Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Jurassic Park — concerning the fallout of billionaire John Hammond’s attempts to build a theme park featuring real-life dinosaurs on a tropical island off the coast of Costa Rica. Based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, the film spawned two sequels.
The Installment: Jurassic Park III (2001)
Dr. Malcolm presumably had his fill of dinosaurs after saving San Diego from being slowly devoured by an irate T rex. So now it is Dr. Grant’s turn at bat again. Last we saw our beloved paleontologist with child issues, it seemed like he’d had a breakthrough with children after spending an entire night protecting John Hammond’s grandchildren. Turns out not so much. In these intervening years, Dr. Grant and Ellie broke up and she had a baby with some other doofus. Now Grant is alone and still plugging away at his dino studies with a new partner, Billy (Alessandro Nivola). Once more Dr. Grant gets seduced by the allure of financing, this time coming from a wealthy pair of adventurers, Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Téa Leoni), who want Dr. Grant to fly with them over Isla Sorna and act as a pricey tour guide. Grant accepts. Oh, psych! Paul and Amanda aren’t rich at all! They tricked Grant because their son Eric (Trevor Morgan) became trapped on the island after an unfortunate and illegal parasailing mishap with Amanda’s new boyfriend. They’ve also hired a team of mercenaries, who all immediately die, leaving Grant to save the day. A lot has changed since Grant first encountered Hammond’s resurrected beasties. Not only is there an even bigger and meaner dinosaurs running amok, the stupid looking Spinosaurus, but raptors have feathers and are even extra super duper smarter now! Will Grant be able to get everyone safely off the island? Yes. Yes he does.
As sequel to Jurassic Park this film is pretty fucking terrible. Dr. Grant’s involvement aside, spiritually there is little feeling of connection with the first two films, and conceptually it feels like an episode of a syndicated Jurassic Park TV show, in which, improbably, week after week our hero must rescue a new set of inconsequential characters who’ve found themselves stranded on Isla Sorna. But I find it hard to blame JP3 for failing to give us a crisp trilogy when Lost World completely shit the franchise down the toilet in the first place. I’m sure there were ways to clumsily continue with the “proper” InGen-centric storyline as Spielberg left it, but I hardly see what the point of that would’ve been. I don’t feel like many people actually liked where things had wound up at. We could have had yet another story about some InGen goon trying to re-establish Jurassic Park. Though JP3 would likely have had to do even more retconning to foster any true sense of fresh magnitude – but wait, did you know there was an underground InGen lab in Colorado where all the REAL scientific work was done?!?! Besides, Lost World‘s sense of magnitude was accomplished entirely through mindless bombast and little else, all but officially declaring that the “point” of the franchise was simply to showcase dinosaurs wrecking shit. As far as I see it, everything that is stupid about JP3 was already more aggressively stupid about Lost World, so it doesn’t really matter anymore. With Dr. Malcolm and John Hammond gone, if you’re still sticking with this franchise, it has to be for the dinosaurs. And JP3 is relentless dino-action, almost to a fault.
Beginning with Schinlder’s List Spielberg ventured into what one might call the “Mean-Spielberg Phase” that only in recent years does he seem to be coming out of. This new temperament served him well on films like Schindler’s, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich, but it did a disservice to Lost World where the attitude chafed with the light and inviting tone of the franchise — the deaths were colder and more unpleasant, as were the characters in general. JP3 goes in the completely opposite direction, evoking the silly tone a 70’s Saturday morning adventure series. Jurassic Park was a secret B-movie. JP3 simply is a B-movie. And director Joe Johnston is kind of the B-Spielberg to begin with, so he is well suited to the project. Johnston lacks Spielberg’s ability to make things feel important, but he does possess Spielberg’s ability to make danger feel humorous and thus fun. And he doesn’t muck about. All the fat that had characterized Lost World is gone and though JP3 may lack the epic set-pieces that Lost World had, it makes up for it with pacing and a rejuvenated spirit. This jaunty shift in tone is likely too extreme for some, even if you didn’t particularly like Lost World, but given the choice between silliness and detached nastiness, I’ll take silliness — I mean, it’s a movie about dinosaurs for fucksake! And boyhowdy is JP3 silly…
The prologues to each of these installments offer a crystallized view of the film (and dinosaur attacks) to come. Jurassic Park gave us a sensationalized thrill with an unlucky park worker getting too close to the raptor cage, dynamically framed like a comic book, full of extreme close-ups and power-staging blocking. Lost World gave us an unsettling feeling, with a creepy new dinosaur attacking a cute little girl. JP3 begins with (what we assume is) a father and son parasailing with a company cornily named “Dino-Soar,” who enter a cloud of mist while up in the air, only to discover once they regain visibility that the boat towing them below is suddenly personless and splattered in blood. Right there you should know JP3 is taking the Gremlins 2 strategy towards sequels. The franchise was already aiming for “fun,” but that’s all they’re aiming for now — plausibility and drama have gone bye-bye. (I have to wonder what Oscar-winning screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor brought to the table with their re-write; how undramatic was it previously?) And your acceptance of this probably has a lot to do with how destructively you feel Lost World shit the bed. Personally, I don’t care even slightly about the “purity” of the franchise at this point; iconic moments aren’t worth slogging through another 2-hour uncaring mess, if that’s the trade-off.
Lost World accurately gauged that T rex was the secret hero of Jurassic Park, though somewhat to the detriment of the raptors that the first film worked hard to launch from obscurity to dino stardom. After the excellent field slaughter, the raptors get by far the lamest set-piece in Lost World, complete with a humiliating defeat at the hands of gymnastics. JP3 returns the Velociraptors to their rightful spot as the hyperbolic super villains of the dinosaur world. Not only are they back, but their super villainy has gotten even more hyperbolic. The goofy additions involving the complex raptor language, and the idea that they were smarter than chimpanzees, are pitch perfect for this film. Having never really liked the paranoid anti-science subtext to this franchise’s core threat – that dinosaurs had gone extinct for a reason – I love that Dr. Grant informs us that had that pesky ancient meteor not wiped all the dinosaurs out, the raptors likely would have evolved to be us. This escalates Crichton’s ideas to their logical nth degree: our worry shouldn’t be that dinosaurs will eat us all, but rather that the raptors will challenge our evolutionary dominance! The scene in JP3‘s climax, in which Grant uses a replicated raptor resonating chamber to communicate with the raptors (and trick them) is splendidly absurd. I just love even writing a sentence about it! So cheesy. Multiply that moment by ten for the nightmare Dr. Grant’s has while riding in the Kirbys’ chartered airplane, in which he looks over to see a raptor sitting next to him — and the raptor says “Alan” in plain English. It actually makes you sad that the raptors don’t turn out to possess the ability to speak later on. I also dug the raptors’ re-design. In a perfect world I don’t think creatures should get redesigned for sequels, as it breaks the continuity, but that has usually been the MO for Hollywood FX and make-up. So whatever. At least it looks cool, with bits of colorful skin patterns and tufts of feathers here and there.
The movie has a good sense a humor, albeit a silly sense of humor. But I at least respect the variety of joke types we get here, versus the repetitive nature of Lost World‘s humor (this is presumably the work of Payne and Taylor; no offense Peter Buchman, but your other credits don’t indicate you’re a joke man). Sam Neil’s dry curmudgeon delivery gets a real work out. I dig the nod to the previous two films, when Dr. Grant asks a lecture crowd if they have any questions and every hand in the room goes up. Grant then adds the restriction that the questions can’t be about Jurassic Park, and half the hands go done. Then, with a weary look, Grant adds “Or the incident in San Diego, which I did not witness.” It’s a small but great line that both acknowledges realism (he would constantly be asked to comment on San Diego) and Sam Neil’s conspicuous absence from Lost World. Ditto on the scene in which Dr. Grant and young Eric bond over not liking Dr. Malcolm’s book. And then we get jokes on the other end of the spectrum, like a scene in which our heroes must dig through mounds of steaming dinosaur shit looking for their satellite phone before it stops ringing, like something out of a Double Dare challenge. In particular though, I enjoyed that the filmmakers embraced JP3‘s – how shall we say – lesserness. The movie’s storyline is trivial; it was going to be nearly impossible to take it seriously. So why try to meet things halfway towards seriousness and make a movie that will appeal to no one? When our heroes encounter the T rex, Dr. Grant tells everyone to stay perfectly still. They all immediately run. It is a moment for a comedy, not an adventure-thriller. But it’s funny all the same. Foremost in this seriousness-out-the-window humor is the Spinosaurus’ Peter Pan running gag, in which – like the crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly that plagues Captain Hook – the Spinosaurus is revealed to have swallowed the aforementioned satellite phone, giving out characters an “eerie” early warning system. It is an incredibly dorky bit that undermines the Spinosaurus’ intimidation factor, but, again, I didn’t mind. As far as the actors go, William H. Macy is well used as the ineffectual Paul Kirby, who constantly defers to Dr. Grant in any moment of group debate — often tossing “Dr. Grant says” into his reasoning when arguing with his wife.
