Taking a cue from "The Lost World," which brought back "Jurassic Park" veteran Jeff Goldblum to anchor a mostly new cast, "Jurassic Park III" digs up Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant, ever the passionate paleontologist. Catching up with him several years later, the audience is quickly made to understand that Ellie (Laura Dern, in a micro-cameo) and Alan are no longer a couple thanks to her desire for a domestic life and his tireless devotion to science. These days, though, Grant prefers to spend his time burying his head in the sands of traditional fossil digs--the safe, old-fashioned way of learning about dinosaurs. The two original Jurassic Park islands (Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna), meanwhile, have been made off-limits to the world, for obvious reasons.
Unfortunately, Grant's thirst for research funding obscures his better judgment when he is approached by Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) to serve as their guide on an aerial tour of Isla Sorna in exchange for a very large sum of cash. As it turns out, the Kirbys aren't wealthy adventurers, but divorced middle-class parents of a boy named Eric (Trevor Morgan) who went missing off the island's coast some weeks earlier during an unauthorized parasailing trip.
Naturally, things go horribly wrong and the plane winds up crashing with nearly all of the Kirbys' hired mercenaries being devoured one by one before Eric is found, the Kirbys' relationship reconciled and their rescue secured. Filling out the film's running time between the obligatory moments of pathos are some fairly standard set pieces that find the humans once again at odds with the familiar Raptors as well as a giant Spinosaurus (a recently discovered meat-eater that rivals the T-Rex) and a flock of hungry Pterodactyls.
Having exhausted nearly all imaginable possibilities in "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World," Steven Spielberg has stepped back into the role of executive producer, allowing the very capable Joe Johnston ("Jumanji") to take over directing chores. And Johnston, clearly no slouch with special effects, is a good fit. His staging of the key action scenes may not surpass Spielberg's prior work, but it's good enough to satisfy fans.
The script credited to Peter Buchman and the "Election" team of Alexander Payne and Jim Thomas is serviceable and adequate, which is substantially more than could be said for "The Lost World". Understanding that any impression of narrative should be little more than a framework on which to hang expensive action and effects sequences, the writers have kept "Jurassic Park III" lean and skeletal.
Technically, "Jurassic Park III" compares well with its predecessors. The CGI work is predictably good and Johnston's handling of the set pieces fluid and accomplished. And while there really isn't anything in the picture that audiences haven't seen before, the addition of the Spinosaurus and Pterodactyls, along with the rather silly notion that Raptors were actually more intelligent than primates, gives the filmmakers enough leeway to at least create the impression of freshness.
Kudos as well to the fine cast, especially Alessandro Nivola in an otherwise thankless turn as Grant's tag-along apprentice-turned-hero. When the film does verge on silliness, it's the straight-faced believability of the actors that salvages it. Starring Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Allessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl and Bruce A. Young. Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Peter Buchman and Alexander Payne & Jim Thomas. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Larry Franco. A Universal release. Action. Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi terror and violence. Running time: 88 min