That Moment in Jurassic Park III (2001): Billy’s Sacrifice

REVIEW: Dr. Alan Grant, paleontologist and survivor of the original Jurassic Park tells an audience that no force on Earth or Heaven could get him on the island of Isla Sorna, the ravaged second site from the first sequel. Any dinosaurs there are not real anyway, he says, only engineered monsters for a doomed theme park. The real research is in the dirt, examining bones from the the past. So ends that. Except he needs money to fund his digs because all archeologists in movies do. Back at the dig site, he’s explaining this to his assistant Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola) when in walks an opportunity. His name is Paul Kirby (William H. Macy) and he wants to have dinner with Grant and discuss a proposal of sorts that he says will be worth his while.

Grant accepts and in a dusty tavern in town, Billy and he meet Paul and Amanda Kirby (Téa Leoni), a rich couple looking to have a new adventure. They claim they’ve received permission from the Costa Rican government to enter the airspace of the off limits dinosaur island Isla Sorna and fly very low. They want an aerial tour of the place and think Grant is just the the guy to do it, based on his experience.

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Grant resists at first but money talks and soon they’re on a plane heading south. With them are Paul and Amanda and three other men who we’ve seen earlier are black-ops types with military-grade weapons. It all get suspicious though when they finally get to the island and no one is interested in any of the amazing dinosaurs in plain sight. In fact, the pilot says that he intends to land the aircraft. Grant has argues against this and the Kirby’s attempt to explain but one of the thugs knocks the good doctor out. Cold. When he comes to, they are on the ground and Mrs. Kirby is using a bullhorn shouting the names “Eric” and “Ben.” Who are Eric and Ben? They’re the two parasailers from the beginning of the movie have become stranded on this island. Eric is Paul and Amanda’s young son. Ben is Amanda’s latest boyfriend.

It’s not long after when the first dinosaur arrive and two of the mercenaries get an exclusive inside peek at its digestive system. It’s a Spinosaurus and the plane everyone thought would keep them safe becomes a mangled mess after it fails to escape  the treetops on a panicked escape attempt. Once free of the wreckage, they come across the parasail and a camcorder that Eric had used, but also the dead body of Ben.

Convinced Eric is still alive, they head inland and eventually come across the island’s main facility. There they see the abandoned laboratory where InGen scientists played God, engineering dinosaurs, and where one particular dinosaur has tracked them from the jungle. It’s a velociraptor, a Jurassic Park’s standby, and it traps them briefly before calling out to his friends for help. This is important. That animal is communicating. The people flee and head into a pack of herbivores causing a stampede that temporarily gives them safety. The last of the mercenaries however gets a nice pat on the back from a raptor pal for his effort. Too bad that involves a 6 inch talon to the spine. Now they’re down to four, and still haven’t found Eric. During this rush, Dr. Grant is separated from the group and becomes surrounded by the raptors.

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In fly a few smoke grenades, sending the predators running. Through the haze swoops Eric, dressed in make-shift jungle camouflage, grabbing the good doctor and shuffling him off to his secret safe house, a turned over and empty water truck container. Seems he has been living on his own for more than 8 weeks, surviving on dry goods left behind by InGen. The two set off for the coast in hope of meeting the others. Those others are doing the same, and it’s not long before they all catch up, thanks to the ring tone of Paul’s satellite phone which Eric hears across a meadow. But since Paul had given his satellite phone to one of the mercenaries who had been eaten, that mean only one thing. The Spinosaurus is near.

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Directed by Joe Johnson and not specifically sourced from a Michael Crichton book, Jurassic Park III, is the first in the series to have no affiliation with Steven Spielberg. While the story is nothing new, with monsters chasing humans, the action and several set pieces are still very effective. It lacks the overall wonder of the original, which is no fault of the production, which is very impressive, but can’t help but fall into a “seen it” frame of mind, especially since most shots of dinosaurs are from the same perspective as before with long sweeping runs over herds of dinosaurs, and predators running at the camera with jaws agape, all trademarks of the first. Still, the inclusion of Sam Neill as Dr. Grant really adds a lot to the film, giving us something to relate to and identifying with a character we are already familiar with. In fact all the cast are quite good, especially Neill and Macy who are both very natural and convincing. It’s too bad the creators of these movies feel they must add a child into every story though because they are, as with the entire series, the weakest parts. Here too, though Morgan is a fine actor but given lousy dialogue, he feels just like he is meant to be, something for the kids. Overall, the film is a tight, well-produced action adventure with lots of beautifully rendered dinosaurs and thrilling escapes. It follows the formula and delivers just as expected, which is a bit disappointing as once again, the premise doesn’t seek to challenge viewers or even attempt to answer the real question of how a world populated by actual dinosaurs would truly react beyond people running and screaming.


That Moment In: Jurassic Park III

Scene Setup: Dr. Grant has just discovered that his young protegé and right hand man has gone and done a very, very stupid thing: he’s stolen two raptor eggs from a nest and now the parents are looking to get them back. Billy claims he was doing it for the money, figuring he could fund the doctor’s paleontologist digs for years, but Grant is less than pleased and snaps at Billy, telling him he’s no better than the engineers that created the creatures on the island, looking only to make money and not thinking about the consequences. This hurts Billy. As the small group of survivors move on, they end up in what appears to be an enormous bird cage, which, it turns out, is filled with extremely large and very hungry Pteranodons. And they have babies who need feeding. With the people in peril, and Billy feeling he owes the group of bit of redemption, he goes the daring-do route and strikes out to rescue them all, even if it costs him his own life.

