1993's "Jurassic Park" has turned into kind of a neoclassic. A film that gave director Steven Spielberg a much needed blockbuster and raised the bar for special effects that is currently accelerating even higher as I write this. Spielberg's 1997 sequel, "The Lost World", was an artistic mess, but nevertheless provided an agreeable greatest hits package of dinosaur attacks and intricate action sequences. Wisely handing over the reins to a more enthusiastic director (Joe Johnston, "The Rocketeer"), "Jurassic Park III" (IMDb listing) is a leaner, more menacing installment that breathes new life into a franchise that surely would've died out if Spielberg chose once again to helm this new sequel.
After surviving the bedlam on Jurassic Park years ago, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) has returned to his previous life dedicated to the study of dinosaurs. Armed with the tangible interaction he encountered with dinosaurs, Grant relishes the experience of Jurassic Park, but has no desire to return. A wealthy couple (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) comes to Grant to request his presence as a tour guide for a secretive trip to Isla Sorna, the second dinosaur-infested island from "The Lost World." Lured by the money offered, Grant, his associate (Alessandro Nivola, "Face/Off"), the couple, and a small security team return to the dino island. It is there that Grant learns the true nature of his involvement on this journey, and finds there are more dangerous beasts on the island than just the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The element that sunk "The Lost World" was Spielberg's insistence on topping his original film. I'm all for dino mayhem, but "The Lost World" was too long and smothered by expectations. "Jurassic Park III" is crisper and leaner (it runs under 90 minutes), and through Johnston's playful direction, it moves lightning quick and features plenty of humor and excitement. It's more of a thrill ride than a contemplation on playing God, as the first two films hid their pandemonium behind. The popcorn movie mentality suits this installment exceptionally. Johnston moves the terror beyond the lethargic movements of the T-Rex and takes the action to land, sea, and air. He also introduces new dino threats (including the ominous Spinosaurus) and uses blissfully low-tech puppets and animatronics to portray them from time to time.
The only component missing from this sequel is the sense of dinosaur awe that electrified billions back in 1993. We've seen the dinos, and while Spielberg tried so valiantly to bring back that wonder in "The Lost World," Johnston understands that he can't astonish the audience anymore. He takes the well-known dinos and strives to integrate them more into the story. He even attempts to wring villain characterizations out of them. The lethal Velociraptors are showcased this time out as a kind of street gang that uses calls and signals to try and trap the group. Instead of being creatures of nature, Johnston turns the dinos into mustache-twirling villains. Silly? Maybe. Nonetheless, Johnston makes it work in the film's favor. He also manages to capture the speed and capability of the dinos better than Spielberg could. Always suggested as the ultimate predator, the Raptors finally make good on their promise of terror as they zip across the island with a newly-realized velocity.
Returning from the first film is Sam Neill as Dr. Grant (and in a quick cameo, Laura Dern reprises her role as Dr. Ellie Sattler). Dr. Grant witnessed quite a bit during his experience on Jurassic Park, and Neill plays Grant's weariness with sincerity and a large amount of wit. Celebrated character actors William H. Macy and Tea Leoni are also along for the ride, yet they seem lost amid the action. Leoni, coming off her remarkable performance in last December's "The Family Man," doesn't get much to do except show off her exceptional scream. Both actors fill their parts with grace, but I doubt either will jump at another chance to star in a blockbuster when they are both allowed so much more acting freedom in the independent and dramatic pictures they choose most of the time.
"Jurassic Park III" moves so briskly that when the climax does arrive, it's very abrupt. There is no bigger-than-life conclusion as in the "The Lost World." "Jurassic Park III" just ends. It's very careful to not overstay its welcome, thus allowing a chance to enjoy the sound and fury instead of growing tired of it. "Jurassic Park III" is an inconsequential sequel, but most importantly, it is a successful sequel that makes good on the promise of thrills and chills that the first two installments carefully assembled but never quite paid off.
Filmfodder Grade: A-