There’s more than a few spirals of DNA missing from the script of “Jurassic Park III,” an all-action, helter-skelter, don’t-forget-to-buy-the-computer-game ride that makes the two previous installments look like models of classic filmmaking. Showing all the signs of having been stripped back at a late stage into a lean, 91-minute chase machine — and to hell with pacing and character development — pic has that unmistakable feeling of a franchise being severed from its creative roots with considerable confusion about what to put in its place. Watch for a juicy opening, followed by a faster than usual falloff, for this latest seg of the dino saga which, if the series ever makes it to “IV,” will be seen as a pit stop for refueling rather than a full lap around the track.
Except for the visual effects, the movie has a hand-me-down feel. The first two installments used largely the same key talent behind the lens and two key actors (Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough) in front of it, giving them a homogeneous feel. With “JP III,” however, the script’s not based on a Michael Crichton novel, and — aside from Stan Winston and a few others on the dino side of things — there’s an all new crew on the tech side. Even with Steven Spielberg in the coach’s chair, there’s an unmistakable sense that the reserve team has gone in to bat.
Opening with an OK teaser sequence in which a young kid (Trevor Morgan) and an adult (Mark Harelik) are attacked by an unseen thing when parasailing over Isla Sorna, pic adopts a real-time stance. It’s eight years after the original debacle at John Hammond’s theme park on nearby Isla Nublar, and Hammond’s company, InGen, is a memory. One of his original invitees, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), is struggling to maintain funding for his paleontology research. Grant is keen to develop his theory of velociraptor intelligence, but auds at his fundraising lectures only want to hear more tales about Jurassic Park.
Grant is approached by Paul Kirby (William H. Macy), and his wife, Amanda (Tea Leoni), to guide an aerial tour of Isla Sorna, the so-called Site B (and setting for “The Lost World”), where InGen secretly bred the dinos and where they’ve been on the loose for almost a decade. Presenting themselves as wealthy thrill-seekers who want to buzz the quarantined island, the couple asks the cash-strapped Grant to name his price.
These establishing reels have a hasty feel that prefigures many of the film’s later problems. Laura Dern briefly reprises her role of Ellie from the first movie; other characters are clumsily introduced and thinly drawn. Result is that, when Kirby, against Grant’s wishes, tries to land the plane on the island, the viewer is plunged into immediate action with only the barest idea of who most of the characters are.
Pic’s first major action sequence is a highly kinetic screamfest, with the plane crashing into some tree-tops and its occupants being attacked by a spinosaurus, the movie’s much-touted new villain. As the fuselage rolls this way and that, the sequence plays like a B-movie version of the dangling Winnebago sequence in “Lost World” — heavy on screams and visceral shocks but lacking in deep-seated, skin-crawling fear.
The truth is that the lumbering spino, despite its larger size, longer jaw and fancy back fin, just doesn’t cut it as a substitute T-Rex. With none of the T-Rex’s extensive backgrounding, this new addition to Winston’s dino lineup looks more like an escapee from a Japanese monster movie.
Following an attempted escape in another plane, pic settles into one long chase movie. The two previous installments had varied situations and cross-plots in which the humans and animals interacted, plus a larger story arc in which the action sequences were implanted. Here, the majority of the movie takes place in jungle settings with the cast running between them as predators arrive on the scene.
Smidgen of a script cooked up by three credited (and two uncredited) writers soon reveals that Kirby and Amanda are in fact a divorced couple searching for their 14-year-old son, Eric, and Amanda’s boyfriend, Ben — the parasailing pair attacked in the opening teaser.
“JP III” thus becomes a very different movie from the previous two pics, in which human hubris received its just deserts when protective technology proved inadequate. Here, the protagonists are never in control: They’re dino-dinner from the get-go. In essence, pic becomes a prehistoric variation on another genre: Americans under threat in a hostile, foreign environment. Unsurprisingly, the final line of dialogue is “Let’s go home.”
Direction by Joe Johnston, who cut his teeth as a visual f/x designer before graduating to effects showpieces “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Jumanji,” keeps the action ticking but without the broader sweep he brought to adventure saga “The Rocketeer.” Blame that largely on the script; lame attempts at humor and characterization make even the few surviving moments of non-action dialogue painful to sit through.
As the only hardened specialist of the group, Neill’s paleontologist is largely reduced to looking worried and uttering apocalyptic warnings. Grant’s protege Billy (Alessandro Nivola) is thinly drawn, and even the usually reliable Macy looks like he signed for the wrong movie. Following her career rebound with “The Family Man,” Leoni is a major disappointment, stuck in an annoying role in which her character spends a lot of time screaming and running around. As the sensible young Eric, Morgan acquits himself best, bypassing most of the young-teen cliches and sharing one above-par, quiet moment with Neill.
Still, pic’s effects are extremely impressive, with the creatures rendered with a smoothness and believability that puts even the first two installments in the shade. Whether caught in the middle of a stampede, face to face with intelligent velociraptors or gazing from afar, the human cast members become of a piece with their prehistoric co-stars thanks to superb work by Winston and the ILM team that blurs the line between live action and CG.
But with so little going on among the humans, the sheer amount of creature work robs the critters of much of their menace and surprise. Most impressive among the newcomers — and eerily pre-figured in the final shot of “The Lost World” — are the flying pteranodons, whose encounter with the hapless humans in a giant aviary is worth the price of admission alone. For a brief spell, the movie manages to recapture the shock of the new that drove Spielberg’s original movies; thereafter, pic tails off in search of a finale that never arrives.
Other credits are functional rather than atmospheric, with Don Davis’ score faithfully recycling John Williams’ original themes and Shelly Johnson’s workaday lensing at its best in the impressively clammy, studio-created jungles rather than the Hawaiian exteriors.
Final reel, which most shows signs of last-minute cutting, leaves room for a sequel featuring the pteranodons.