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From the DVD Shelf: The Lost World (1997)

Last week I began my look back at the last decade-and-a-half of Steven Spielberg films with Jurassic Park.  Now my project to revisit all of the films that Mr. Spielberg has made since 1993 — films that, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, I have only seen once — continues with Mr. Spielberg’s 1997 Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.  (I’ll be calling this series Spielberg in the Aughts, but I can’t really use that title for a film made in 1997…!)

I remember being very disappointed with this film when I saw it back in 1997.  It was the first time I had gone to see a Steven Spielberg film in theatres and come out disappointed.  (But not the last…)  So when I watched this film on DVD, I was curious to see if I liked it any more now, so many years later and divorced from all the hype of the time.

In a word: no.

I will say that The Lost World looks great.  Mr. Spielberg and his frequent collaborator, genius-level cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, have darkened their palette this time out.  Whereas the first Jurassic Park was quite bright for much of it’s run-time, The Lost World has a much more shadowy look to it, and that is effective at adding a layer of spookiness and mystery to the proceedings.  The dinosaur CGI effects still look pretty great.  One of the few scenes that takes place in bright daylight is the introduction to Pete Postlewaite’s great white hunter Roland Dembo and his team, as they attempt to capture a number of dinosaurs in the midst of a high-speed run across a plain.  There are no shadows in which to hide dodgy effects, but none are needed — ILM’s CGI creatures (combined with some top-notch work from Stan Winston’s animatronic workshop) look fabulous.

But that’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about The Lost World.  I found the story to be a mess, and the characters flat and uninvolving.  From the get-go, The Lost World was operating at a disadvantage to its predecessor, Jurassic Park, because its source material was much weaker.

I still remember being blown away when I first read Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park (well-before the movie came out), and I was so excited when the news broke that he was working on a sequel book.  But I was underwhelmed by The Lost World when the novel was released.  It just didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting as the first.  Wisely, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp chose to jettison much of the source material — but what they came up with in its place wasn’t much better.

Right from the beginning they made an unfortunate choice.  In the novel, Jurassic Park, the island was destroyed at the end.  That’s why, in his second book, Mr. Crichton had to introduce the idea of “Site B,” Isla Sorna — another island where the dinosaurs had been originally bred, before being moved to Isla Nubla, the site of Jurassic Park.  But the film Jurassic Park left the island intact, ready for sequels!  So I’m not sure why the filmmakers chose to go with Mr. Crichton’s idea of setting the story on this other island.  Frankly, I think it’s a pretty silly idea that the dinosaurs were all bred on this other island and then brought over to the Jurassic Park island (particularly since, in the first Jurassic Park, we SAW dinosaurs being born on Isla Nubla), and its even more ridiculous that somehow no one knew about this other island, or discovered its existence following the disastrous events of the first film.  I would have jettisoned that idea altogether, and just set the film on the original island.

I also think it was a regrettable choice not to bring back any of the original film’s characters except for Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm.  While Mr. Golblum was terrific in Jurassic Park, it was Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s characters (Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler) who were the heart of the film, and their presence was sorely missed in this sequel.  It was nice to see Lex and Tim and John Hammond again, in brief cameos, but that only emphasized what a bummer it was that all the surviving characters from the first film were being pushed aside in this sequel.  As for Mr. Goldblum’s Malcolm, I think that character did better in a supporting role.  He didn’t work for me as the lead of the film, and a big part of that was because he didn’t have any sort of arc over the course of the film.  He seemed to me to be exactly the same character at the start of the film as he was at the end.  Perhaps the producers were going for a sort of Ellen Ripley in Aliens — learning to face her fears — arc, but there really wasn’t much for Mr. Goldblum to play here.

There were some solid actors assembled in supporting roles, but in marked contrast to Jurassic Park these characters all felt one-note and undeveloped.  Pete Postlewaite is always entertaining, but he had nothing to do.  He barks at people and is able to shoot a dinosaur — but his character Roland Tembo doesn’t change, doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t have any sort of development at all.  One might surmise that he’s changed his ways at the end because of his final line, saying that he’s spent too much time around death — but that moment is head-scratchingly out of nowhere.  There’s one brief moment in which Tembo seems sad that his team-member Ajay died, but that moment had zero emotional impact since at no point in the film until then did I have any idea that the two were friends.  Quite the opposite — Tembo seemed curt and dismissive towards him in their few interactions that I could remember.  (The DVD has a deleted scene from the beginning of the film which would have established their friendship, but without that scene there was nothing in the finished film that showed this relationship.)

