The poster for "Jurassic Park III" took some heat before the movie even opened. The squiggly lines of the Roman numeral look exciting - like claw marks, or maybe lightning flashes - but they're kind of hard to see. And if you don't notice the number in the title, how do you know it's a sequel and not a rerelease of the original?
Are the filmmakers trying to warn us about something - namely, that the third entry in this popular franchise so resembles its progenitors that we might have trouble detecting the differences?
That's the problem with genetic engineering: Mom, dad, and all the little clones have the same characteristics, good and bad. That's OK if you're looking for another few velociraptors to scamper around your exotic island. But it's not so good if you're competing in the summer-movie marketplace, where sequels and spinoffs have been multiplying like ... well, Jurassic triceratopses.
At least the previous sequel in this hugely popular series, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," had a somewhat distinctive title. In fact, it stressed originality by pushing the name of the franchise behind the colon. The new installment takes the opposite tack. Apparently, it's so proud of its tag-along sameness that it wants us to know how jurassically correct it is before we even set foot in the multiplex.
Many spectators won't mind, since "III" is reasonably effective as a bare-bones recap of the thrill-ride formulas that made the first two entries international hits. Still, you can tell from the first scene - an action sequence that mechanically sets up a search-and-rescue plot premise - that the filmmakers aren't really trying this time.
And who can blame them? The director is Joe Johnston, who must be tired of such stuff after supervising special effects for various "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones pictures; and the executive producer is Steven Spielberg, who had bigger-budget fish to fry in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," currently floundering in theaters everywhere. Another visit to "Jurassic Park" must have seemed as ho-hum to them as a vegetarian dinner with a boring brontosaurus.
That's how it seemed to me, anyway, even though I'm as fond of Sam Neill as the next moviegoer.
Neill returns as Dr. Alan Grant, the mild-mannered paleontologist who loved dinosaurs until he actually met some and, as he pithily puts it, "they tried to eat me." That happened in the original "Jurassic Park," when Grant was invited by a businessman to endorse his new tourist attraction, a nature preserve populated by prehistoric creatures generated through newly discovered cloning techniques.
The creatures went wild, of course, and Grant was lucky to escape the island alive.
Now he doesn't want to mingle with dinosaurs, he just wants to think about them - and to cultivate his novel theory regarding velociraptors, which he's decided are the smartest nonhuman beings on the planet.
He needs funding for his research, so he agrees to guide a small airplane tour over one of the prehistorically populated islands. He's been shanghaied, though: It's not a tour at all, but a scheme to save a missing boy who's stranded in the jungle and may already have become fodder for some gluttonous tyrannosaurus rex.
Neill strolls gamely and amiably through the story, as does the rest of the well-chosen cast that Spielberg's bottomless resources have purchased for this project: William H. Macy and Tea Leoni as the couple who kidnap Grant, young Trevor Morgan as their missing kid, Alessandro Nivola as Grant's protege, and Laura Dern as his paleobotanist colleague.
The visual effects (see "An all-too-real dinosaur 'puppet,' " page 19) are also fine - animated dinosaurs have become a Spielberg specialty - and the soundtrack's lustily amplified shrieks, roars, and rumbles will shiver your eardrums if your theater's speakers hold under the strain.
What's missing is the spark of originality that made the first "Jurassic Park" a diverting adventure if not a great movie. Action scenes crop up with clockwork precision, delivering tidy doses of the towering torsos, toothy jaws, yowling throats, thundering feet, and endangered victims that the "Jurassic" series was invented for. But fresh ideas are harder to detect than the Roman numeral in the title.
It's hard to believe that the screenwriting team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who made the excellent sociopolitical comedy "Election" a couple of summers ago, helped pen this by-the-numbers script. It's also hard to imagine how Spielberg could have signed his name to such stale material and the ambitious "A.I." in the same season.
"Jurassic Park III" may make more money in the short run, but "A.I." is many times more memorable, despite its many flaws. If velociraptors are so smart, why didn't they chomp up the camera before this cinematic clone got loose and sullied their good name?
Rated PG-13; contains a great deal of action-movie violence.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor