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Photo: courtesy Universal Studios

The bad news from Costa Rica is that velociraptors have cell phones. Or at least a sort of ram’s horn bundled into their Windows operating system through which they whistle and squawk at one another, between humongous hops. So not only are the unfriendliest dinosaurs in the whole commonwealth of Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton smarter than dolphins or primates, but they also gossip and conspire.

This bad news is the only news in Jurassic Park III. With Joe Johnston directing instead of Spielberg, who executive-produces, and a scrum of screenwriters, none named Crichton, the franchise suffers some negligence. Who needs characters, plot development, science, history, herbivores, or Richard Attenborough when you can lose another child and send in the Marines? What we get isn’t so much contempt for the audience – we’ve already proved that in the summer we’ll watch anything – as the chronic-fatigue syndrome of sequels, even Sequelbergs.

Never mind why young Trevor Morgan was parasailing in the first place over the forbidden subtropical island, nor what happened to the older man who talked him into it. To recover the wayward boychik, his estranged parents, William H. Macy and Téa Leoni, must persuade paleontologist Sam Neill to leave fossilized Montana for a return trip to the nightmare past by promising him a ransom in research money they don’t have. Along for the ride are Sam’s best graduate student, Alessandro Nivola; a booking agent, Michael Jeter; and several gun-toting mercenary hulks who might as well be labeled munchies.

They crash-land, of course, and the rest is hypodermic chase scenes, until Sam calls Laura Dern on the cell phone that wasn’t swallowed by the mother of all raptors and Laura invades Iraq. Insert here your preferred rhapsody on special effects. (Mark Twain, confessing he was lousy at weather, sent his readers to an appendix of golden oldies from gothic novels and the Bible. I’ve got better ways to spend my time than comparison-shopping among computer animations in Shrek, Atlantis, and Final Fantasy.) You can count on, besides raptors, a T. rex and a spinosaurus. Nifty they may be, but unlike Téa, they don’t cuddle. Cuddlesomeness, in fact, has been in steady decline since the first Jurassic Park (1993), as if Prehistoric Cute were enough to get the kids into the theater, but afterward they’re crackheads.

So has the science declined. You’ll recall that before the first raptor ate its first lawyer and computer nerd, crackpot billionaire Attenborough and his team of God-playing recombinant-DNA biologists explained at length how mosquitoes had sucked up dinosaur blood and then got trapped in fossilized tree sap for 65 million years, till the miracles of metabolic engineering and phylogenetic mapping (plus an ostrich and a frog) made possible a theme park. All that while Laura and Sam gasped in paleontological wonder at the long-necked leaf eaters, and punk mathematician Jeff Goldblum worried out loud about Chaos Theory. In The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), where there were fewer frills, it was Earth First! versus Big Science and Big Business. Darwin be damned. The buck-grubbing biotechies were every bit as rapacious as the dinosaurs. Before a T. rex ate San Diego, Jeff saved Julianne Moore and his stepdaughter not only from raptors but also from capitalist pigs like Arliss Howard. JPIII has no frills at all. Though Sam seems to enjoy playing Indiana Jones, the rest of us are just snack food.

What has evolved over three visits to the Mesozoic is Spielberg’s obsession with missing parents and lost kids. And I don’t mean Attenborough’s grandchildren or Téa Leoni’s parasailor. Reptiles have feelings, too. The big reason why the T. rex was so mad at San Diego is that the buck-grubbers messed with its nuclear family. The velociraptors are after Sam, Bill, and Téa because they stole some eggs. Everybody will have a lot to talk about in therapy.

Peter Rainer is on a brief leave.

Jurassic Park III
Directed by Joe Johnston; starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Téa Leoni, and William H. Macy.

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