Julianne Moore plays Malcolm’s girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding, but she too has no character development and no arc.  Does she learn that she might have been overconfident and arrogant in coming to this island by herself?  If she does, we never see that on screen.  And while I wrote in my review of Jurassic Park how much I loved the relationship between Neill and Dern’s Grant and Sattler in the first film, I didn’t detect a hint of chemistry between Ms. Moore and Mr. Goldblum here.

Vince Vaughn is really good, in a rare serious role, as photographer (and sometimes violent environmental activist) Nick Van Owen, but he has very little development and totally drops out of the final 30 minutes of the film.  Richard Schiff is fun to watch as the final member of Malclom’s team, the technological specialist Eddie, but — are you sensing a pattern here? — he has very little to do in the film before getting dispatched gruesomely.

The Lost World is a case study in the necessity of investing in the characters of an ensemble in order to care one whit about the carnage to come.  Not only do none of the characters have much development or any sort of character arc, but they all repeatedly act in jaw-droppingly stupid manners for no reason other than to move the plot forward.  We’re supposed to take Dr. Harding seriously, but somehow she demanded that she be allowed to go to the island of dinosaurs alone??  Then, later, she doesn’t realize that the T-Rex will track her because of the blood of its baby on her jacket, even though there is a head-thumpingly obvious scene in which Tembo asks her about it (so that the audience will know what’s going on)?  John Hammond has suddenly become an environmentalist??  I just don’t buy that the character we met in the first film is suddenly obsessed with keeping the dinosaurs completely isolated without any intereference from man.  I don’t buy that Malcolm would ever go back to the island.  I don’t buy that Hammond’s cowardly nephew would go to the island himself rather than waiting in safety while Tembo’s hunters did the work.  Urgh, I could go on.

The only sequence in the film that I enjoyed is the two T-Rex’s attack on the trailers that Malcolm’s team brought to the island.  That was my favorite sequence in the book, and it’s my favorite sequence in the movie.  (Wisely, this was one of the few sequences from the novel that Mr. Koepp used in his screenplay relatively intact.)  For an exhilirating ten minutes, the Steven Spielberg I knew and loved makes a reappearance, as he crafts a rip-roaringly tense action sequence, wonderfully executed by all of the visual and practical effects artists involved.  It’s dynamite, though it only serves to illustrate, by comparison, just how flat the rest of the film is.

Nothing in the narrative of The Lost World really fits together — the film feels like a variety of action sequences that were developed, and then someone had to create some sort of story to stitch them together.  Case in point is the film’s totally out-of-place final twenty-five minutes.  In an out-of-nowhere development, a T-Rex gets loose in California.  First of all, the film is edited as if that happens 30 seconds after Malcolm and Sattler get rescued by helicopter from the communications center on Isla Sorna, when clearly it must have happened days later.  (I mean, how quickly could the T-Rex have been loaded on the boat and made the entire boat journey back to CA, not to mention for InGen to set up the facility and the press conference?)  The idea of a T-Rex wreaking havoc in an American city (as opposed to on a far-away island) is a potent one, but it’s worthy of a whole film, not a half-hearted epilogue.  Producer Kathleen Kennedy actually admits that this ending was added on at the last minute in the DVD’s special features.  They had talked about this sequence, she says, but “we had dismissed it, thinking that it felt like another movie and not something we could integrate into this.”  Bingo!!  But Mr. Spielberg persisted and the sequence was eventually added.  I think that was a big mistake.  It’s too short and undercooked, and doesn’t do the concept justice.  (I also wasn’t a fan of Malcolm and Sattler suddenly turning into superheroes.)

Then there’s John Hammond’s closing voice-over, in which he quotes Malcolm from the first movie, saying “life will find a way,” which is a) just totally out of left-field and out-of character with the man we met in film one, who hated Malcolm, and b) pretty meaningless in terms of any sort of message on which to end the film.  I guess that, with this second film, the filmmakers wanted us to side with the dinosaurs over any of the people, but it’s a pat and simplistic ending  that doesn’t really address any of the questions raised by the film about what the heck SHOULD be done if there really was an island filled with dinosaurs in the caribbean!!  We should just leave the island totally alone??  Since we saw pterodactyls in the final shot of the film (meaning the dinosaurs wouldn’t be trapped on the island), that doesn’t seem to me to be such a good idea…

But now I’m thinking too much about a silly movie.  This was a big swing and a miss for Mr. Spielberg.

I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Amistad.  Though not well received at the time, I remember liking it.  Let’s see what a second viewing makes me think…

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