How Jurassic Park III Could Have Been Better

When Jurassic Park hit the theaters in 1993, it caused a revolution in CGI filmmaking because for the first time we had what appeared to be living creatures created entirely digitally–also, those creatures were dinosaurs!  It went on to be the highest grossing movie of all time (the third time a film directed by Steven Spielberg was to hold such an honor).  Naturally, a sequel was in order, so Spielberg loosely based The Lost World: Jurassic Park on the novel by Michael Crichton.  The follow-up made a ton of money, though was met with mixed critical response.  It’s not surprising that Spielberg decided to pass on directing the third film and instead took a producing role, allowing Joe Johnston to helm the new adventure.

While the first film was science fiction horror, the second attempted to deal with themes such as “hunters vs. gatherers” (while providing more humans for the dinos to eat).  Jurassic Park III, however, was straight-up adventure.  It was a sparse, fast-paced story about Alan Grant being suckered into flying to Isla Sorna (site B from The Lost World) in order to rescue a boy who was stranded on the dinosaur-infected island.  With a running time of 92 minutes, it was only 3/4 of the length of the previous entries in the series and left most of the audience yearning for the magic of the original.

It seems that Jurassic Park III (oddly named since there was technically no Jurassic Park II) suffered the curse of the third film in a trilogy.  Despite having a screenplay re-written by Oscar-winners Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the story was too slight to have much of an impact and featured far too many problems to be enjoyable.  That’s not to say that the entire movie was a failure; in fact the dinosaurs were perhaps the most realistic yet, including a redesigned velociraptor with feathers and odd colorings and a very cool spinosaurus that made a T-rex seem like a puppy dog.  Several scenes were quite effective, such as the “bird cage” scene with pteranodons, the raptor attack in the lab, and the spino tracking the heroes through the river while the phone it ate rings.  Johnston handled the action and the effects well, but was saddled with an inferior screenplay.  The frustrating thing is that it didn’t need to be this way–with a few changes, this could have been a great popcorn movie.

Alan Grant

Sam Neill’s character, paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, was the heart of the first movie.  He was a “digger” who found himself “extinct” in the face of genetically cloned living dinosaurs.  While planning his future with his co-worker and apparent lover Dr. Ellie Sattler, he makes it plain that he doesn’t want children–but in the course of the story has to be a surrogate father to two kids while crossing the island where dangerous beasts have escaped their pens.  Spielberg explored his common theme of broken families and missing fathers through these characters, wrapping it up nicely in the final scene where the exhausted kids are cuddled up with him in the helicopter flying them to safety while a bemused Ellie looks on.

Grant was not featured in The Lost World in favor of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm taking over as the lead (also proving to be a largely MIA father).  With the third film, Grant returned as the protagonist, but was given very little to do.  His presence almost seemed like an after-thought.  We’re introduced to him visiting Ellie, now married to another man with a 3-year-old son, and then quickly we see him giving a boring lecture where he does not want to acknowledge the fact that there are once again live dinosaurs on the planet.  He’s then conned into leading an aerial tour of Isla Sorna (an island he never stepped foot on) for a supposedly rich couple, only learning when it’s too late that they are neither wealthy nor still a couple, but rather they are looking for their son who went missing on the island.  Grant then spends the rest of the movie running around trying to keep everyone alive, a function that mostly wastes his knowledge of the animals hunting them.

The first mistake is how the writers dealt with Grant several years after the events in Jurassic Park.  For him to think that anyone would be interested in hearing about fossilized bones and theories of dinosaur behavior when there are living examples of these creatures in existence is ludicrous.  Yet he naively gives a speech and refuses to even acknowledge his experience on Isla Nebular.  It wouldn’t be in his character to profit off of tragedy, but he is self-defeating to not even discuss his adventures, even in a clinical manner.  Wouldn’t his lectures be so much more interesting if he compared what the theories based on fossils told him compared to what he saw in real life?

