On The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Although not as good as the first film, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was the sequel I saw to Jurassic Park. To be clear, these films are all based on the Mad Scientist trope, as according to Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture by David J. Skal, on page 306:

As the millennium encroaches, the crazed scientist has indeed become bigger than ever, the Madman Who Came to Dinner (and wouldn’t stop eating), or a the proverbial eight-hounded-pound gorilla that comes and goes as it chooses. The megabucks poured into, and derived from, entertainment perpetuating the mad science myth are staggering. Jurassic Park (1993), the highest grossing motion picture of all time, is essentially the retelling of the Frankenstein story,a cautionary tale about hubristic science resurrecting the dead, with catastrophic results. Instead of traditional graveyards, Jurassic Park‘s paleontologists dig into long-dormant dinosaur DNA to build their monsters, but the formula is familiar. The film stirred some vocal opposition from scientists at the time of it’s release, both for it’s antiscience tone and for it’s distortions of microbiological research. Dr. Russel Higuchi, a California geneticist, circulated a denunciation of the film and it’s novel for its “gross overstatements of the capabilities of DNA technology” that generated “unreasonable fear.”

Director Steven Spielberg made no apology about his film’s tone. A supreme populist, Spielberg reasonably reflects the sentiments of his audiences. “Every gain in science involves an equal and opposite reaction – a loss, usually a loss of the environment,” he said. “Science is intrusive. I wouldn’t ban molecular biology altogether, because it’s useful in finding cures for AIDS, cancer and other diseases. But it’s also dangerous, and that’s the theme of Jurassic Park.”

Other reactions were more equivocal. In response to a New York Times op-ed piece,  one reader wrote, “Our children don’t avoid science because they think it’s morally bereft, ‘intrusive,’ or ‘dangerous.’ They avoid it because they think it’s boring. Ultimately, films like Jurassic Park may do science more good than harm by glamorizing it (just as cop shows and doctor shows make their professions look more exciting than they really are).” The essay in question, “Evil Science Runs Amok – Again!,” by educator Carol Muske Dukes noted the end-of-innocence motif in Jurassic Park‘s science-tainted garden: “Once upon a time, we believed that all scientific knowledge was pure, abstract, and in its occasional use humane. But as technical ingenuity accelerates and the rest of us become (inversely) more illiterate about science, we have come to believe…that knowledge itself is suspect. We fear the sinister power of what we cannot fathom. Thus we judge our ‘experts’ less on moral grounds than on efficiency: Can they control what they know?”

On June 25, 1993, just as Jurassic Park was about to enter it’s fourth box-office-devouring-week, David Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale University, opened a parcel delivered to his New Haven office that changed his life forever. The package contained the fourteenth bomb since 1978 targeted at professionals with links to the computer and high-tech industries, most of them academics. The domestic terrorist responsible for the crimes had became known as the Unabomber, on the basis of his predilection for attacking university-related individuals. Gelernter was his twenty-second victim, and he wouldn’t be the last. One person had already died, and two more fatalities were to follow. Gelernter suffered grave injuries and lost most of his right hand.

Although the Unabomber couldn’t possibly have anticipated the precise injuries his bomb would inflict, he clearly saw the writer as a symbol of science he found warped and dangerous. Eerily, Gelernter joined the ranks of icons whose lost, mangled, transplanted or prosthetic hands are culturally linked with ideas of mad, runaway science: Rotwang, the Frankenstein monster, Dr. X, Dr. Gogol and Stephen Orlac, Dr. Strangelove, and on and on. Almost two years after the attack the bomber sent Gelernter a grotesque, taunting follow-up letter: “People with advanced degrees aren’t as smart as they think they are,” the missive read. “If you’d have any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world.”

