At the start of Jurassic Park III, Sam Neill's formidable Dr. Alan Grant (a welcome returnee from Jurassic Park), says that when dinosaurs ruled the world, the swift, mean, toothy raptors were smarter than whales or dolphins: even smarter than primates. He finds out they still are - at least smarter than the primates in this movie. The comic engine of Jurassic Park III is that every human in it is even stupider than you fear. If this were Survivor, the dinosaurs would vote them off the island.
For a while, this strategy works swell, as we find out that each character is a pretender, a dupe, or, at best, a big baby. The director is Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky), a just-a-guy-named-Joe sort of director who can generally put across whatever a script hands him.
The screenwriters are Peter Buchman, a playwright who is collaborating with David O. Russell (Three Kings), and the team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who wrote the satires Election and Citizen Ruth. As these independent-minded scribblers set up the characters' pitiful disguises and then strip them away, they revel in peeling the layers off some really rotten onions. When they get to the core of the movie, though, it's the same old rampaging dinosaur flick - speedier and more compact than Jurassic Park and The Lost World, yet equally deficient in imaginative magic.
In a scene that could have come out of Election, Dr. Grant lectures about raptors in a crowded, wood-lined hall; he hopes to raise money for fossil studies. But his listeners come to life only at the mention of Jurassic Park, that nightmare theme park of genetic engineering.
When William H. Macy shows up on Grant's excavation site as Paul Kirby, the putative head of "Kirby Enterprises," with Tea Leoni as his wife Amanda, the good doctor starts flirting with disaster. With his assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola) egging him on, Grant takes nothing more than a business card and a checkbook as Kirby's bona fides. For a hefty fee, he agrees to guide these thrill-seekers on a low-level aerial tour of "Site B" from The Lost World - Isla Sorna, 207 miles west of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica has declared Isla Sorna a no-fly zone - after all, it's teeming with dinosaurs - but apparently, the island is never policed. In the opening sequence, we see a man and boy accidentally parachute right into it. (They meant to spy on the creatures, not join them.) You're not surprised to learn that the boy, Eric (Trevor Morgan), is the couple's son, and that Kirby has assembled a motley crew to land on Isla Sorna and rescue him. But they're not as powerful or savvy as they pretend to be - especially not the Kirbys. Within minutes they're out-muscled and out-witted by a new chief villain, the Spinosaurus, which has a mug like a crocodile and a back fin more alpha-male-ostentatious than the tail fins on an old Cadillac.
The silliness of the characters allows the moviemakers to turn part of Jurassic Park III into a comic audience-participation picture. Viewers yell "Don't run into the woods" the way they would scream "Don't go down the cellar" at a horror movie. Despite the eruptions of cheesy jollity and the occasional funny line or bit of business (the crowd-pleaser features Barney), the picture descends into the smash, gnash and groan school of filmmaking.
It's proficient for what it is - the editor, Robert Dalva, who years ago cut the glorious The Black Stallion, knows how to deliver maximum punch per nanosecond. But Johnston can't pull off horrific grace notes. The revelation of a strung-up corpse is simply clumsy. And Johnston lacks the knack or patience to tinge action with personality: when the Spinosaurus extends its talons and rolls the wrecked fuselage of the Kirbys' plane back and forth, I wanted an extra instant to see him savoring the prospect of his finger food.
I also wanted the finger food to flex its knuckles. Some of my favorite actors exited too early. In particular, Michael Jeter doesn't last long enough for my taste; he's hilarious at showing a character's hard facade crack like a peanut shell.
And though Leoni has an infectious cheery warmth, the script saddles her with the traditional female role - her big scenes are conniption fits. Neill imbues his lines with a tart ruefulness and Macy is, as always, wonderful, an adult Pinocchio who lets furtive humor and emotion leak out of his block-like features.
But you can spot the source of every joke or gimmick: a vending-machine routine out of Dr. Strangelove, a suspended-body riff a la Coma, the ticking-clock-in-the-croc gag from Peter Pan mixed with the phone gag from Three Kings. Ultimately, the script is merely clever pop impasto about a group of impostors. And there's nothing edgy, novel or ironic here about the theme of a family reuniting. It's strictly pro forma.
The special effects rely on animatronic puppetry and animal suits as well as computer graphics, and they deliver quality "face time" with the creatures. One of the best tingles involves nothing more than a raptor's eye.
However, the most chilling and mind-blowing moments come when a horde of baby flying dinosaurs known as Pteranodons (they're fictitious) advance on, and then bite away at Eric. Their skittery movements and nibblings have a chimerical dimension missing from the rest of the picture. The most primitive method in the whole production supplied the alchemy in these scenes: a quartet of puppeteers manipulated each Pteranodon rod puppet by hand.
Despite all its talk of genetic engineering and its deliberately stupid characters, the unintended message of Jurassic Park III is that when it comes to art and entertainment, you can't beat human DNA.
Jurassic Park III
Starring Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni
Directed by Joe Johnston
Released by Universal
Running time 92 minutes
Rated PG-13 (violence)
Sun score ** 1/2