Secondly, why were he and Ellie no longer together?  Their single scene together barely touched upon their relationship, alluding to the fact that they were now merely friends or colleagues.  These two had been planning a future together, both professionally and romantically!  Did the events in the first movie tear them apart?  Did they just realize that they weren’t right for each other?  Did his insistence on pursuing fossils rather than live animals cause a rift between them?  It would have been nice for the movie to provide some answers as well as conflict.  Did Grant have any regrets for breaking up with Ellie?  She’s moved on to an apparently happy life with a husband and child while maintaining her career, while Grant is a relic in his own time.  He never wanted children and she did (another possible source of their separation), and both got exactly what they wanted–but is he happy with that decision?  Perhaps he could have seen the missed opportunity in her child.  This and his downward career spiral could cause him to be at a rather bleak part in his life, but this is not explored in the film other than a sense of melancholy that undermines the adventurous tone of the movie.

As an alternative, the movie could shown the two characters married (happily or otherwise).  With him being called back into action, how would he react to be separated from his wife and child now that he’s adjusted to the role of father?  This could be especially poignant given that he must rescue another couple’s child.  Even keeping Grant single without any kids, he could look at the missing boy as a means to make up for not being the father of Ellie’s child like he should have been.  He was a surrogate father once and missed his chance at being one for real.  The decision to go after the boy could have been driven by this inner need in him, which would have been a lot stronger than what was actually on screen.

Speaking of which, Grant doesn’t even know about the missing boy until he’s stranded on the island.  Why?  A primary rule of storytelling is that the protagonist drives the story.  As it is, Grant is just along for the ride, being misled by the boy’s parents in order to get him to agree to one thing while plotting something completely different.  Why couldn’t they have just been up front with him and pleaded to his sense of decency?  This would have given him inner conflict–there’s no way he would return to Jurassic Park or its Site B under normal circumstances, but a lost child would play upon his conscience.  In making the decision to go in search of him, that puts him in the story’s driver’s seat rather than being there just because he happened to have been in the first film.

Not only would this strengthen his character, but he would then be able to call the shots through the rest of the story.  Rather than be hapless (and helpless) survivors of a plane crash, Grant and the other characters would have started with a solid plan, albeit one that would fall apart and need to be improvised along the way.  This would give them solid hurdles to overcome that would be organic to the story and not forced upon them simply because the film needed an action scene here and there.

Finally, Grant needs to grow through the course of the movie, something that doesn’t currently happen.  In the first movie, he learns to be a father figure, though by the third film he has regressed as if that change in him never happened.  Does he need to relearn that lesson all over again?  That would be redundant.  Perhaps he needs to mature so that he’s ready to take on the responsibility of being a husband and father–something that was lacking in him that drove Ellie away.  Or if he is married to Ellie and is the father of her little boy, maybe he’s still not dealing with the situation, and this new adventure gives him a new perspective on his life.  After all, what if it was his own son that was missing on an island filled with vicious dinosaurs?

Ellie Sattler

Why bring Laura Dern back only for a one-scene cameo?  Especially since she doesn’t do anything in that scene except establish the fact that her character has moved on with her life without Alan Grant?  Her character, palebotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, was a tough, resourceful heroine in the first film.  In this one, she is relegated to the role of deus ex machina, sending in the Marines to rescue Grant and company off screen.  There’s a joke where Grant uses a satellite phone and contacts Ellie’s little boy, who watches Barney while Grant is being threatened by a real, non-purple dinosaur.  Ellie presumably gets to the phone in time to hear screams and somehow puts the pieces together to call for help.  Why couldn’t we see her being resourceful once again and urgently trying to get the U.S. military to respond?  That would have been great conflict to contrast with what the characters on the island were going for.  It also would have created suspense rather than just have a surprise ending where the heroes get saved out of the blue.

The Bickering Ex-Spouses

William H. Macy and Téa Leoni play Paul and Amanda Kirby, separated parents of Trevor Morgan’s Erik Kirby, who was para-sailing with Amanda’s boyfriend near Isla Sorna when disaster struck and left him stranded to fend for himself on the island.  At first, the Kirbys pretend to be wealthy business owners wanting a unique vacation and convince Alan Grant to give them a guided tour of the island in hopes of spotting some dinosaurs.  However, they also hire mercenaries to help defend themselves against the beasts when they land on the island–which they do only after one of the mercenaries knock Grant unconscious.  Paul and Amanda spend the rest of the movie arguing loudly and quite annoyingly.  In fact, Amanda proves to be the most shrill film character since Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