Other films and TV sreries notably contain the same sentiment (or trope) or variation there of as in this film series which include Species, Splice, Back to the Future (Dr. Emmet Brown), Alien: Resurrection, Tony Stark in Avengers: Age of Ultron (key in Ultron’s possession of technology, and creation of Vision), Bolivar Trask in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Ghostbusters (Egon, in particular), Seth Bundle in The Fly, Professor Maggie Walsh in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Davros in Doctor Who, Dr. Walter Bishop in Fringe, Janus in Stargate: Atlantis (created the Time Jumper seen in Stargate SG-1‘s episode, “It’s Good to Be King” and used during “Moebius” as well as the Attero Device later seen in Stargate: Atlantis‘ episodes, “First Contact” and “The Lost Tribe”), the Lanteans in Stargate: Atlantis (created the Wraith, and Asurans), Goa’uld System Lord Nirrti in Stargate SG-1, and so on.

Additionally, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is known for being just a bad movie in general, as according to Collinder‘s article, “THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK Revisited: “Hang on, This Is Going to Be Bad”“:

…I went to see The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and even then I knew it was a bad movie, which is a big deal because I was still a very easy sell at that age. I knew it wasn’t as good as the original, but it also seemed like a bad film on its own merits, not just in how it related to the previous story.

The Lost World is one of Spielberg’s movies that we sweep under the rug even though it’s worthy of discussion for why he even bothered to make it. Michael Crichton went ahead with a sequel novel at Spielberg’s urging and that novel served as the basis for the new movie. But The Lost World is Spielberg making a statement that doesn’t merit a blockbuster feature. It’s barely a short film because The Lost World, for all of its extravagance, boils down to “Big Game hunting is bad.”

Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), plucked seemingly at random among the cast of lead characters from the first movie, is essentially blackmailed into cleaning up John Hammond’s (Richard Attenbrough) mess. It turns out there was a second island, Isla Sorna, where the dinosaurs were bred before being brought to Isla Nublar, which seems kind of dumb since you would have to monitor two islands and then go to the trouble of transporting dinosaurs from one island to another. Also, as The Lost World and later Jurassic Park III show, when you pull a baby dino from its parents, those parents get super-pissed.

Moreover, Hammond’s plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since tiny dinosaurs attacked a little girl on Isla Sorna while she was with her family on vacation, Hammond feels that he need to do some damage control, especially since his nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), now runs InGen and wants to take control of the island. Hammond’s plan is to send in Malcolm, documentarian/environmentalist Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), field equipment expert Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), and paleontologist Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) to show people that the dinosaurs are happy in their natural habitat.

So in John Hammond’s mind, he thinks that rallying support for protecting the island will drive InGen away, which is nonsense. That’s like saying as long as people see photos of lions in the Serengeti, no one will want to go on safari or hunt them. If Hammond really wanted to stop InGen, he would send a team back to Isla Nublar to show what happened when the dinosaurs escaped and how bringing them back would be a terrible idea. Instead, his plan would probably make Isla Sorna more attractive and therefore more profitable for InGen. John Hammond sucks at everything.

Malcolm goes only because he’s basically blackmailed into doing so since Harding is his girlfriend and she’s already left for the island. The reluctant chaotician, Nick, and Eddie set off for Isla Sorna with Malcolm’s daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) stowing away because a Jurassic Park movie arbitrarily requires an endangered child who will become part of a restored family unit. Then the movie just gets sillier from there.

“’Oooh! Ahhh!’ that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming,” says Malcolm to Eddie and Nick when they arrive on the island. Except the “oohing” and the “ahhing” never come in The Lost World because the sense of discovery is gone. The dinosaurs can awe the characters, but for the audience, only the setting has changed, and Spielberg doesn’t do much with it. He’s more interested in the running and screaming, and it’s never as thrilling or as rousing as the first time out.

The set pieces, and in a way the whole film, feel like the work of a Spielberg protégé. All the beats are in place, but it’s an imitation. The trailer scene is a combination/rehash of the Jeep scene from Jurassic Park, but it goes on for too long and has the sour taste of two T-Rexes tearing poor Eddie Carr in half. That’s worse than anything that happens on screen to any character in Jurassic Park, let alone one who’s trying to help his friends.

