Jurassic Park III
Director: Joe Johnston. Cast: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern, Bruce A. Young, John Diehl, Mark Harelik. Screenplay: Peter Buchman and Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor.

Honey, I shrunk the franchise! Such might be the rallying cry for this third entry in the Jurassic Park series, brought to us by director Joe Johnston. The Jurassic movies have by now palpably entered the plane of baldly profit-hunting, unpretentious entertainment—the same zone that the Rocky, Nightmare on Elm Street, Planet of the Apes, and other name-brand sagas began to occupy as original cast members and directors began their diasporas onto other projects. Given this post-Spielberg, post-nomination-hunting state of affairs—JP3 is not the Memorial Day summer kickoff extravaganza that The Lost World was in 1997, just another mid-July contender—Joe Johnston seems an inevitable and not unqualified choice to assume the director's chair. Having amassed some box-office cred on one movie featuring bite-size fugitives in gargantuan environments and other, 1995's soulless Jumanji, about a fractured family on the lam from wild animals, Jurassic Park III marks a logical synthesis within the narrow niche of Johnston's forte.

Suffice it to say that Jurassic Park III is as frill-less, straightforward, and conservative as its title, which all in all is a fine thing. As lucrative as the movies have been, even the 1993 original was never more than a wisp of a thing whipped up as glaze for its truly astonishing visual effects and sound engineering—and even beyond its unabashed high-conceptness, the first Park was also clearly offered as an audience-placating insurance move before the imminent and much higher-risk Schindler's List bowed six months later. By completing and releasing those films in such close succession, Spielberg all but approximated one of those "Before and After" diet-regimen, reminding the world of his familiar Mr. Showman contours just in time to sock us with the leaner, tighter "New Me" achieved through some dutifully absorbed art-cinema nutrition. The same one-two punch was attempted with 1997's Lost World and Amistad, but with the embarrassing outcome that neither movie measured up to even the mid-level standards in their respective halves of Spielberg's decidedly bifurcated career.

What's fresh and appealing about Johnston's dino-movie, then, is that, for the first time, a Jurassic Park film is wholly free of having to prove something, relieved of Spielberg's self-applied pressure to show that he still had "It," even when he wasn't sure he wanted It anymore. Johnston has always been a far less ambitious artist, and JP3, like all of his movies, is content to serve up the well-warmed leftovers from the first two meals. Of course, if he strives for lower aesthetic goals than Spielberg did, it needn't be stated that he achieves fewer, which might be a problem if anyone seriously intended to consider JP3 on anything like its own merits. Johnston and his cast—first-film vets Sam Neill and, in an unbilled cameo, Laura Dern, plus new imports including Fargo's William H. Macy and The Family Man's Téa Leoni—all appreciate that they've been hired to keep a franchise alive, not reinvigorate or redefine it; leave that stuff to those ever-restless Alien auteurs. Jurassic Park III clocks in at barely over 90 minutes, and professes even more terror of Tinkering With the Formula than it does of its Tyrannosaurus Rex—who, as a matter of fact, makes but a single appearance.

So, then, we have the same old thriller-by-numbers: a flimsy but serviceable reason to get humans back on Isla Sorna (a small boy has been stranded there after a freak hang-gliding accident!); a couple of dumbly ironic statements from our returning star, Neill, about how nothing could ever get him on that island (which means, in ten minutes, he'll be there); and some quick, affectionate disposal of the other veterans (T.Rex and Laura Dern both contribute their moments of face-time in the first half hour) so that the newbies can test their mettle as sprinters, gapers, and idiotic practitioners of exactly the wrong things to do on an islet ruled by dinosaurs: screaming into megaphones, trying to land an airplane, nosing up to beakers containing "dead" specimens . . . these sorts of things. When Alessandro Nivola, last spotted in Popcorn Land as Nicolas Cage's creeeeepy brother in Face/Off, furtively picks up some velociraptor eggs in hopes of carting them home, you can practically see the phantom dunce cap, if not the cross-hairs, settling over his head.

Speaking of velociraptors, some clunky exposition in the beginning implies that, while that blessedly absent dunderhead Jeff Goldblum was scampering around the second movie, Neill and Nivola were busy "discovering" that velociraptors had the ability to vocalize commands and conspiracies to one another through weird organs in their snouts—hence their fearsome intelligence and ability to coordinate multi-flanked attacks in the earlier movies. For all the hallowed whispering we hear about this neat trick, Johnston flubs by making surprisingly little of it in the actual movie. When the raptors do pop up, they're not appreciably slyer or more efficient than in the earlier movies, just louder . . . which raises the worthy of question of whether they kept their conversational lights under a bushel in the first two movies simply out of respect to dopey scientists who weren't expecting them to talk yet. At least the raptors seem like more admirable herd members than the humans do. There's always been a uniquely strong didacticism in the Jurassic films about the miracle of united families, but the new film's patch-up between estranged spouses Macy and Leoni borders on the psychotic; her bliss at making up and making out with her ex-hubby means that she doesn't, even for one minute, mourn the death-by-dinos of her second spouse. (Running screaming from a skeleton doesn't count, 'cause that would be freaky no matter who it was.) Along similar, unintentionally blood-chilling lines is the movie's almost absurd fidelity to the genre rule that cast members get to live in exact proportion to their recognizable celebrity status; it's sad to watch supporting players get gutted and bisected just because their salaries are in the mere thousands.

But, for all these missed opportunities and typically mumbo-jumbo domestic stuff, Johnston & Co. do nail at least one sequence, which is a thrilling, foggy encounter between the surviving cadre of people and some wide-winged pterodactyls who need to feed their chicks. The first hour's only-mediocre technical precision—D.P. Shelly Johnson's last non-TV credit was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze—suddenly bursts alive for a terrifying fifteen minutes, all the more lively because the earlier entries eschewed aerial assault entirely. It's the only hum-dinger sequence in the movie, but again, a film this late in the series doesn't need any more than that: fans twenty years from now just need to be allowed to say, "Remember the one with the pteranodons?", which, after all, is a far preferable mark of distinction than "Remember the one with Jar Jar?"

In short, Jurassic Park III is no better but also no worse than a sane audience will expect or require. The film is emphatically, entertainingly certain; you know what you're getting, and you shouldn't go if you don't want it. Less certain is whether the series will have much more life beyond this film, or whether the franchise should be buried away in amber like the poor fossilized mosquitoes in the original. I can only assume that future evolutionary leaps and, if they're really smart, extra promotional tie-ins are already being debated by those newly un-muted velociraptors. I already have my ear cocked for the industrious reptile genius who, somewhere around the fifth or sixth movie, will finally annouce the secret craving velociraptors have harbored for all these epochs, which is that chasing and chomping are fine and all, but what they really want to do is direct. Grade: C

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