As was mentioned before, why couldn’t they have been upfront with Grant about their real purpose?  The sneaky shenanigans do nothing to advance the story other than make Grant look like a weak protagonist.  Once their subterfuge is discovered in Act 2, it’s pretty much dropped from the plot.  They’re used to develop the theme of the broken family that is a common denominator in this series; that’s fine, but it’s handled in a clunky manner.  The script treats high-volumed bickering as character development, and all too quickly the estranged couple finds themselves back together.  In fact, when they find the skeletal remains of Amanda’s boyfriend, she reacts with an hysterical scream–not for the boyfriend, but for her son.  It’s as if the boyfriend was inconsequential.  At least Erik could take care of himself, something that cannot be said for the parents.

The Mercenaries

The first Jurassic Park featured the game warden, Muldoon, who carried a powerful looking gun but was still bested by the raptors.  In The Lost World, his character was one-upped by Pete Postlethwaite’s big game hunter Roland Tembo, whose desire was to bag a T-rex.  In fact, he brought along a whole team of wranglers who ended up as a moveable dinosaur feast.  It only makes sense that Jurassic Park III would take this type of role to the next level with a team of mercenaries–though if the definition of “team” is two generic tough guys led by the weaselly little Mr. Udesky (Michael Jeter in one of his last screen roles before succumbing to AIDS).

Having the team leader be the complete opposite of the rugged gunsman that the first two films featured was a nice twist; it’s just too bad that the firepower featured in an early scene was never used.  Also, the two mercenaries were only in the movie long enough to be eaten shortly after the plane carrying the heroes landed.  Perhaps the filmmakers thought this was ironic, but in reality it robbed the movie the potential to have some awesome action scenes involving these characters and their weapons.  It’s not that they were killed that’s the problem, it’s just that they’re dispatched so quickly.  Maybe the movie could have had at least one more mercenary that survived the initial attack in order to last a little way into the plot.

Additionally, Udesky is barely developed as a character and is merely used as the bait in a trap the raptors set for the others.  This was actually a brilliant idea, but since we knew little to nothing about the guy, it was hard to care about his fate.  The movie would have been so much richer if this scene were put off until later into the story and allow him to show his worth (or lack thereof).  The slimy lawyer in the first film had more screen time, and his death was very satisfying!

The Running Time and the Ending

To say this film feels rushed is an understatement.  Probably in response to The Lost World taking 45 minutes to gear up for some action, Jurassic Park III wastes little time in getting to Isla Sorna and putting the characters in danger.  But as stated before, this robs the movie from any character development, rendering them merely action figures to be moved around in the admittedly effective set pieces.  It can be argued that these films were never heavy on deep character analysis, but at least there was motivation for their actions (beyond, of course, the Kirbys wanting to rescue their son).  A lot of the problem is the fact that this movie is very short.  Why did the filmmakers feel the need to make it barely an hour and a half long?  It feels like the Cliff Notes version of a story and could have easily been fleshed out to be a full two hours long and still be exciting.  Screenwriters Payne and Taylor know how to craft character-driven stories, so it’s inexplicable that they ended up doing the exact opposite here.

The Lost World ended its Act 2 with a rescue from the island and proceeded into its third act with taking a T-rex (and its baby) to San Diego.  A lot of criticism was given to this movie for tacking on a Godzilla-like climax with the Tyrannosaur running loose through the city, but it was vastly different from the first film and it completed the theme of letting animals live free that ran through the film.  Jurassic Park III ended at the same point that The Lost World geared up for its climax, with a surprise rescue by the Marines.  As stated earlier, it’s implied that Ellie Sattler called in the cavalry while off screen, but that’s a cheat.  Alan Grant is the protagonist, yet not only did he not cause the plot to happen, he didn’t resolve the conflict either.  Sure, he gave the eggs back to the raptors, but he and his companions surely would have been eaten regardless until the comically huge beach assualt saved them at the last minute.  Granted, Grant and his original companions were saved in a similar manner by a T-rex, allowing them to simply run out of the building, but that at least felt somewhat organic to the plot (after all, the T-rex had a habit of showing up out of nowhere to chow down on unsuspecting animals).  The ending to Jurassic Park III is a cheat.  It makes the characters completely helpless and ineffectual–ultimately, everything they went through was meaningless.  The first two films had a point, but this one was pointless.  The characters ran around the island, being chased by the dinosaurs, and then were rescued.  The end.  No, no, no–they needed to provide the means for their own escape.

