In summer of 1993, most of the world watched and fell in love with the Jurassic Park movie. But while I’m sure countless folks would have loved to make a dinosaur movie after seeing it, one person was actually in a position to make that happen. Joe Johnston, friend of Steven Spielberg and himself director of such crowd-pleasers as The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, had been a lifelong dinosaur buff, and he told Spielberg in no uncertain terms that if a sequel were to happen, he wanted to be the one to captain that ship.
And while Spielberg decided to helm the sequel himself, he never forgot that conversation. In the aftermath of The Lost World‘s summer ‘97 release, a bit of paralysis had overtaken the development process. While an unqualified box office smash (it owned the opening weekend box office record until the first Harry Potter was released four-plus years later), it was also inarguably less beloved than the original. Thus, the Jurassic creatives had to figure out where to take things next — this time without the benefit of an existing novel by Michael Crichton to point the way.
While potential storylines were being mulled, Johnston signed on to helm in ’99 (with Spielberg stepping back to be executive producer), and plans were quickly made to bring Sam Neill back as Dr. Alan Grant. The angle ultimately decided on for the threequel saw Grant shanghaied onto Isla Sorna (“Site B” from The Lost World) by a divorced couple (William H. Macy, Téa Leoni) looking for their young son (Trevor Howard) who got lost on the island during an exploratory sailing trip. While the final script is credited to three different writers (including Election and About Schmidt’s Alexander Payne), the “rescue mission” originated with David Koepp, writer of the previous two Jurassics.
Unfortunately, the “by-committee” nature of the script does seem a bit too apparent at times. As Johnston himself said to me in a 2010 interview, “There was a period of a couple of weeks when we were literally two days ahead of the writer.” With new pages coming in daily while they were shooting, it was, per Johnston, “a white knuckle ride at times.” Part of the reason for this rush to get into production even without a completed script was the threat of an impending writer’s strike (which didn’t end up materializing anyway). As a result, sometimes it can’t help but feel like sort of a “greatest hits” version of Jurassic Park: “Look, the raptors!” “Hey, a T-Rex!” And heck, does it get any more iconic than Alan Grant in that trademark hat?
Speaking of Grant, while it’s great to see the doctor again (along with Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler—in what amounts to an extended cameo), there is a definite sense of straining credibility as the filmmakers contrive a reason for these characters to once again find themselves in the exact same scenario they were in two movies ago (“No force on earth or heaven,” Grant intones to a lecture audience at one point, “could get me on that island”). Still, it’s amazing how much of the heavy lifting is done by our fondness for Neill in this role, and he’s a good sport as he goes through his “running in terror” paces once again. He also has great chemistry with Alessandro Nivola as his too-eager assistant, Billy Brennan.
With a runtime of just over 90 minutes, this is the shortest of all the Jurassic Park films, but with a budget of just under $100 million it’s also the most expensive of those three. That said, you sure can’t say you don’t see all that money right up there on the screen. The dinosaurs still look as amazing as they ever did, and the movie’s new big bad, the deadly Spinosaurus, makes for a welcome addition to the prehistoric menagerie. The vicious battle between the Tyrannosaur and the Spinosaurus is particularly well-executed, seamlessly blending practical models with CGI wizardry. Another genuinely effective moment is the slow reveal of the aerie where the flying Pteranodons have been kept caged.
Like its immediate predecessor, I’m a fan of Jurassic Park III. It’s a solid bit of summer escapism, and when judged by that standard it holds up just fine. Sure, there’s a bit of goofiness in there (a weird dream sequence that has Grant seeing a talking Velociraptor, plus an ending so abrupt that it feels less like the culmination of the story and more the result of the filmmakers searching for any off-ramp they could find). However, and again, just like its immediate predecessor, it’s no patch on the first one, and by the time it was released there wasn’t the same sense of urgency in audiences –or the movie itself, for that matter. Rather than an event, it felt kind of perfunctory. Johnston is a skilled director, but he’s no Steven Spielberg. Don Davis is a talent composer, but he ain’t John Williams.
Jurassic Park III had a solid opening weekend to the tune of $50 million when it premiered on July 18, 2001, which put it right in line with the first film’s opening eight years prior, but was also a step down from The Lost World‘s $72 mil. With a global total of $368 million, the trilogy-capper was considered a success in relation to its budget, but having earned less than half what the first Jurassic raked in eight years prior, it’s also clear that audience attrition had taken its toll. Whether a result of negative reaction to the previous sequel, or just an overall “been there, done that” feeling, the studio decided it best to hit the “pause” button while they again sought new ways to carry it forward.
As Johnston told me, “There is a wonderful story outline for the fourth installment that is very different from the first trilogy. It would take the franchise off in a completely new and very exciting direction.” In the years after Jurassic III‘s release, Spielberg worked with a variety of different writers to try and crack the premise for another installment. While we may never know what was in that outline mentioned above, or what the promised new direction might have looked like, at this stage the series was merely lying fallow, not extinct—and it would be a full fourteen years before it finally came roaring back to life.