Another contest to see who belongs at the top of the food chain.


directed by Joe Johnston with Sam Neill, William H. Macy, T顠Leone, and Alessandro Nivola opens July 18 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Oak Tree, Factoria, and others

"LEAVE US ALONE," the happily isolated dinosaurs might be saying from their verdant deserted island. "We don't have any more ideas for sequels." You can understand their position. Life has been pretty good since Jeff Goldblum and those other pesky humans were last driven away in 1997's The Lost World. Things are just calming down in their tropical, idyllic lives when—wouldn't you know it?—some damn kid comes parasailing out of the sky to spoil paradise anew. Mind you, who wouldn't want to get their foot-long, razor-sharp fangs on that appetizing young morsel? (He looks to be about 13 or 14 years old; older teens rot the teeth, doncha know?) Problem is, the lad's got a family, and before a nice T-rex can enjoy a decent snack, mom and dad come riding to the rescue.

Hence the recently divorced Kirby parents (William H. Macy and T顠Leone) reunite to hoodwink the original 1993 Jurassic Park's Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) into another tour of duty on a second dino-infested island. Along for the ride are a few gun-totin' mercenary types, but as with the red-shirted security officers on Star Trek, we know their days are numbered. (Heck, let's make that "seconds are numbered," since JPIII barely exceeds 90 minutes.) Once their plane conveniently crashes, Grant's only help is a loyal paleontology student (Face/Off's Alessandro Nivola) who shares his initial disdain for the bumbling Kirbys. Meanwhile, back home, Laura Dern also returns to the Jurassic series, but only for one scene and an urgent phone call.

For all its "Boo!" moments, however, the Jurassic franchise now paradoxically depends on not being too frightening or gory for kids, even if that timidity betrays the original promise of what was, in essence, Jaws with legs (or, to cite the old SNL sketch, "Landshark"). The PG-13 rating guarantees family-friendly mayhem and inevitable hugs of reconciliation, while the scientific mumbo jumbo of cranky old Michael Crichton has mostly been excised from a dumbed-down script. (Don't blame the screenwriters, who include Election's Alexander Payne and Seattleite Jim Taylor, plus former area resident Peter Buchman; this is purely work-for-hire, and it shows.)

THE REAL STARS, of course, are those hulking, cold-blooded fellows lurking in the forest. The mean, sly velociraptors are back (now communicating with significant squawks like big, angry chickens, Grant discovers). Pea-brained T-rex also returns to the fray, but that toy's been sold, so the puny-armed titan must be upstaged by a new A-list reptile: mighty, finned, pointy-snouted spinosaurus, whose presence is signaled—in the film's only good gag, borrowed from Peter Pan—by the cell phone ringing from his gut. Also new are the flying pteranodons, who make their entrance too late and to too little effect.

The CGI wizardry that animates these heavyweights has certainly improved over eight years, even if the storytelling has regressed. When T-rex squares off against spinosaurus, their slashing tails and scaly flesh seem real—but who's to judge verisimilitude with a long-extinct species? JPIII favors slightly darker cinematography than its predecessors; wider apertures also allow the dinos to spring into menacing focus all at once from murky backgrounds. Fog, like the sea in Jaws, here often conceals the monsters, creating tension but also cheating the viewer. (We paid for our tickets, so show us the good stuff!)

With its stranded crew, abandoned base-cum-breeding center, feral child, and rapacious beasts, JPIII often feels like a watered-down installment in the wrong movie series—Alien, to be precise. Yet none of the chases down claustrophobic corridors ever achieves such intensity of effect. The violence isn't real enough, which undermines the cast's air of forced desperation. (Still in his benevolent mode from The Dish, Neill hardly makes for a dashing action hero, despite the Indy Jones fedora). Instead of kicking dino ass, JPIII's survivors seem more like a high-minded bird-watching party, there to observe instead of destroy. Where's Ripley when you need her?


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