I have been discrediting JP3 in regards to set-pieces (justifiably), but it does have one excellence sequence: the Pteranodon aviary scene (another hold over from Crichton’s original book). I’ve heard that showcasing the Pteranodons was the conceptual genesis of the film, and it shows. This is the most inspired section of the film, and also the section that feels most in keeping with the real tension Spielberg conjured in Jurassic Park. Unlike Spinosaurus, the Pteranodons feel notably new, as far as the types of dinosaurs that have been chasing our characters for the past two films. And the reveal of the first Pteradodon, emerging spookily from the mist while Eric is crossing a rickety bridge, is just good ol’ filmmaking on Johnston’s part.
I have also been discrediting JP3‘s nuance (again justifiably), but – at least compared with Lost World – the film can surprise you at times, even if it may be more of a happy accident than intended effect. In particular, there are the opening scenes with Dr. Grant and Ellie, where Johnston cannily (and somewhat depressingly) tricks us into believing that Grant and Ellie are happily married with a child. The scene between Grant and Ellie’s little boy is cute, with Grant trying to correct the lil tyke’s playtime dinosaur battle, which is featuring one herbivore eating another herbivore. There isn’t much of a reason to trick us, or to even split up Ellie and Grant, but it nonetheless gives us a more shaded Dr. Grant (as opposed to the neutered Dr. Malcolm in Lost World), a hero whose post-Jurassic Park life, we can glean, has been marred by the experience — something that is also hinted at by Erik, who notes that he didn’t like the book Grant wrote after Jurassic Park as much as the one he wrote before it, because his attitude was different.
JP3 doesn’t ask you to take it seriously, and in fact for the most part seems to be trying to prevent you from doing so, but buried amongst the B-movie cheese there is also a story of Dr. Grant’s re-birth as a dino-nut. The experience of actually seeing dinosaurs – creatures that Grant had devoted his life to, despite the fact that they don’t exist anymore – had in a sense ruined him and his passion. Jurassic Park concluded with Dr. Grant telling Hammond (effectively) that dinosaurs should be made extinct once more, that the rest of us shouldn’t be allowed to ever see one. JP3 is the first movie to finally acknowledge the obvious senselessness of the franchise’s paranoia. A big point of contention in the film is when Grant discovers that his underling, Billy, is trying to steal some raptor eggs. Grant flat-out tells Billy that he now thinks Billy is a horrible monster. Dinosaurs are a pandora’s box that will spell certain doom for all of humanity, after all. It is more JP eye-rolling. But JP3 then does a complete 180 when Grant tells Eric of Billy’s Judas act, and Eric flat-out calls Grant on this bullshit saying, “Billy was right.” Eric puts Grant (and the franchise) in his place, noting that Billy just wanted to be able to touch the things he’s been imagining in his head all his life. Frankly, it is almost weird to finally hear a character state the obvious like this. Eric was stuck on the island for eight weeks and walked away with the sentiment of, dinosaurs are pretty cool. These are extinct animals, not nuclear bombs. Dr. Grant’s arc is realizing Eric is right. Hell, the movie ends with Pteranodons escaping from the island, which Grant sees, and instead of grabbing the radio and screaming for the military to shoot them down, he doesn’t even seem to mind — noting that they’re looking for a new place to nest.
JP3 also does what Lost World failed to do, which is tee us up for more sequels. There is the ending with the Pteranodons flying away, but more so there is the presence of the Spinosaurus. When Spiney appears Billy and Dr. Grant have this exchange — Billy: “I don’t remember that one being on InGen’s list.” Dr. Grant: “It wasn’t on their list. Which makes you wonder what else they were up to.” Yes, yes it does. This is dopey retconning but we’re already far, far down that rabbit hole anyway, so this is the sort of dangling implication Lost World should have left us with but didn’t. Now we know there are various possibilities lurking out there.