The Scene: The film very early on establishes that the T-Rex is a has been. We all might have been peeing our pants at the sight of it once, but we’re meant to think of it as a washed up, toothless hooligan from now on. There’s a new baddie in town and it treats T-Rex’s like over sized rag dolls. The Spinosaurus is bigger, toothier, brainier, and fin-ier. That’s a word, right? It has a big fin on it’s back and therefore enjoys a nice dip as much as a pleasant stroll. It’s apparently the big boss on the island and must be utterly bored with the fixin’s in the jungle as it takes on a near obsessive interest in consuming what are surely paltry servings of human snack goodness. From the moment the gang arrives to the last heated battle, the critter is in full-on Terminator mode and just won’t quit. Every time it leaves, you can almost hear it say, “I’ll be back.” And that’s the trouble. The Spinosaurus, as impressively realized as it is, just doesn’t have any charm. And that is the fault of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Spielberg understood that from the moment he saw the Rex built and fleshed out. He knew that it was his sparsity in the film that would make him all the more an indelible figure. Johnson is so quick to bludgeon our expectations that we barely get to even appreciate one or the other. Fear Spinosaurus. Fear it. Fear it now! Unfortunately, it has no personality and unlike the T-Rex from the first film, has no chance to be cool, such as when the Rex dons the hero cape and saves the humans from the raptors. What was genius about that was how it was still a threat but just plain awesome while being one. The Spinosaurus is just a set of teeth and does nothing but bare them throughout. So when the survivors in Jurassic Park III end up in the Pteranodon cage, things take on a decidedly frightful twist.

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Eric gets snatched right up and carried over to the babies. In panic, the others give chase but they find themselves on the biting end of another dino bird and running for themselves. Billy, having retrieved the parasail from the crash site of Eric and Ben’s landing, leaps off a catwalk and pulls the chord. As Eric beats back the nibbling hatchlings, Billy glides in and rescues the boy, carrying him off the cliff side and dropping him in the water below. Unfortunately, his sail gets caught in the rocks and he ends up tangled and dangling, like a meaty pinata. The pteranodons come a swopping and with no choice, he plunges into the river below but is attacked immediately. Grant and Mr. Kirby try a rescue, but Billy shouts at them to run, he will keep the dino’s busy. He then disappears from sight and the water turns red. Very heroic.

The whole of the film, as mentioned, is mostly running and screaming. Effective as all that is, this moment, in the pteranodon cage, is something different. Right away, it’s entirely unfamiliar. For the first time in the series, we have flying dinosaurs and they are spectacular to watch. The humans are no longer running through foliage and meadows, but on an elevated, rickety metal catwalk. This sets up the first peril and it’s done very well, especially as part of it falls away as they try to progress. Next is the nice bit of direction by Johnson as we see the first pteranodon emerge from the fog. It’s unexpected, it’s terrifying, and mirrors the discovery of the location as well, with something unknown slowly becoming the opposite.

But what makes this moment special is Billy. He has always been just behind Grant, as he should be. He is inexperienced but is a bit of a rouge. He’s loyal but not logical. When he rolled up the parasail upon finding Ben’s body, we see, briefly, that he knows how to pack it. That clicks in our heads. He’s gonna need it later, but it’s eventually forgotten as running from razor sharp teeth becomes the more pressing issue. The reveal that he stole raptor eggs is not surprising. In fact, we suspected it from the way he eyes them when the group came across them. And Billy was probably ready to deal with some backlash from the group if they were discovered in his bag, but it’s the searing disappointment from Grant, his hero, that does devastating damage. Alessandro Nivola, the actor portraying Billy, is very convincing of this pain, feeling shunned by a mentor.

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Sacrifice in films is nothing new and is often the very point of the story, but when it comes unexpectedly, it has far more impact. Think of Data or Spock in Star Trek Nemesis and The Wrath of Khan respectively, Ripley in Alien 3, Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, or Miles Dyson from Terminator 2 to name a few. These are characters we have come to know deeply throughout the film they are in and when they give their lives to save others, it is emotional and powerful. When we suddenly realize that Billy is doing the same, it’s affecting. So desperate to redeem himself, or so sure that this is the fate he deserves, he does what he believes must be done to ensure the others–most especially Dr. Grant–are safe.

So why does it matter? For one thing, death in this movie has been entertaining at best. Anyone who has died to this point has been a minor character with little more that a few moments on screen. They are bait, the red shirts to use a Star Trek reference. Billy is not a secondary character and we’ve come to see that no matter how clearly obvious each one of them should have been a meal, they simply cannot be killed. So to have him offed in such a sacrificial way is–

Oh wait. He doesn’t die. In the end, he’s on a gurney in a helicopter, found off screen by marines rescuing everyone. Damn.

Hollywood just won’t let a real sacrifice follow through most times (see all but Tyson from above), and as bizarre as it sounds, this moment would have been all the more powerful (and memorable) if they would have let that be his end. Either way, despite the absurd idea that he survived the pteranodon feeding frenzy, a decision the actor was apparently instrumental in making, the sacrifice is still effective and immensely satisfying. It is the only real humanity in the film, the only real emotion we feel other than fear and relief, fear and relief.

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Director: Joe Johnston

Writers: Michael Crichton (characters), Peter Buchman

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11 Comments

  1. theipc January 27, 2015
    • That Moment In January 28, 2015
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  2. Natalie July 22, 2015