Thursday, 1 February 2018

Retrospective: The Lost World - Jurassic Park (1997)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we're going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park. After the first film set box office records and captivated the imaginations of audiences everywhere, a sequel was practically guaranteed. Could Spielberg and company recapture the same magic which made the original film so special? Read on to find out...

As I said in the previous entry, The Lost World: Jurassic Park apes the original film's poster hard, only really differentiating itself with rougher, decayed design and a cool tagline.

After the success of the first novel and film, Michael Crichton was pressured to write a sequel. Most fans (myself included at the time) had expected the sequel to involve Nedry's embryo canister in some way, and even Spielberg explored this option, although it was ultimately dropped and never explored outside of the Jurassic Park Telltale game. After discussions with Spielberg and others, Crichton eventually relented when he got an idea for a sequel, which would be published in 1995 under the name The Lost World. However, by the time the novel was nearing publication, Spielberg was uncertain if he was going to return to direct, with Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Jurassic Park III) offering to take his place. Shortly after The Lost World was published, Spielberg announced he would direct the film, although with some reluctance.

The Lost World novel was... not great, to say the least. It's pretty clear that Crichton's heart wasn't truly in it, and the plot definitely suffers for it. The story of the novel revolves around Ian Malcolm hunting down a scientist who is stuck on Isla Sorna while Lewis Dodgson (the guy who Denis Nedry betrays John Hammond for in the original book and film) attempts to capture dinosaurs at the same time. Lots of mindless dinosaur-based carnage ensues. The film wisely discards most of this plot set-up, retaining only the most skeletal bits of it, most notably the idea of a "site B" where the dinosaurs were bred in secret in their own ecosystem. Perhaps notably, Crichton was not involved in the writing of the sequel. Other than that, the film also features a sequence from the novel where t-rexes knock a vehicle off of a cliff, which ended up being the standout moment of the film. The Lost World also features a number of sequences inspired by the first novel, including the opening beach attack, a character being swarmed and killed by procompsognathus, and a t-rex attacking characters hiding behind a waterfall.
Other inspirations on the film included Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (which obviously inspired Crichton as well) and the film Hatari!, which apparently influenced the scenes of hunters capturing dinosaurs. The ending was also changed three weeks before filming began, because Spielberg decided that he wanted to see dinosaurs attacking the mainland instead of the originally-planned ending which would have seen the characters attacked by pterodactyls as they attempted to flee the island.


The only actor returning in a major role is Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm. As the standout of the first film, this was a rather inspired idea, although this film sees him becoming more of a standard action hero than the sardonic, doom-saying mathematician he was in the first adventure. Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello appear in cameo roles as their characters John Hammond, Lex and Tim, respectively, but they do not have a huge impact on the plot. New additions to the cast included most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding, Ian's lover. Vanessa Chester is also brought in as one of Ian Malcolm's daughters, a spunky African-American girl named Kelly (the fact that she's a mixed race child is actually quite surprising and notably refreshing, considering how rare this still is to this day). Rounding out the heroic cast is a young Vince Vaughn also appears as a resourceful and opinionated nature photographer, Nick van Owen, who is joined by Richard Schiff's detail-oriented engineer, Eddie Carr. On the other side of the coin, the film's primary antagonist is Hammond's nephew, Peter Ludlow, played by a weaselly Arliss Howard. The film also features a couple standout performances from the hunters, particularly the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo. Of the new cast of characters, Roland is by far the most entertaining and badass, easily stealing every scene he's in with his intensity. Also worth mentioning is Peter freaking Stomare as a seemingly sadistic mercenary, Dieter Stark. All-in-all, a good cast nearly on par with the original, and once again no one puts in a poor performance.

The Lost World picks up 4 years after the first film ended. InGen has covered up the incident and Ian has been discredited after he tried to go public with what happened. However, after a dinosaur attack on a wealthy family, it is discovered that InGen is hiding a second island full of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, where they would breed them before their delivery to the park. Hammond commissions Ian and a team to document and protect the creatures in their habitat, and Ian initially refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding, was approached as well and is already on the island. He and his team head to Isla Sorna to rescue her and realize that Ian's daughter, Kelly, has stowed away on board as well. Before they can do anything about this realization, a group of hunters led by Hammond's corporate nephew, Peter Ludlow, arrive on the island and begin rounding up the dinosaurs to take to the mainland. Nick van Owen and Sarah free a bunch of the dinosaurs and destroy the hunters' camp, but discover an injured t-rex infant and try to rescue it. The baby's parents follow them back to their trailer and attack it, leaving both teams stuck on the island and having to band together to survive...


