The question of whether Jurassic Park III is a worse movie than The Lost World: Jurassic Park is really mostly pointless, and largely insoluble; both are so extremely far down the scale from the original Jurassic Park that it's a matter of shading, not true qualitative difference. Or put it another way: one is probably "better", but they're both miles and miles and miles from "good", so it's not like there's any real victory for anybody in figuring it out.

That said, I'm vaguely inclined to prefer JP3, though not for any good reasons. I think that Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant makes more sense as a protagonist than Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm, for one thing. I much prefer the dopey joking tone of much of the screenplay (which I take to be the legacy of Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, of Election fame, who very randomly ended up as co-writers here, alongside first-timer Peter Buchman) to the dull seriousness and inanely self-contradicting message movie slant in The Lost World. The third film's depiction of Isla Sorna feels a bit more old-school adventure movie fanciful than before. But the most important consideration, by far, is that JP3 is more than half an hour shorter than The Lost World, so at least there's a lot less of it to suffer through.

Some time after the incident in San Diego revealed to the world that InGen's cloned dinosaurs exist and are thriving (released in 2001, JP3 came four years after TLW, but there's no real indication that the narrative gap has to be the same), the remote Isla Sorna has attracted the natural population of thrill-seekers anxious to find some way to subvert very the specific and insurmountable government edicts keeping the site quarantined, which in this case means a parasailing company called Dino-Soar. The film opens with a pair of Americans enjoying just such an adventure, Ben Hildebrand (Mark Harelik, whom we don't need to keep track of), and adolescent Erik (Trevor Morgan, whom, tragically, we do; though he's probably the least-odious of the child actors who have accrued to the Jurassic Park franchise), though when the boat they're attached to enters a fog bank, and the crew on board ends up missing except for a bloody streak - the final cut of the film doesn't suggest what dinosaur could have possibly done this, so we'll have to chalk it up to foggy ghost pirates - and in a panic the parasailers detach and float off into the jungle.

Weeks later, Dr. Alan Grant is busy giving a lecture that turns out to be a desperate attempt to raise money for the fading field of paleontology (which has naturally become less exciting to people, now that actual dinosaurs actually live, though Grant at least has the sense to point out that they're genetic aberrations, not real animals), when he's approached by the quirky Kirby couple, Amanda (Téa Leoni) and Paul (William H. Macy), who want to pay him an absurd amount of money to be their guide on a flyover of Sorna, to look at all the dinos for their anniversary. With reluctance not nearly extreme enough for a man who had, minutes before, delivered the pronouncement "No force on earth or heaven could get me on that island", Grant agrees, taking his research assistant Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola) along for moral support. Of course, it quickly turns out that the divorced Kirbys are really looking for Erik, their son, who went missing with Amanda's boyfriend over Sorna, and when their plane illegally lands, it's almost immediately attacked - taking out the team's weapons expert - by a giant theropod predator even bigger than a T-Rex, that Grant identifies as Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, darkly noting that this wasn't a dino on InGen's list of cloning projects, so who knows what other mischief they were up to? And for many long, beautiful years, that obvious sequel hook was left untouched, but let's not start getting depressed about the summer of 2015 already.

So the ingredients are: stranded on the island, no communication equipment, a giant meat-eating dinosaur that's bigger and tougher even than the T-Rex it kills after a short, brutal fight (though Spinosaurus is typically agreed to have been a piscivore and thus possessed of only a limited interest in eating humans, to say nothing of other multi-ton carnivores), and velociraptors, naturally, which according to the latest science are possibly as intelligent as a human being and capable of complicated in-group communication. So all in all, it's a clear recipe for "let's heighten the danger!" dragging out bigger and meaner and more terrifying creatures to make certain that JP3 was the most exciting of them all.

We're not going to pick apart every last reason that this doesn't happen, because life's too short to write monographs about Jurassic Park III, but rest assured that it goes stunningly wrong. Part of it is a crappy choice of villain: the spinosaur might very well be a bigger, nastier beast than T-Rex, but it's also an animal that pretty much nobody outside of the most severe dinosaur nuts had heard about prior to this movie. T-Rex worked because it was something everybody knew, and loved; the ultimate giant monster out of history. The first movie was able to promote its velociraptors to something like that level because of Steven Spielberg's excellently taut directing, and because "velociraptor" is so much fun to say. JP3 can't even begin to make that happen for its poor spinosaur, who looks sort of goofy and is largely accomplished with CGI that hasn't aged nearly as well as the first two films - watching the movies all in a row, the drop in VFX quality is revelatory. Part of it is a crappy recurring villain: the smarter, meaner raptors end up being very like the raptors of yore, except for one utterly dumb moment when the lead raptor, having failed to use a dying human to bait a trap, snaps the victim's neck in a moment of overt villainy. The real problem is the new design: taking off from modern advances in paleontology, the JP3 raptors - the males anyway - have a smattering of feathers on their heads, and totally different coloring that makes them look unbelievably silly. And, of course, the velociraptors that really existed probably looked like birds outright, but they would have been bad movie creatures, and series continuity perhaps matters more than feeble nods to scientific accuracy.

The bigger problem still - though "problem" isn't the best word for it, perhaps - is that director Joe Johnston is far more interested in latching onto the lightness of the script, which is already far jokier than any previous Jurassic Park picture, than in developing a newer, bigger, more threatening thriller movie world. It's the first openly B-movie Jurassic Park, as a result, one in which gung-ho adventurin' and a blithe tone that keeps it from being too dark and gloomy much predominates, and even when people are killed, it's not very serious or scarring. Johnston had proved with The Rocketeer and would prove again with Captain America: The First Avenger that his one strength as a filmmaker is to capture a breezy, fizzy sense of fun, of the sort practiced by genre movies back in the their most juvenile period in the '40s and '50s, and his approach to JP3 is very much in line with that. If it results in a movie that feels desperately insubstantial next to the other two, at least it's a fleeter watch than the lugubrious second film.

What it's certainly not is an exciting, world-building sequel, or even a good fleet adventure movie: the only sequence in the whole movie that operates at anything like the level of the first movie is the walk through a misty pteranodon aviary (a scene from the first book, where it made more narrative sense), and even that goes to hell when the blatant CGI pteranodons start flying all over. In the meanwhile, the film is ground down by one-dimensional characters (Grumpy Grant, Wide-Eyed Billy, Dippy Paul, Nervous Amanda), and a plot that just marches them across the landscape without caring about why, or exploring the places that they arrive. And the finale is an absolute travesty, relying on a deus ex machina that's too big and too inexplicable to remotely serve as the satisfying end to any kind of movie worth watching.

The movie is frankly stupid, though I contend that it embraces its stupidity more openly than did The Lost World, and thus isn't quite as offensive. And again, it's 36 whole minutes shorter, and I'm awfully grateful for them. Not as grateful as I'd have been for a Jurassic Park sequel that was worth a goddamn, but we obviously can't have everything.

Reviews in this series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)
Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona, 2018)