What Doesn’t Work:
The movie is forgetable, but I think we’ve covered that already. Yes, he could have done so much more with the story, but Johnston wasn’t trying to close out a trilogy. He was trying to establish the franchise Spielberg had all but closed off. Were there seven Jurassic Park movies I think JP3 would be considered one of the better installments. Its triviality is just contrast with its close proximity to the first film and the fact that the franchise stopped with only three installments. We should forgive the trivial story, but we shouldn’t forgive trivial execution of some key moments…
It is uncreative to get Dr. Grant to the island with the exact same gimmick that brought him to Jurassic Park in the first film — money for his research. And to not even make a joke about it either. Based on the pieces already in play in the franchise and this film, the Kirbys could have wooed Grant just as easily by appealing to his secret desire to be a father. He had been turned around on the issue in the first film, then things fell apart with Ellie and he’s been left in arrested development as a father. Seeing Ellie with her happy family and the boy that should have been his seems like acceptable motivation for Grant to offer (for free) to help the Kirbys without them even needing to lie. It is also better hero building because it makes Grant less of a whore. After the fame that the Jurassic Park mishap gave him, I have a hard time believing finding money for funding is as hard for him as it once was. He’d be raking it in off speaking tours alone.
Most egregious is the handling of the climax. Rumor has it that Johnston was flying somewhat blind while making the movie, having tossed out his script a month before shooting. This would go a ways to explain the movie’s stripped down structure and action-heavy pacing. It would also explain why the climax is hot garbage. Earlier in the film Grant makes a frantic call to Ellie during a scene in which the Spinosaurus is attacking our heroes on a riverboat (another moment inspired by an unused Crichton scene). The call isn’t successful and the movie progresses. Then in the big final showdown where Grant “speaks” with the raptors, things suddenly end before there actually is a final showdown — the military shows up and rescues everyone and Grant is all, “Boy, Ellie is great!” This sucks for three reasons: 1) It is just boring. The movie is endless chases and battles, so the fact that we just had big set-pieces with the Spinosaurus and then the raptors doesn’t mean anything. We already had big set-pieces with the Spinosaurus and the raptors. They don’t kill the Spinosaurus or the raptors, so there is nothing definitive about the final two set-pieces. They’re simply the last ones we get. 2) I don’t mind that it is a deus ex machina; it’s not like our heroes were going to build a raft and sail off the island. I mind that it isn’t even much of a deus ex machina. Our characters were not in a hopeless situation with the military arriving as if a miracle. Grant had just mastered the raptor resonator — for the first and what turns out to be only time! The moment should have come earlier in the film so Johnston could have had more fun with it. At least the scene should have been longer, and, more importantly, horribly failed at some point, with our super genius raptors realizing what’s up and just about to kill everyone. This scene isn’t a climax so much as it’s just the last scene before Johnston and friends realized the movie needed to be over. 3) Ellie’s involvement is cheap and emotionally disconnected. Grant’s reaction seems to imply something. Ellie came through for him. She still cares. But… we already knew she cared. That was why the opening scene with them was particularly interesting. They didn’t have a falling out, but a fizzle out (presumably because of Grant’s negative attitude change). Besides, even if she hated Grant, it is not like she wouldn’t call the police when she figured out he was about to be eaten by dinosaurs. She’d be a psychopath if she didn’t.
Spinosaurus is lame. I get the idea of the character — upping the ante; giving us a predator even bigger than the T rex – but it just doesn’t live up to the T rex, which makes the fact that the only T rex scene we get in the film (a demeaning fight in which the Spinosaurs makes our former anti-hero its bitch and eats it) extremely disappointing. It is a well-meaning but clueless decision on Johnston’s part. As we’ve discussed, T rex was the unintentional hero of Jurassic Park, and then the intentional anti-hero of Lost World. He is America’s Godzilla. Yes, we don’t want to just keep repeating what we’ve already seen, but JP3‘s usage of the iconic character is almost offensive. Passing the top-dog torch could have worked, but it doesn’t. And I think the reason is entirely because the Spinosaurus looks retarded. It looks like a little kid created it, with its big stupid spine-sail and long narrow snout (after first seeing the film I was honestly amazed to learn it was a real dinosaur). It may be bigger than the T rex, but it is significantly less terrifying looking — just look at how much shittier the JP3 fossil-silhouette poster looks than the original two posters. Obviously, there aren’t exactly a lot of options when selecting a predator bigger than the T rex, but in real-life the Velociraptor was about two-thirds the size it is in these films, so it’s not like the franchise is above some truth-fudgery. And if Johnston was interested in implying that we don’t know the depth of InGen’s cloning shenanigans, the sky was the limit.
