Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.
When choosing which lackluster sequel to Jurassic Park to cover for week’s Revisiting the Reviled, I opted for The Lost World over Jurassic Park III if only because it’d be much more interesting to examine where a master filmmaker like Steven Spielberg went wrong rather than take shots at Joe Johnston’s woeful flick.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg had quite possibly the greatest year of any filmmaker ever. Jurassic Park opened to critical acclaim and box office success – it was briefly the highest-grossing movie worldwide. On top of that, Spielberg would garner acclaim with Schindler’s List. In the same calendar year, the director had 2 films among the year’s 10 highest earners. At that year’s Oscars, Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park took home a combined 10 Oscars. After his year of unprecedented success, Spielberg took some time off from directing, not directing another feature until 1997’s sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Anticipation ran wild for Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s literary sequel. And though it broke some box office records upon its release, The Lost World never seemed to gain the affections of anyone, although its reputation certainly grows when placed next to Jurassic Park III.
The plot, for those unaware, is that while developing the first park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) also created a site on a second island where the dinosaurs were bred before being transported to what would be the tourist destination. After a wealthy British family discovered the island and their daughter attacked by dinosaurs, Hammond has been removed as the head of InGen, the company he founded, and replaced by Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), Hammond’s nephew and a shrewd capitalist. Because the dinosaurs have survived on the island and established their own untampered ecosystem, Hammond asks Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum), the chaos theory specialist from the first film, to lead an expedition to observe the creatures in their somewhat natural environment. Aghast at the thought, Malcom only agrees to travel when he finds that his girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), a paleontologist, has already landed on the island. By the time Malcom is able to get his crew to the island, including engineer Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) and photographer/videographer Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), Ludlow has his own expedition arriving, including professional hunters Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) and Dieter Stark (Peter Stormare). Things get even more complicated when Malcom’s teenage daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) is discovered to have smuggled herself onto the island with his expedition. As expected, nothing goes as planned and dinosaurs run amok on the island before one of them reaches the mainland.
At least Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had the good sense to place Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom front and center this time around. Even if the character has been dulled down and rendered into the archetypical expert ignored, Goldblum is as unique and expressive an actor that he’s able to obscure his character’s generic motivations. Whereas the first film avoided having a villain take on the role of man’s hubris, instead making the arrogance of man something that transcended the individual, The Lost World feels the need to personify that message in a single character with Peter Ludlow, like they needed to craft an evil version of Hammond if only for the bloody catharsis of dino-caused death. Though the plot points of The Lost World are different than the first film, they’re all thematically in line with the prior movie’s statement about the hubris of man without any subtlety or grace.
Among the great weaknesses of The Lost World is that it falls into the typical sequel trap of wanting to give the audience more and more. There are more action sequences. They’re bigger and last longer, but come with diminishing returns. In his review of Jurassic Park, Roger Ebert (wrongly) lamented that Spielberg showed the dinosaurs too early and often, claiming the director lost sense of what made Jaws so resoundingly powerful – we didn’t see the shark for most of the movie. With The Lost World, Spielberg almost wholly betrays the sensibilities that kept the shark hidden. It’s no coincidence that the scenes that are masterfully constructed in the film are the ones that are aligned with Jaws’ sensibilities, like when patterns in tall grass show raptors descending on their pray or the moonlit shadow of a T-Rex creeping in the backdrop. The most effective scene in The Lost World is when two T-Rexes attack a mobile station on the cliff with Malcom, Sarah, and Nick inside. Even though the events leading up to the attack are questionable at best, the tension is masterfully crafted with Moore’s Sarah is being held above the dark recesses of death by a piece of cracking glass. What you’ll find each of these scenes is that they work independently of any need to actually show the dinosaurs even though glimpses of the dinosaurs aren’t withheld.
One of the magnets for scorn in The Lost World is Vanessa Lee Chester’s Kelly. People griped, and likely still do, about the fact that Ian Malcom had an adopted black daughter and that film refused to present any backstory about the matter. One of the few matters that Spielberg and Koepp serve the character of Kelly right is leaving that backstory untold and irrelevant. Kelly is Malcom’s adopted daughter. He loves her; she loves him, even though he’s another one of Spielberg’s flawed fathers. That’s all that matters. That being said, the rest of Chester’s character was rendered a narrative hindrance and given one of the worst moments in any Spielberg film ever. She’s first shoehorned into the plot as a stowaway, if only because they need one youth in the movie. During one raptor attack, the young woman, who we were informed earlier was cut from the gymnastics team at school, performs a perfect parallel bars trick to kick the ass of raptor. If not for Shia LaBeouf swinging on vines with an army of monkeys in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this would likely be the worst moment in any Spielberg movie ever.
It would seem that there are some place man was never meant to meddle, including sequels to Jurassic Park. Even with a few masterful sequences and a supporting cast of ’95 and ‘96’s hottest supporting actors, The Lost World follows the same path of the original en route to being one of the most disappointing films of Steven Spielberg’s career. It also illustrates just how flawed the philosophy behind the bigger-means-better mentality behind most sequels. If Spielberg can’t pull it off, what hope does anybody else have?