After The Lost World, Spielberg was ready to step away from directing the franchise and instead went on to produce. Joe Johnston instead was brought on to direct after having offered to direct the previous entry. Johnston would later go on to be well-known for The Wolfman and Captain America: The First Avenger, but at the time he was already famous for making quality family-friendly, special effects-heavy blockbusters such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. Without a novel to form the basis of the plot, a new story had to be written from scratch for the first time in the series history. The first draft of the script revolved around teenagers getting stranded on Isla Sorna, but this was ultimately rejected when Johnston was officially brought on board. The second script revolved around Pteranodon escaping from Isla Sorna and killing people on the mainland and featured a number of characters which would make it into the final film, including Alan Grant and Billy Brennan. This script would have had two main plots - one with Grant and company crashing on Isla Sorna, and another investigating the attacks on the mainland. Production went underway for this version of the script, with sets, costumes and props built to support it. While it was not based on any previous works, some action sequences were inspired by scenes from the novel versions of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, such as the aviary and the spinosaur attack on the river.
However, in an Alien 3-style turn of events, the script was rejected by Johnston and Spielberg only 5 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, with $18 million already poured into the production and a series of sets which now needed to be worked into a non-existent story somehow. The parallel plotlines were deemed too complicated and the film was ultimately truncated into a single rescue mission plotline, with a script getting rushed to meet the filming schedule. A final script was never actually completed during the production, which is never a good thing to hear (although some films, such as Iron Man, prove that this can still work out in the end).
As I alluded to before, the only returning character in a major capacity in Jurassic Park III is Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Laura Dern makes a delightful return in an important cameo role as Ellie Sattler, although some fans might be disappointed to see that Grant and Sattler did not work out as a couple. Considering that she very much wanted kids and he did not, it's not surprising to see, but Neill and Dern have great chemistry still and there's a sad undercurrent in their interactions which shows that they clearly still really like one another. Of the new cast, the most notable is definitely William H. Macy of Fargo, Boogie Nights and Shameless fame, who plays Paul Kirby. Téa Leoni also appears as his ex-wife, Amanda Kirby, and Trevor Morgan as their son, Eric Kirby. Rounding out the main cast is Alessandro Nivola as Billy Brennan, one of Grant's dig assistants who is a bit of an adventure-seeker. The cast is actually rather small and not nearly as strong compared to past films in the series, but most of them put in solid performances (barring one, but I'll get to that later).
The plot of Jurassic Park III revolves around the Kirby family, whose son Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna. Desperate, they con Alan Grant and Billy Brennan into helping them find their son, but soon get stranded on the island and have to fight for survival as they are hunted by a relentless spinosaurus and a pack of velociraptors... wow, I'm actually kind of surprised that I got the whole plot summarized there in only two sentences, but that just goes to show that Jurassic Park III is a very thin film on the plot side of things. Considering that the script never was completed, this should perhaps be not so surprising, but Jurassic Park III is content to just be a fairly standard B-movie action-adventure story. Compare the set-up and character establishment we get in previous films in the franchise to Jurassic Park III. In Jurassic Park, we get nearly an hour before the running and screaming starts. In The Lost World, we get nearly 40 minutes. In Jurassic Park III, we get only 20 minutes to get to know people before the film rushes us into the running and screaming. On the plus side, at least the rescue mission set-up gives the audience and characters direction, provides emotional catharsis and a bit of time to breathe between action sequences and allows the characters to develop a bit, but no one is going to say that Jurassic Park III ever takes its time to get anywhere.
Perhaps owing to the rushed script, much of Jurassic Park III's plot feels incredibly contrived. While the idea of someone getting stranded on Isla Sorna is an interesting idea, the entire plot gets thrown into motion because Eric and Ben (Amanda's boyfriend at the time) are parasailing and the crew of the boat they chartered gets devoured without explanation within minutes of arriving after passing through a fog. This is just the first of a number of "convenient" events which occur which don't really make a lot of sense or which aren't really explained. Like, within minutes of landing on Isla Sorna, the characters are attacked by the spinosaur, the "professional" mercenaries with the big guns are wiped out and their plane crashes, putting the rest of the plot in motion super conveniently. Then there's just lots of little moments that are done for a cheap scare or "because plot". Why is Ben's skeleton still hanging in the tree he crashed in? Why does the raptor hide behind the glass tank motionless? Why is the spinosaurus even hunting the humans anyway (at least The Lost World went to great pains to justify why the t-rexes would be following the moveable feast)? And who the hell is constantly calling Paul's satellite phone every second of the day!? Hell, we even get another Chekhov's Lucky Pack for the second film in a row.
Joe Johnston is a very competent director, but he doesn't bring the same sort of energy to the proceedings as Spielberg. He may not have had his heart in The Lost World, but that film still had its standout sequences which Jurassic Park III can never really match. The first spinosaur attack and the aviary scene are both quite exciting, but the action sequences tend to not stand out quite as much as they did in the past. That's not to say that they're bad, but they just aren't given the same sort of flair. Sometimes the direction/editing is wonky as well, most notably when Grant gets knocked out on the plane, which is handled with a first person perspective fade to black. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes, which could be down to the fact that there was no script in place more than anything else. Also worth noting is that the special effects are still very good, the CGI is well-utilized and the animatronics are still central to bringing the dinosaurs to life.
Perhaps due to his past as a director of kid-friendly family blockbusters, Jurassic Park III is much lighter in tone than previous entries were. The emphasis seems to be on fun and humour and rarely on building tension and horror, which is further aided by the way the film telegraphs very obviously who is going to live and who will die. The only character whose fate is up in the air throughout is Billy and in the film's standout sequence, it appears that he is killed by a flock of pteranodon (we can even see a lot of blood in the water as he is washed downstream). However, the film totally cops-out in the ending when it reveals that not only did he somehow survive this attack without any sort of explanation, but the US Marines also manage to find and secure him before Grant and his group. It's a bullshit ending that makes absolutely no sense and just feels like someone threw it in at the last moment to give us an unearned feel-good ending.
Jurassic Park III is certainly the divisive film. Some people like it more than The Lost World, but there is also a sizeable chunk of the fanbase who despise it for a number of reasons. There are some people who dislike the admittedly lazy and throw-away plot, or the shift from a serious and tense tone to one that is much more light-hearted. The sense of wonder has also been largely jettisoned in Jurassic Park III, focusing instead entirely on the running and screaming with one very short scene of admiring the herbivores late in the runtime. The portrayal of the dinosaurs also has definitely caused some fanboy rage. The spinosaurus is less of an animal and more of a terminator as it chases the survivors around the island. Fans also hate that the spinosaurus beats a t-rex in a fight early in the film, which is thrown in as an obvious way to establish that "this new dinosaur is better than the one you already like". The rage that scene inspires is bad enough that the Jurassic Park wiki page for it has to include warnings not to get butthurt about it. Some fans also hate how the velociraptors are portrayed, although they are definitely more menacing than they were in The Lost World in my opinion.
For my own part, I'm a bit mixed. I definitely acknowledge Jurassic Park III's obvious problems, but it's obvious from the get-go that the film is aiming to be little more than a b-movie filled with unpretentious dinosaur fun and I feel like it succeeds in its aim. It's certainly less disappointing than The Lost World, which aimed higher but missed the mark, even if Jurassic Park III's aims are far lower as well. It's definitely a throw-away film, but I always enjoy myself when I watch it so I feel like it deserves some points for that at least.
Be sure to come back soon as we round out this retrospective with Jurassic World!