The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

D: Steven Spielberg
S: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite

Insubstantial adventure movie modelled more closely on classic white hunter pics like Howard Hawks' Hatari! than the traditional monster movies that served as the basis of its predecessor. It pits men against animals in a wild safari of hunters vs. gatherers, and climaxes with series of eco-friendly speeches on why man must leave nature to its own devices and get on with the business of loving one another instead. But because it does deal with prehistoric monsters who devour most of the non-name cast in the course of the running time, it does bow to its multi-generic parentage by lurching awkwardly into Godzilla territory in the closing third as a T-Rex runs amok in San Diego eating dogs and stomping on cars as terrified Japanese businessmen run away screaming (albeit closely followed by bespectacled waspish Americans). This structural problem is symptomatic of the deep flaws which dominate this $75 million sequel to the most successful movie of all time, which is never one thing or another, but a series of moments and highlights designed to remind audiences of other films they may have enjoyed more at some other time; even perhaps as recently as four years ago.

The film never really had a chance to be anything but an unseemly mess, based upon the dreadful novel by Michael Crichton churned out to cash in on the success of his original outing in dinosaur country. While screenwriter David Koepp and director Steven Spielberg had wit enough to trash most of the novel (saving only its best action scene: an assault on a trailer by two T-Rexes, and its deus ex machina premise; the existence of 'Site B'), they did not go so far as to come up with a replacement story. Instead, the film is as opportunistic as the novel, with nothing to say but plenty of money to be made in saying it, and they have merely invented a series of scenarios as an excuse to pit more people against more dinosaurs than in the first movie, a trick which worked fine for James Cameron on Aliens but does not here.

The plot begins by reinventing the characters of the first movie to fulfil adapted roles in relation to the laughably convenient premise. You see, the original Park is now not the only place to have living dinosaurs wandering around. There is now actually a second island where the dinos were originally bred, and as the picture opens, a hilariously anachronistic rich British family on a yachting holiday with their horde of servants and their uncared-for daughter have stumbled upon it. Now emotionally and professionally shattered scientist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is cajoled into visiting the dino-factory by aging and now eco-friendly John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough), about to be shunted from control of his company by his evil nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard). Malcolm's determined, independent and completely contrived love interest Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already on the island charting the natural behaviour of dinosaurs in their natural habitat (ignoring the obvious), and spurred by a primal, masculine urge, he agrees to go and 'rescue' her. He takes with him likable equipment boffin Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) and 'video documentarian' Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughan), along with a pile of hi-tech hardware designed exclusively for observation and transport.

Once he's there, the plot matters little. It spirals off in any convenient direction with the immediate aim of making sure that there are plenty of opportunities for the various characters to encounter the various breeds of dinosaur (many of which were not seen in the previous film and thus create a perfect opportunity for tie-in merchandising). Malcolm fails to rescue Harding because she doesn't need rescuing and doesn't want to leave anyway, and he can't get off the island because of a communications problem which seems like it belongs in a Woody Allen movie ("machines hate me"). Meanwhile his young (black) daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chster) has tagged along, and serves as a catalyst for debate on family values, echoed by the emphasis on the behaviour of two adult T-Rexes towards their offspring.This serves as the film's emotional core, with Goldblum's unlikable failure as father and lover presumably about to find redemption by facing his greatest fear: going toe to toe with dinosaurs again (the spectre of Aliens hovers here again, but Malcolm is no Ripley).

Then suddenly a team of crack white hunters arrives with Ludlow, who is foolishly determined to set up a dino-zoo in San Diego (in another of the film's hamfisted and unconvincing eco-statements).They are led by crusty Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite), who seems to have some sort of psuedo-homosexual relationship with another minor character later eaten by Raptors which is supposed to motivate his bowing out of the venture in the final third with the line "I've spent enough time in the company of death". This group, being large and violent towards other species is perfect fodder for a series of close encounters of the poetic justice kind, climaxing with an en-masse jog away from the T-Rexes and into a field inhabited by Raptors (who make what amounts to a cameo appearance).

It's all a matter of narrative contrivance, each new twist coming from absolutely nowhere and going only as far as the next dinosaur attack, where several characters get eaten and thus necessitate a new set of contrivances to advance the film to its climax. This occurs in San Deigo, where in another of the film's tiresome nods to other movies, King Kong lives again as an adult male T-Rex meant to serve as the star attraction at the launch of Ludlow's zoo gets loose and begins stomping around in people's backyards, pausing only to eat far more than seems necessary for sustenance before chasing Malcolm and Harding to rescue its infant from unfeeling human hands.

The result of all of this is that despite Spielberg's characteristically deft handling of action scenes and his inventive visuals, the film becomes numbing. You have nothing to hold onto between disembowelments and no one to root for. The characters exist only to be chased, menaced, eaten or otherwise trussed about in the interests of narrative momentum, and the dinosaurs, for all the technical mastery that went into their creation, are merely so much wallpaper decorating a house of cards which only barely remains standing until the end.

