now polarizing decision to include feathers on the Velociraptors.

One such animatronic happens to be the now infamous dream sequence raptor, one that tries to spook the audience with the word “Alan”, and has now become the subject of internet mockery. This one scene, though brief, represents the very point that the Jurassic Park movies jumped the shark (or nuked the fridge), becoming a beacon of unintentional laughter, leaving those few moments of intended laughter (such as Ellie’s young son watching Barney the Dinosaur while a set piece takes place, and the group digging through piles of Spinosaurus dung to find the satellite phone, at which point a Ceratosaurus sniffs them before walking off in disgust) generating groans rather than chuckles. That one scene represented when the series had officially run out of steam, and ideas, essentially throwing ideas at a wall and finding out what sticks.

This was even the case in the action sequences. Unlike the first Jurassic Park movie, these sequels became more and more reliant on action as they went along, which is a fine step to take, but it did so at the cost of decent storytelling. The sequences have no real rhyme or reason to them, have absolutely no tension to gravitate towards because the characters give you nothing to care about, and when you’re making an action movie of this scale, this is a very bad thing to do. It’s another example of Payne and Taylor simply being out of their element, and not knowing how to adapt to their new genre, including and especially when they attempt the signature nighttime rain sequence.

Perhaps the only redeeming scene in this entire mess of a film, and one that takes a sequence out of the original novel by Michael Crichton, is the sequence in the Pterannodon enclosure. The scene is nicely paced and interestingly shot, the scene has some creative suspense, the effects, while still weak, are much better realized (despite the hokey puppetry), and it supplies the film with entertainment value where it’s desperately needed. However, within the numerous plot holes of this movie, this one sequence alone breaks down with many more questions than answers in its own right. For a brief refresher, the dinosaurs have a faulty gene that requires lysine supplements in order for them to survive. The Lost World briefly explained how they’ve thrived by the herbivores ingesting soy beans and plants with the nutrients, and the carnivores eating the herbivores. In that case, how do the Pterannodons get the necessary lysine? Is it in their water? How often does prey willingly wander into a locked exhibit?  How would the birds, with likely little prey, get the enzymes they need not just to survive, but to give birth to children who also don’t kick the bucket? Why were Pterannodons loose in The Lost World, and yet they’re not here? Did they lock themselves back in? Are they a different subspecies? I know I’m over thinking this, but it’s a really annoying detail. Oh well, it’s still a fun sequence, and perhaps the only one.

Eventually the group get rescued after a ridiculous final confrontation with the raptors, with Ellie having called the Marines and the Navy to Site B with little (garbled) helpful information, and Billy surviving his grim fate in the Pterannodon exhibit. Before these characters all likely go to spend the rest of their lives in prison for violating the law by flying into restricted airspace, we’re treated to a final look at the Pterannodons leaving the island to find new nesting grounds in a shot calling back to the pelicans in the first film, which only serves as one more insult to a terrific film.

Oh, and the music is bland and directionless… as evidenced by how they screw up the Jurassic Park theme! Who does that?!

I'm sorry, but in the long run, Jurassic Park III has all of the hallmarks of lazy and terrible filmmaking. I have never seen a series crash and burn this spectacularly. Even as a nostalgic and adoring fan of Jurassic Park, this third entry is an embarrassment in every sense of the word. To say that it infuriates me is an understatement. It’s an insult not only to its older film, but also to its audience. The film is shoddily written and directed, feeling more like a cheap spin-off than a true sequel, and even the film acknowledging that it shouldn’t exist does not justify its heinous faults. The film is cheaper and more cynical than ever, lacking any of the same wondrous scope that made its earlier predecessor so engaging, and despite some technical merits, the technology at the time has not held up. It’s not the worst sequel I’ve ever seen, but it’s by far most crushingly angering, and nearly killed the franchise once and for all…

At least until Jurassic World, and I desperately hope that that film redeems the franchise and restores the legacy that this film single-handedly tarnished.

Well, at least the film is self-aware enough to make one confession. “Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”

* / *****

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