The movie should have gone even farther in its silliness. I’m not an idiot, I know why they didn’t. But if they had, I think JP3 would have taken on a new life as a gonzo classic by now. I wish Eric had become a dinosaur Tarzan, befriending a large herbivore that he rode around on and other such ridiculousness. Then our heroes could have teamed up with some “good” dinosaurs to fight the “bad” dinosaurs.
Body Count: 5
Best Kill: Udesky (Michael Jeter), the unfortunate “booking agent” for the two mercenaries, who is hobbled and used as bait by the raptors. When the ruse doesn’t work, a raptor takes Udesky out Rambo-style — it snaps the man’s neck. Didn’t see that one coming.
Billy: I rescued your hat.
Dr. Grant: Well – that’s the important thing.
Best Line About How Badass Raptors Are: Dr. Grant: They were smarter than primates.
Best Line That Implies Eric Had Sex With Dinosaurs: After giving Dr. Grant a container of T rex urine to use as camouflage.
Dr. Grant: How’d you get it?
Eric: You don’t want to know.
Should There Be a Sequel: Yes! I want to see super evolved raptors who can speak English and wear clothes and who, I don’t know, build a fucking time machine to go kill our cavemen ancestors or get elected president or something awesomely stupid like that. There are scores more dinosaurs left to be showcased; we’ve yet to see any aquatic dinosaurs. And why haven’t we gotten any mammals? Where’s our Jurassic Park: Pleistocene Park? I demand to see a Giant Ground Sloth! They can build the park in the arctic and Dr. Grant can have to outrun a Wooly Rhinoceros using a snowmobile. It’ll be great.
Franchise Assessment: Admittedly this isn’t much of a franchise. Technically I think it still counts, because it became a trilogy due to financial disappointment for Universal, not a filmmaker’s intended vision. Everything about it reeks of a franchise, it just never got that fourth film out there. This, in fact, is part of what made it an appealing franchise to look at. Despite its embarrassment-of-riches potential, Jurassic Park is an awful franchise. And that’s why it died after just three films. So what went wrong? To put it simply: Spielberg. He should have walked away immediately. And not just because his indifferent attitude ruined Lost World. He’s Steven Spielberg, and I think Universal connected him with the films too strongly. This is a profitable franchise (even JP3 made decent money). Sure, the two sequels were critical flops and received mixed public support, but last time I checked we were getting a Transformers 4. Generally money makes Hollywood go ’round, but not always. Universal was disappointed that JP3 didn’t make us much money as Lost World, and it seems to me that they probably determined that a Jurassic Park film without Spielberg wasn’t worth the time and effort anymore.
Lost World should not have gone back to the island (even though it was technically a different island), especially not when it was being made by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg knew well enough that Indiana Jones could only fight the Nazis over a Judeo-Christian artifact at least every other film, yet he didn’t seem to get how to keep things fresh here. Site B is the kind of idea that should be introduced when the franchise has exhausted all the obvious options. We already had Nedry’s shaving canister with dinosaur embryos in it (which, yes, wouldn’t survive long buried in the ground, but the DNA would still be good). And even if they did add a Site B, the whole film should have been about bringing dinosaurs back to the mainland. This set the framework for the franchise, which JP3 sadly felt too uninspired to deviate from either. And we are repeatedly made to feel like dinosaurs being alive in the modern day risks our very safety and survival. So… let’s see some of that! Obviously we didn’t need to go the Planet of the Apes route that I just joked about, but if dinosaurs are so dangerous it only makes sense narratively and dramatically to bring us down that path, to the point where this implied threat is significantly closer to reality. For a franchise that began with one of the most iconic and creative concepts in film history, the franchise was hobbled by small thinking.
The franchise ranked from best to worst:
Jurassic Park III
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Up Next: Apologies, I’m in London currently, which is why this Franchise Me has been coming out slow, but when I return to the USofA — Lethal Weapon. Though, as always, feel free to toss out suggestions for the future.