Jurassic Park III Feels Like a Sequel From a Bygone Era

Without any more Crichton novels to base them on, more Jurassic Park sequels after The Lost World had the freedom to chart their own course. Released in summer 2001 and directed by Joe Johnston, Jurassic Park 3 wound up being the least financially successful installment of the whole series at the box office, leading to a 14-year hiatus before Jurassic World brought the franchise back. While many would point to mixed reviews, a redundant premise, or fading cultural interest in dinosaurs as the culprits for this downturn, perhaps even more important is an often overlooked element: Timing.

Jurassic Park 3, at the time of its release, was representative of the type of movie that would very soon die off: The standalone franchise sequel. When looked at within that context, it provides a great example of a franchise that failed to anticipate the changes that were about to occur in the moviemaking marketplace.

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2001: A Serial Odyssey

2001 is a critical year for film because of how it provided the foundation for the landscape of 21st century blockbusters. It firmly established the audience’s preference for serialized film franchises, where each installment is looked at just as much if not more as a chapter of a bigger story than an independent work. Audiences became hungry for movies where sequels picked up on character and story arcs that ran through multiple films, where franchises had deeply textured world-building and internal mythologies. While 1999 saw the return of the Star Wars saga (undoubtedly the most popular serialized film series up to that point in time) with The Phantom Menace, it wasn’t until 2001 that the trend took hold in a way that was essentially irreversible.

That year saw the beginning of both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film franchises, both of which would become box-office juggernauts and see their immediate sequels released the very next year. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy soon followed, paving the way for a little franchise called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the pattern continues with almost every major film series after that as properties reinvented themselves so that their sequels felt like direct continuations of the narratives from the preceding entries.

Casino Royale started a string of serialized 007 movies, The Matrix trilogy dropped two sequels in 2003, basically making them more of a two-parter than standalone films. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy kicked off in 2005 as a far more interconnected series than the one started in 1989. And so on and so on. Self-contained “it’s just another movie” sequels that weren’t designed to set up or pay off grander narrative designs were going out of vogue, and Jurassic Park 3 showed up to the party wearing last year’s outfit.

A Jaunt Through the (Dinosaur Infested) Countryside

So, if on a macro level Jurassic Park 3 is a non-mythology sequel in a franchise that went dormant after its release, what is it on a micro level? Well, it’s exactly the sort of movie you’d expect to see when you hear “Joe Johnston’s Jurassic Park”: A briskly-paced, self-contained, family-friendly adventure movie. Such movies had been Johnston’s bread and butter for years, with other notable directorial efforts from him in the same vein including The Rocketeer, the live-action portions of The Pagemaster, Jumanji, and later on, Captain America: The First Avenger. At the time he was hired to direct Jurassic Park 3, Johnston tended to make unpretentious adventure movies with an old-school mentality, where everything was left on the field and any hypothetical threads for future installments were basically a non-concern.

While Johnston’s sensibilities provide some reasonably well-executed setpieces and an astonishing 92-minute runtime (is it even legal for a major franchise sequel released today to be that short?), his humble approach to making the film sadly can’t help but read as unambitious when compared to his contemporaries. At a time when similar franchises and filmmakers were taking bold leaps and building grander worlds for their audiences to get invested in, Jurassic Park 3 is decidedly stuck in the past. The movie once again conjures another excuse to get people on the dinosaur island, and the people have to run away from the dinosaurs until the waking survivors inevitably escape the dinosaur island. Roll credits.

At a time when similar franchises were taking bold leaps and building grander worlds, Jurassic Park 3 is decidedly stuck in the past.


By this point in the series, it became clear that nobody involved had found a way to evolve the story past its starting point of “dinosaurs on a Costa Rican island.” Whether from a lack of imagination or interest, Jurassic Park 3 doesn’t have enough new ideas to keep things fresh. Outside of changing the “antagonist” dinosaur to the Spinosaurus and incorporating the pteranodon aviary sequence from the first novel that was cut from the original film, Johnston’s movie mostly plays the hits that audiences were familiar with (majestic herbivores, raptor chases, and giant carnivores in a jungle environment) to diminishing effect. The only truly fresh elements are the new characters, but they weren’t exactly designed to hold up a franchise.

A Family Picture

Everything about the primary characters introduced in this installment, the Kirby family, is set up, played out, and neatly wrapped up in a bow by the end. Paul and Amanda Kirby are a divorced couple who are brought back together in search of their teenage son Eric, who was stranded on the island after a parasailing accident. Paul and Amanda don’t get along at the start, and Eric says he’s surprised they could even come together to search for him. The intended dramatic arc is obvious and followed through to its natural conclusion: The broken family dynamic is restored by their tribulations on the island, and the audience is clearly meant to understand that they will stay together after the credits roll.

The Best Deaths in the Jurassic Park Movies

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, and like established previously, it’s exactly the sort of move you would expect to see in a Joe Johnston movie. However, there is no reason or indication the Kirbys would ever show up again because there is nowhere else for them as characters to go. There are no story points or character arcs included in Jurassic Park 3 that would be obvious threads for a prospective sequel to pick up on. While Alan Grant is here and was the lead of the original film, he doesn’t really go through much significant change as part of his experience in this one. It feels like he’s there so there’s at least one main Jurassic Park character people recognize, because the story is about the Kirbys and not about him.

Even with its positive aspects, Jurassic Park 3 is a movie utterly boxed in by its adherence to series convention. Yet revisiting it more than 20 years on, the movie remains a fascinating artifact because of how antithetical it is to almost every commonly accepted notion we have about what constitutes modern blockbuster entertainment. It remains one of the last vanguards of an era of moviemaking that we simply don’t get to see at this budget level anymore: an IP movie only concerned with itself and what it can wring out of its own premise. It’s Jurassic Park 3’s most commendable attribute, and also the reason why this type of movie simply couldn’t survive any longer.

Carlos Morales writes novels, articles and Mass Effect essays. You can follow his fixations on Twitter.