With Hook safely behind us, we now enter the realm of Spielberg’s watchable failures. These are films that I know by any objective standard aren’t that good, but that I can still sit and watch parts of, the equivalent of skipping through the filler tracks on a later-era album by your favorite band. Even on his worst day, Spielberg knows how to shoot a scene, and even his lesser films have at least a sequence or two where you see the master shining through.
And sadly, The Lost World is one of his worst days. And a huge part of the problem was basing the film on a pretty bad book that reads like a rough draft of a screenplay itself. While no one would call Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park the height of literature, it had one hell of a hook and did a good job crafting a gripping adventure around it. Crichton’s sequel had none of the gee-whiz wonder of the first book and plenty of long conversations about evolution, societal behavior, and even brain diseases, while basically repeating huge chunks of the first book (there’s even another boy computer expert this time around). Just what we were clamoring for from a sequel to Jurassic Park.
So the film sequel was already starting on shaky ground. But Spielberg had proven before he could take a mediocre book and turn it into a classic, so all hope was not yet dashed. Next thing we know, Ian Malcolm’s daughter is doing Gymkata on raptors and we’re being treated to the adventures of Vince Vaughn, Eco-Warrior and we’re pretty much going through Jurassic Park beat for beat without the joyous awe of discovery of the first film. It’s Lazy Spielberg again, only by this time, the laziness is confined to the story. When he’s shooting dinosaur mayhem, he’s fully involved and as inventive and masterful as ever. When it’s time to give us a reason to care about these people being chased by T-rexes, or for the story to make any real sense, well, that’s nice, when’s the next set-piece? For instance, the entire plot hinges on Malcolm rushing back to the place that nearly killed him in order to rescue a girlfriend we didn’t even know existed, who isn’t even seen until nearly thirty minutes has gone by, and with whom Malcolm displays almost zero romantic chemistry at all when he finally finds her; it might as well be a sister or close friend. But she’s created simply to get everybody to the island so the dinosaurs have someone to threaten. She’s not a person, she’s a plot point.
But like Hook, there are frustrating glimpses of a much better film hidden beneath the motions being gone through here, most of them coming from a character who isn’t even the focus of the film. Once Pete Postlethwaite strides onto the scene as big game hunter Roland Tembo, the film finally has some kind of energy to it, and a character who isn’t simply there to tell us how wonderful/dangerous all these dinosaurs are. He’s also the only character who has any kind of arc in the film, going from his obsession with hunting down a T-rex to his disillusionment with “the company of death,” and he’s given the kind of send-off in the film that makes you wish we’d been following him all along (and that gives the impression that Spielberg realized this himself a little too late).
However, there is one aspect that draws a lot of criticism that I myself think is the one area where The Lost World finally becomes its own thing: the San Diego sequence. About two seconds after you hear the idea behind Jurassic Park, you’re wondering, “What would happen if these dinosaurs got loose in our world?” So when that T-rex is standing on the shore roaring at the moon with the San Diego skyline in the background, well, it was the first time I really felt captured by the film, where I felt like it was taking us somewhere new. And then Spielberg lets loose with his very own Godzilla movie, and finally both of us are having fun. It may not make the most sense, it may not be all that plausible, but at least it’s alive.
But aside from that sequence, the T-rex attack on the trailers, and that quick, beautifully terrifying image of the raptors leaving their wake through the tail grass, The Lost World is strictly by the book. And not a very good book at that. And what’s funny is that Jurassic Park 3, which was pretty much made up as they went along, is more of what I wanted from a Jurassic Park sequel than the one that had an entire novel and a finished screenplay to work with. Spielberg can engage our eyes without breaking a sweat. But if he’s going to engage our hearts and heads, he needs more to work with than what The Lost World gives him.
Tomorrow: If curmudgeon has a name, it must be…