Oh, yeah. "Oooh, ahhh", that's how it always starts. But then later there's running, and then screaming.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
There isn’t a lot of love to go round for the sequel to Jurassic Park. On the one hand the level of vitriol it provokes is a little surprising. On the other, it is easy to see why it is less than celebrated. It is caught in the trap that befalls many sequels, and awaited Jurassic Park III; The Lost World is a virtual repeat of the original. However, as something of a naysayer of the first movie (I don’t regard it an unassailable classic), perhaps I am a little better disposed towards its follow up. And, given that it has no good reason to exist (and by that I don’t mean that isn’t potential with a dino sequel, it’s just that it has been squandered), it can’t be denied that Steven Spielberg is firing on all cylinders. His sabbatical (three years without a cinema release, by far his longest bout of time off) has re-energised him, but it’s a shame it’s in the service of moribund material.
He was clearly thinking the same thing, but this doesn’t show in the finished product; he referred to it as a “big silent roar movie” rather than a talking one. Unfortunately, that’s a nod to his aspiration to make thematically rich material rather than an appreciation that his silent roar movie could have done with a better script. The simple truth is he’s much better at making popcorn flicks than weighty ones (his next, Amistad, would exemplify this).
The ‘berg had persuaded Michael Crichton to author his first sequel, which was generally considered to be not quite there (and featured prions as a topical means of killing off the dinos), although many fans say he should have just filmed the book. Instead, the director proceeded to abandon much of it. The basic concept of a second island where the dinosaurs were hatched was retained, but it’s arguably the one that should have been jettisoned straight away. The makers are stuck with an “escape from the island” template, whatever new tricks (or dinosauruses) they throw in, and I still find it peculiar that the third film stuck doggedly to exactly the same formula. It represents compete creative cowardice. It wasn’t all-bad, however. Crichton made the wisest decision of the whole enterprise (I don’t know if this was in conjunction with the director) when he repositioned Ian Malcolm from support to lead player (Malcolm was killed off in the first novel).
I’ve said that Jeff Goldlbum is by far the best thing about the original, and his natural wit and quirky offbeat quality appears to inform much of the tone of the sequel. It’s a much funnier film; Spielberg keeps it as gag-fuelled as an Indiana Jones movie and, like those, the jokes are equally weighted as verbal and visual (if the director had put half the energy into this that he did the fourth Indy a decade later, it would be a much different legacy for the fedora sporting archaeologist). Goldblum’s every other line is a quip, and he energises the proceedings in a way that Neill, through fault of character rather than performance, cannot.
David Koepp replaces the book’s rival scientists with a safari party (well, a team of mercenaries tranquilising dinosaurs to take them back to the mainland, but same difference), so creating a rather clumsy preservation motif; we are subjected to Vince Vaughn’s Greenpeacenik environmentalist and Julian Moore’s palaeontologist mending a T-Rex’s broken leg (Aw! Poor tied up baby Rex!) Vaughn’s character ends up endangering and (indirectly) causing the deaths of many of the hunting party through his sabotage. He’s upheld as the noblest of the noble, but the subtext is that he perpetrates the cliché of the environmental extremist; humans are disposable as long as the animals are saved. It can’t help but feel misjudged (one of the big themes of the original is that Hammond’s actions go against the natural order; dinosaurs should have stayed extinct). Dinosaurs are supposed to be scary; they’re monsters. As viewers we shouldn’t get caught up in their animal rights any more than we should want Jaws to swim free. Yet there is a very real fear of our heroes inflicting harm on these beasts; they’re not allowed to kill them, and even the game hunter has to be taught a lesson about senseless slaughter.
One of the things the series is missing is exactly that Jaws thing; an effective, personalised antagonist, some ”thing” so vindictive and brutal that the plot necessitates that the hero (or heroine) win decisively over it. When the motivation for the climax is a T-Rex rescuing her baby, we’re served up personalised stakes in completely the wrong way. Ironically Congo, made a couple of years earlier, missteps (well, the misstep was adapting it in the first place) by encouraging the wholesale slaughter of undiscovered species of ape. For a movie with conservation was the central theme, it represents a perversely amusing act. But such cuddly sentiments shouldn’t be bundled into dinosaur movies.
So the problem going in is concept-fatigue and it’s something that Spielberg cannot overcome, no matter what expertise he brings to bear. In fact, he is the initiator of the picture’s one inspired manoeuvre (based on the adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, it also references King Kong’s climax); the T-Rex let loose in San Diego. The film as a whole needed a grand break such as this for its plot; let the dinosaurs run amuck in civilisation! (Jurassic World, the title of the fourth movie, may well be going down this route.) Unfortunately, by the time we reach San Diego we’re exhausted with the movie and not really in the mood for yet another set piece.