This film had so much potential and was entertaining in a shallow way, but it could have been a great adventure film if more effort was put into it.  Spielberg even said one time that a different story came to his attention that would have been far better than the one that was filmed.  Why they didn’t turn that into Jurassic Park IV is a mystery.  There’s talk that a fourth film is in the works, but given that it’s now more than a decade since the third, it makes one wonder what they’re waiting for.  A good script?

copyright © 2012 FilmVerse

6 comments on “How Jurassic Park III Could Have Been Better

  1. From what I understand, JPIII started shooting without having a full script. That’s why the movie feels like a handful of set-pieces strung together by the flimsiest of plots.

    I also remember reading back in 2001 that there was a more elaborate ending planned, but it was dropped in the final minute, possibly because the movie went over-budget. If you think about it, it is very weird that the main antagonist of the movie (the Spinosaurus) is not there in the ending. The original ending was supposed to be the Spino getting killed by the 2 adult T-rexes from The Lost World, meaning that the T-rex killed earlier in the movie was their baby.

    There are a bunch of deleted/incomplete scenes that never made it to the movie that would’ve fixed some of JPIII many problems. Some of these scenes don’t feel like they were cut for pacing or storytelling reasons. Most likely it was for budgetary reasons.

  2. I like your thinking, adding some more depth to the movie. There are a few things I do disagree with, however. I could understand very well why Dr. Grant would not want to study the genetically engineered dinosaurs. This could have been a moment to explore a little bit more information from the books, especially the first, that their behavior was likely tainted from their constant exposure to humans, their genetic defects, and different environmental factors. Plus, when you have such a horrifying experience, it’s understandable that Grant would have little desire to relive any of that.

    Other points, I think you’ve got some good ideas. I do think one of the biggest things like sequels lack from the original is the admiration of the animals, and admiration of the science. The original has very little screen time of dinosaurs eating people, or even threatening to eat people. This is harder to pull off once the animals have escaped, but I think that’s part of the reason why the sequels are less magical. They’ve become all thrills without the heart. Lost World did better at that than 3, but still nothing captures the imagination like the original. How to fix this for number 4? Who knows. Hopefully the screenwriters and director do.

  3. All great points, Jaime.

    I think the biggest asset and liability of the film is that it’s a Jurassic Park film. It could never live up to the original in terms of quality but it would REALLY be pointless without Dr. Grant returning to the story. Without the connection to the Jurassic Park films, it would have been a plot-less disaster instead of just a plot-less fun movie.

    • I find it interesting that the second film (following the novel’s lead) didn’t feature Alan Grant, but rather made Ian Malcolm the protagonist. It was great seeing Alan Grant back in the third installment, but his presences just seemed to wasted given what they could have done with him. For the fourth film, it would be interesting to bring back the kids from the first movie considering that it was their grandfather who created Jurassic Park in the first place. The trouble with all the sequels, though, is providing a good excuse for putting people on the islands and in harm’s way. I wonder why Grant wouldn’t want to set up a research facility to study the dinosaurs in action.

  4. Great dissection of this film’s issues, Jamie. I think your suggestions would certainly have greatly improved the film. Though, let me go on record to say I’d re-watch JP III ahead of Lost World any day of the week (I really hate that sequel). I always felt JP III was taken away from Joe Johnston. It felt more like an Alan Smithee production, especially in the run-time and that inane finale. It had the look like ‘let’s get this out the door and make some money back.’ “A cheat” is right. Makes me wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Great job, my friend.

    • I really enjoyed The Lost World despite its many flaws (just how long of exposition do we need to set the action in motion?) and I actually think the ending was the best of the three films. However, I completely understand how people can dislike it. As for Jurassic Park III, yes, it did feel like it was rushed, as if it was a cash grab rather than an attempt to make a film with serious themes like the first two. That’s what’s frustrating about the film–we can see the potential it had, but have to settle for what we got.

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