The Lost World falls into the “More” trap for sequels, and although Spielberg tried to approach the material from a different angle, he still arrives at a disappointing destination. In Jurassic Park, the kids scramble to survive, and their most heroic act is when Lex figures out how to get the computer-controlled locks to work. The sequel has one of the worst moments in the trilogy when Kelly does a gymnastics routine to kill a raptor. It used to take a T-Rex to kill a raptor; now all it takes are conveniently placed double bars.

Perhaps this would be slightly rewarding if I liked Kelly or any of the characters, but whereas Jurassic Park had its characters ponder the thematic conflict, The Lost World is a message movie and people exist to be part of set pieces. Perhaps that’s why it’s best to put a comic relief character like Malcolm front and center since protagonists don’t really matter in The Lost World. The sequel is action scenes and a message, and it all becomes more convoluted as the film continues.

By the time the story gets to San Diego, it’s like we’ve arrived in an entirely different film. Nick and Kelly have been unceremoniously shuffled away from the plot, and it’s up to Malcolm and Sarah to save the day and stop a T-Rex from rampaging through the city. At this point, it feels like Spielberg just wanted to make a fun B-movie rather than try to recapture the spirit of the first film, and he delights in the genre to the point where he even cuts to some Japanese men running away because it evokes Godzilla. Sure, it’s fun to see Spielberg let his anarchic side run wild, but this feels like it’s from a different movie, and perhaps one that would have ultimately been better, if for no other reason than completely departing from the original classic.

Even Spielberg came to feel that The Lost World was a mistake. In an their book of collected interview with Steven Spielberg, editors Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm included the director’s comments on returning to the Jurassic Park franchise:

“I found myself in the middle of the sequel to Jurassic Park, growing more and more impatient with myself with respect to the kinds of films I really like to make. And often feeling that I have stuck myself in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and gone back in time four and a half years, and that I was just serving the audience a banquet, but I wasn’t serving myself anything challenging. I found myself saying, ‘Is that all there is? It’s not enough for me.’”

Spielberg decided to follow up The Lost World with another low point in his filmography, the historical drama Amistad, before moving to one of his best, Saving Private Ryan. He wisely decided that if there were to be a third Jurassic Park movie, he would only serve as an executive producer.

Caught between a retread of the first movie and a wild romp into campy territory (it says something that one of the best moments is seeing the fake movie posters in the video store), The Lost World leads us to ask, “If this is to be a franchise, then what is Jurassic Park movie?” Are they meant to be meditations on science, or are they social commentary? Or are they just popcorn blockbuster disaster movies but with a Spielberg shine? And if you take away Spielberg, then what’s left? Judging by the next Jurassic Park movie, not much.

According to Roger Ebert:

Where is the awe? Where is the sense that if dinosaurs really walked the earth, a film about them would be more than a monster movie? Where are the ooohs and ahhhs? “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” demonstrates even more clearly than “Jurassic Park” (1993) that the underlying material is so promising, it deserves a story not written on autopilot. Steven Spielberg, a gifted filmmaker, should have reimagined the material, should have seen it through the eyes of someone looking at dinosaurs, rather than through the eyes of someone looking at a box-office sequel.

The movie is well done from a technical viewpoint, yes. The dinosaurs look amazingly real, and we see them plunge into the midst of 360-degree action; a man on a motorcycle even rides between the legs of a running beast. It can be said that the creatures in this film transcend any visible signs of special effects and seem to walk the earth. But the same realism isn’t brought to the human characters, who are bound by plot conventions and action formulas, and scripted to do stupid things so that they can be chased and sometimes eaten by the dinosaurs.

Maybe it was already too late. Perhaps the time to do the thinking on this project was before the first film, when all the possibilities lay before Spielberg. He should have tossed aside the original Michael Crichton novel, knowing it had given him only one thing of use: an explanation for why dinosaurs might walk among us. Everything else–the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the theme park scheme–was just the recycling of other movies. We know the tired old plot lessons already, about man’s greed and pride, and how it is punished, and why it does not pay to interfere with Mother Nature.