The title The Lost World, obviously a steal from Conan Doyle conjures imaginings entirely absent from the movie. To such an extent, we feel like we’ve been hoodwinked. Superficially, one might suggest Lost World isn’t doing anything very different to Aliens. Returning to (near as dammit) the site of the first movie for a rematch, but this time with weaponry. But in terms of content and focus, Aliens has a whole lot going on. Lost World only has its formula to guide it. That formula even goes as far as having a kid requiring protection, because the first movie had a couple of kids in it (Crichton’s novel feature two replacement munchkins so he and Spielberg were equally misconceived). This kid stows away, then gets all scared, then using her gymnastic skills on a velociraptor in a scene rightly ridiculed. Spielberg should have known better. It isn’t Vanessa Lee Chester’s fault that her character is so annoying; the kid is set up for the audience to dislike her, a fate Tim and Lex (mostly) escaped in the original.
The only upside of such studiously transparent construction is that Malcolm and other characters make jokes about how obvious it all is. When Julian Moore’s Sarah brings the injured baby Rex into the trailer, it’s the most brazenly stupid act; no one in their right mind would do such a thing. So Malcolm’s reaction is absolutely spot-on. But that can only go so far in tempering our lack of enthusiasm for the narrative choices being made.
Vying with the environmentalist theme is some heart-not-really-in-it commentary on corporate greed. But it would surprise me if Spielberg came out against his masters; he’s always struck me as entirely comfortable with big business (after all, he’s the ultimate populist, and he established DreamWorks, didn’t he?) In the first novel, Richard Attenborough’s annoyingly benign head honcho meets dino death but Spielberg has too much sympathy for either him or Sir Dickie, I’m not sure which, to follow suit. Malcolm, at least, gives him short shrift during the painfully artificial scene in which he is persuaded to return to the island, accusing Hammond of covering up the deaths of the first movie and putting lives in jeopardy once again. Arliss Howard, as Hammond’s nephew Ludlow, becomes the real villain, not because he is out to make a profit but because he has no ethical standards. Howard is unable to make him particularly hissable, though; his is standard villainy.
Another limitation is that it’s difficult to buy into the idea that the world has been indifferent to dinosaur revelations. I can just about accept that everyone (“I believed you!”) who saw Ian Malcolm on TV claiming the existence of dinosaurs thought he was a crank (although, when there’s an unused Lost World theme park in San Diego, it’s a fairly big clue that where there’s smoke there’s fire), but the indifference of the government seems like a massive hole that needed filling. Surely they would not only want to know what was going on, but also most likely commandeer the enterprise for their own purposes? The closest the movie gets is the Navy escort of the T-Rex ship back to the island, but it’s a dangling thread that III never picks up. Again, it’s creative bankruptcy (but also logical incoherence). John Sayles must have thought something similar, as his abandoned script for Jurassic Park IV feature militarised dinosaur hybrids. Which is exactly what you’d expect, as soon as the genie was let out of the genetic bottle.
Spielberg consciously decided to go for a darker tone with The Lost World, which is perhaps surprising given his retrospective misgivings over Temple of Doom. Most of the picture is set at night, in the rain, which adds to the mood and is also a boon for rendering the CGI more convincing (early scenes during the day are noticeably less seamless). A sick sense of humour is suggested from the very first scene, as a child is set upon by a brood of compsognathuses. Her mother’ scream on seeing her (we don’t) cuts to Jeff Goldblum yawning as a subway train pulls in. Initially it looks like the ‘berg has pussied out; we learn that the child was only injured. Later, however, (nice guy) Eddie (Richard Schiff) is chomped in half by a couple T-Rexs while doing his upmost to rescue Malcolm, Sarah and Nick (Vaughn); it’s a particularly cruel fate for such a sympathetic character, particularly as the director presents it as a “wow” kill, the sort of thing usually reserved for an inconsequential red shirt or a rotter.
Indeed, Peter Stormare’s loutish mercenary is killed behind behind some rocks (this sequence is pure filler, and cutting it would have much improved the pace) and Ludlow is eviscerated off camera. The latter is particular twisted as, for all the character’s despicability, it’s intended that we enjoy a baby dinosaur being treated to its first kill (see how the movie has everything backwards compared to a classic monster movie?) Just prior to this, the San Diego T-Rex (“There’s a dinosaur in our backyard”) eats a yappy dog (again, off camera), the kind of thing directors generally steer well clear of (kill as many people as you like, but kill a cute animal and you risk losing your audience!) But this heartlessness is something of a tonic after the sugary, overcooked parenting skills Sam Neill was required to develop in the original. And the tone is complemented by a pitch-black streak of humour; the death of the dog is a visual punchline of an empty kennel, the sort of thing Spielberg excels at.