Of the cast, Postlethwaite is the definite standout, but muddy characterisation makes his transition from unrepentant white hunter to morose pacifist hollow and unmoving. His hard-assed white male violence is initially unsettling, and gives him an edge which the other characters simply don't have. His ambition is to kill a buck T-Rex and mount its head on his wall; a dream so barbaric that you have to react to it, which is more than you can do to any of the cliched moral quagmires the rest of the characters are placed in to pass the time. Jeff Goldblum does what he can with an unsympathetic supporting character thrust unhappily centre stage (even Crichton had sense enough to bolster him up with several new characters in the novel), but is not even given the dignity of seeing his problems resolved at the conclusion. He goes from being a professional failure and emotional disaster area to being asleep on a couch as the movie closes, his status in both arenas still as uncertain as at the opening except that he seems to have remembered how to shave. Julianne Moore equally handles herself with dignity, but her character is a transparent appeal to demographics, hoping that a strong, independent firey redheaded behaviourist will pass for a Susan Sarandon of the jungle and strike a blow for strong roles for female actors in mainstream narrative cinema. But there is no sense of affection between her and Goldblum and their relationship is at best another narrative contrivance designed to up the stakes in the action scenes ("Gee, he has to save her, she's his girlfriend, after all"). The same is true of the character of Goldblum's daughter (who existed in the novel but was not a relative), a cynical attempt to include minorities in the action that gives the character nothing to do but be scared of the big beasties (an additional scene of the girl being attacked by the T-Rexes was apparantely cut from the final print). The rest are mostly dino fodder, with poor Schiff being torn apart by T-Rexes (thus eliminating the only likable character) and Vaughan abruptly transforming mid-way into an environmental commando before simply dropping out of the story altogether. Almost all of the other characters get eaten sooner or later, with Howard being saved to the end (his fate a repeat of that of the villain of the novel, but in a different setting).

In the hands of a lesser director, this would have vanished into the archives of movie dross, but it is Spielberg's controlled hand which keeps it alive for the next expansion of the franchise. His visual sense, timing and ability to structure and execute an action scene allows The Lost World to pass for two hours without becoming boring, and even manages one or two jolts for good measure. Neat directorial touches such as having the raptors attack in a field of high grass, leaving trails of crushed plants behind them, or the plethora of silhouette shots which allow suspense to build before the animatronics and CGI effects kick in show a director capable of doing the job even if the technical wizardry was not entirely up to scratch. Spielberg has been too long one of Hollywood's most proficient action/adventure directors to allow anything as trivial as a bad script get in the way of a good series of well-mounted set pieces (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being a prme example from before).

The special effects themselves are, of course, excellent, and anything Spielberg wants us to see, Industrial Light and Magic can build. True, the technology has not advanced much since the original film, but that does not mean that it is no longer convincing. As before, the dinosaurs do seem very much alive, with a good blend of animatronics and CGI keeping us on our toes. If the film seems less spectacular on the technical front, it is merely because it lacks the shock of the new, and because the pace of the film does not allow time for wonder before people start 'running and screaming' (as Malcolm knowingly observes early on).

John Williams' pounding score is another a plus, helpful in driving the film forward and building excitement with percussion and strings in his characteristic style. It is as different in character from its predecessor as the film is, with a thrilling, high-adventure main theme which captures the mood as perfectly as the majestic Jurassic Park theme did last time.

On the whole, The Lost World trips along briskly, and each individual scene has its moments of suspense, action and excitement. But it never really draws you in on the level of story, and it is unable to mount a satisfying climax. Without strong narrative or emotional threads to pull us towards resolution, the eventual ending is no more or less interesting than the set-pieces which have gone before. The final showdown on board a freight ship with the T-Rex's life in the balance is not involving and does not purge the soul with pity and terror. It seems that the dinosaur is permitted to kill, maim and destroy as much of mankind as it pleases simply because man is so mean to its fellow animals (both in general and in the picture). Therefore we are meant to root for its safe capture and return to the Island rather than its execution. Unfortunately, we don't really care enough about the creature for this to work. We could all empathise with Kong's lust for buxom blondes, but it is hard to root for Daddy Rex even in the face of his attempted rescue of junior (which seems to come to him as an afterthought once he has smashed up enough of downtown San Diego), because he simply doesn't have enough character to win our sympathy, and no matter how unlikable the human cast are, it's hard to wish for the extinction of your own species.

At the end of the day The Lost World is a puerile exercise in special effects and tour-de-force direction which concentrates so hard on making each scene as high-impact and memorable as possible that the film on the whole is instantly forgettable, because it barely even registers above the gut, where it is firmly aimed. It is so resolutely vapid that only the saddest and most forgiving type of critic or film buff will accept its environmental politics and family values as worthy of thematic discussion. It is a weak adventure film, an episodic meander from one point of nowhere to another that never comes close to a sense of purpose that any real adventure should have. Its swiping the title of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's splendid genre novel is merely the final insult, as one longs to see Professor Challenger leap from the jungle and begin bullying these reactive, witless characters into action and come up with some kind of plan for saving themselves other than pure mammalian instinct to run away as fast as possible, climb the nearest tree and hope the danger will pass.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.

Note: The Region 2 DVD was curiously released only in a boxed set with Jurassic Park. This was a canny ploy on the part of Columbia/TriStar Universal, as was the relatively bargain price for a 2 DVD set. The features are reasonable enough, with nice animated menus (do we need them?), a production documentary and lots of promotional bits and pieces including a tacky 'trailer' for Jurassic Park 3 (a couple of generic jungle and storm shots with a logo). The movie doesn't improve with repeated viewing, but the technical qualities of the DVD can't be faulted.