Why not a pseudo-documentary in which the routine plot elements are simply ignored, and the characters venture into the unknown and are astonished and frightened by what they find? There are moments in the first “Jurassic Park” which capture a genuine sense of wonder, the first time we see the graceful, awesome prehistoric creatures moving in stately calm beyond the trees. But soon they are cut down to size by a plot which has them chasing and scaring the human characters, as in any monster movie.

“The Lost World” is even more perfunctory. The plot sets up a reason for a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) to return to an island where dinosaurs survive. His girlfriend (Julianne Moore) is already there. He takes along an equipment specialist and a “video documentarian” (who comes equipped with a tiny tourist toy of a video camera and doesn’t seem sure how to use it). They land on the island, are soon photographing prehistoric creatures, and so careless is the screenplay that the newcomers to the plot are not even allowed to express their amazement the first time they see their prey.

Much of the film, especially the action scenes, is shot at night in the rain. I assume that’s to provide better cover for the special effects; we see relatively few dinosaurs in bright light, and the conceit is taken so far that even the press conference announcing a new dinosaur park in San Diego is held in the middle of the night. The night scenes also allow Spielberg to use his most familiar visual trademark, the visible beams from powerful flashlights, but apart from that touch, Spielberg doesn’t really seem present in the picture: This feels like the kind of sequel a master hands over to an apprentice, and you sense that although much effort was lavished on the special effects, Spielberg’s interest in the story was perfunctory.

Here’s the key to the movie’s weakness: Many elaborate sequences exist only to be . . . elaborate sequences. In a better movie, they would play a role in the story. Consider the drawn-out episode of the dangling research trailer, for example, which hangs over a cliff while the characters dangle above a terrifying drop and a hero tries to save the trailer from falling, while a dinosaur attacks. This is only what it seems to be, an action sequence. Nothing more. It doesn’t lead into or out of anything, and is not necessary, except to fill screen time. It plays like an admission that the filmmakers couldn’t think of something more intriguing involving the real story line.

Consider, too, the character of Goldblum’s daughter (Vanessa Lee Chester). Why is she here? To be placed in danger, to inspire contrived domestic disagreements, and to make demands so that the plot can get from A to B. At one point, inside the trailer, she gets frightened and says urgently that she “wants to go someplace real high–right now! Right now!” So Goldblum and another character put her in a cage that lifts them above the forest, after which Goldblum must descend from the cage, after which I was asking why they had ascended in it in the first place. (Early in the film, it is established that the girl is a gymnast; later the film observes the ancient principle that every gymnast in a movie sooner or later encounters a bar.) There are some moments that work. Pete Postlethwaite, as a big game hunter who flies onto the island with a second wave of dinosaur mercenaries, doesn’t step wrong; he plays a convincing if shallow character, even if he’s called upon to make lengthy speeches in speeding Jeeps, and to utter arty lines about “movable feasts” and having “spent enough time in the company of death.” He alone among the major characters seems convinced that he is on an island with dinosaurs, and not merely in a special-effects movie about them.

The film’s structure is weird. I thought it was over, and then it began again, with a San Diego sequence in which Spielberg seemed to be trying to upstage the upcoming “Godzilla” movie. The monster-stepping-on-cars sequences in the current Japanese import “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” are more entertaining. And can we really believe that a ship could ram a pier at full speed and remain seaworthy? The problem with the movie is that the dinosaurs aren’t allowed to be the stars. They’re marvelously conceived and executed, but no attempt is made to understand their fearsomeness; much of the plot hinges on mommy and daddy T-rexes exhibiting parental feelings for their offspring. Must we see everything in human terms? At one point, one character tells another, “These creatures haven’t walked the earth for tens of millions of years, and now all you want to do is shoot them?” Somebody could have asked Spielberg the same question.


5 thoughts on “On The Lost World: Jurassic Park

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