I’ve read complaints about the change in Ian Malcolm’s character from the original and that his jokes fall flat. Well, colour me easily amused. I do think giving him a child is lazy, and it’s true that he doesn’t get to indulge in much science speak other than a name check for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But he’s Jeff Goldblum, and his delivery is sublime. Hammond tells him they’re not making the same mistakes again and he replies, “No, you’re making all new ones”. When his companions are awestruck at the sight of real, live dinosaurs he wryly observes that it always starts out like this, “But then later there’s running, and then screaming”. Asked by Sarah where they find the San Diego T-Rex, he comments, “Follow the screams”.
Sarah: I’ll be back in five or six days.
Malcolm: No, you’ll be back in five or six pieces.
And the pithy remarks continue. When the boat that has crashed into the San Diego dock is examined, one character asks another “Where’s the crew?” to which the reply comes “All over the place” (of course, it is never explained how a ship holding one dinosaur, consigned to the hold, managed to lose its crew this way; Jason Voorhes was aboard?)
The visual gags are just as wicked. Speeding away from a T-Rex, Sarah asks it is still behind them; on cue it crashes through the warehouse doors. Just prior to this, she asks Ian to slow down so the dino can catch up a bit; “Er, I don’t think so” comes Malcolm’s reply. Earlier still, it began its rampage by smashing through a “No animals beyond this point” customs post. On the island, Sarah clears ground for Kelly to climb under the wall, only for a velociraptor to stick its head where the girl is about to put hers. Occasionally you’re not sure if something is intended to be funny or is just bad; when a character screams “Oh my God, a snake!” causing him to topple into the jaws of a waiting T-Rex, it’s almost too corny not to be intentional (particular as Malcolm bursts through the wall of water seconds later, when everyone is expecting the dinosaur to return).
Goldblum gets maybe the best bit of visual playfulness during the velociraptor attack, running into an office and shutting the door, only for one of the creatures to burst through the window and land next to him. Without missing a beat, he opens the door and goes out the way he came. Perhaps all this is a consequence of Spielberg finding the shoot tedious; he needed to entertain himself. That may explain the fake movie displays in a Blockbuster store; Arnie in King Lear, Robin Williams in Jack and the Beanstalk and a Tom Hanks starrer named Tsunami Sunrise.
If the visual gags are top notch, so are the visuals generally. I’m not short of criticism of Janusz Kaminski, as I think stylistic influence on the ‘berg has been generally malign, and not a little anodyne. But here the imagery is gorgeous; why couldn’t he have made Crystal Skull this lush? There are too many classic images to list, but a few include; the repeat of water ripples to herald the first arrival of the T-Rex, the silhouette of the same’s head outside Sarah’s tent, velociraptors picking off mercenaries in a field of tall grass, the Rex in the foreground roaring as San Diego bay lies behind it. Most virtuoso is the dazzling trailer set piece, superbly sustained, as it dangles over a cliff edge following a T-Rex attack. This is classic Spielberg, piling incident upon incident with giddy momentum and no slackening of pace. It outdoes anything in the first movie, and might be his best-sustained action sequence since Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Spielberg has assembled a marvellous cast, with the possible exception of Vaughn whose smart-arse antics are ill fitting (not helped by his character’s generally unsympathetic behaviour). He’s clearly kept up with the Coen brothers, raiding Peter Stormare from Fargo but getting the drop on them by bagging Julianne Moore first. The downside is that none of the characters are especially well written or overly sympathetic (Eddie is the big exception, and look what happens to him), so it’s up to the actors to make them so. Despite Sarah repeatedly making stupid decisions, Moore keeps her likable. Then there’s Pete Postlethwaite, chrome-domed and spouting dialogue as ridiculous as his name (Roland Tembo). The director has basically the pick of the buzz name actors of that moment (even Goldblum, convenient returning from the first movie, had the biggest movie of 1996 in his rear view mirror; Independence Day). It’s a shame they haven’t been given better material.
Popular opinion suggests this is bottom-of-the-barrel Spielberg, an enormously disappointing follow up to an all-time classic movie. But Jurassic Park has been long overrated, and such reasoning is a little wonky. The Lost World is a slightly lesser beast, most certainly. It attempts to differentiate by going “darker” yet comes unstuck because narratively it is highly derivative. The title promised so much, but what we receive is little more than a protracted rerun. Set against that is a director is at the top of his game, and a leading man more than capable of shepherding us through the over-familiar terrain. The Lost World may be undistinguished but it should have no fear of sharing its predecessor's "hallowed" terrain.