Remember how I said that there was a current of child-like wonder running through the first film? The Lost World is much darker in comparison, with some really nasty scenes punctuated throughout: the opening scene where a child gets mauled by procompsognathus, Eddie getting ripped in half by a pair of t-rex, Carter getting stomped on by a t-rex and sticking to the bottom of its foot, Dieter and Burke's deaths ending with a shower of blood, raptors wiping out probably two dozen hunters mercilessly and the civilians getting chomped in San Diego. It's still PG-13, but it's certainly darker and scarier than the first film was, without the awe that the first film inspired at times. In spite of this, the film is also clearly aiming for a younger demographic than the first film as well, as it is quite clear that the studio was building in merchandising opportunities whenever it could. This is felt most obviously in the InGen hunting team's equipment, which includes elaborate vehicles like something out of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I can actually remember the toys that they were selling at the time, and the hunters' vehicles were featured quite prominently there. This clearly mandated merchandising is just one example of how The Lost World is a film which doesn't have nearly as much heart put into it as the first did, being largely made due to fan and studio pressure.

The film also suffers from a weak script. While no one puts in a bad performance, it doesn't help if your actors aren't given anything to work with, and The Lost World definitely fails nearly everyone in this regard with a plot which is far too thin. For example, we're given only 30 minutes to establish all the characters and make us care about them before the "running and screaming" starts, which is only really 1 or 2 scenes for most of the principal cast. The script just doesn't flesh anyone out enough or give them time they need to make us care. Kelly suffers most egregiously from this, being nothing more than a burden and only contributing in one cringe-worthy scene of Chekov's gymnastics to save Ian from a velociraptor. Sarah Harding and Nick van Owen also suffer greatly from the scripting deficiencies, with us only really getting the thinnest sketches of their characters before the action begins. Making things worse, we don't really get any development of any sort for the characters after their 1 or 2 scenes of establishment, which just makes it even harder to care about anyone.

Furthermore, the characters tend to act stupidly for little more than plot convenience. For example, Sarah (a paleological behaviour expert) decides to start petting a baby stegosaur while in the middle of their herd, which obviously leads to the rest of its family attacking her to defend their baby so we can get an early action sequence. She also later tells the group that the t-rexes will be tracking them with their superior sense of smell and then in the next scene is seen with a jacket covered in baby t-rex blood smearing it all over the trail behind them like a total oblivious idiot when Roland points this out to her (and of course, not even Roland thinks to actually ditch the jacket at that point). Nick is also a common victim of this problem, most egregiously when he decides to rescue the baby t-rex by bringing it back to the team's trailer, thereby bringing the wrath of the parents down upon them. Even Ian isn't immune to this - one minute he's desperately trying to get Kelly off of the island, and then the next he's helping Sarah and Nick sabotage the hunters before trying to get the radio to work again so Kelly will be safe (of course, Sarah and Nick's sabotage operation destroys all the radios on the island, whoops!).


All that said, the film is buoyed significantly at the 45 minute mark by the t-rex attack on the trailer. This is easily the best part of the film, which ramps up the tension as we wait for the t-rexes to approach, to their attack which flips the trailer and leaves it leaning precariously over a cliff while Sarah lies helplessly on a breaking pane of glass, to Eddie's heroic rescue attempt and subsequent tragic death. It's a major shot in the arm right when the film needed it and arguably one of the best single sequences in the entire franchise. And honestly, character development issues aside, The Lost World is basically as good of a sequel to Jurassic Park as you could expect up until this point... however, the moment that trailer falls off the cliff and explodes, the film suddenly nosedives significantly, turning into a series of running, screaming and senseless death (Roland himself says it best when he calls the group of faceless mooks a "moveable feast"). As I said in my retrospective of the first Jurassic Park, that film could have been worse in its second half when the characters stop developing and just run away from the dinosaurs, but we already had gotten to know and like them by that point so it wasn't an issue. The Lost World does not have that luxury. It has a hard enough time making us care about its principal cast, not to mention the dozens of nameless, faceless cannon fodder which are suddenly brought into the fold at this point. Sure, we get some interesting action sequences here, such as the t-rexes attacking the hunters' camp and velociraptors ambushing them in the long grass, but these scenes lack the emotional punch of the first film and instead trade that for sheer visceral excitement. They succeed to some degree, but it is not a worthwhile trade-off by any means.

The film also suffers in the notoriously half-baked t-rex escape in San Diego. You can definitely tell that Spielberg rushed this ending into the film, because it very distinctly feels like it was filmed and conceived separately from the rest of the movie. The idea of a t-rex rampaging in a populated city is actually rather interesting and fits well into the series' themes, but the film does not set it up well enough for it to feel like an earned payoff. Instead, it plays out like a very bog-standard monster movie and jettisons all but two of the characters we were supposed to be trying to become attached to throughout the rest of the film. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Die Hard with a Vengeance and its clearly half-assed ending. It does serve as one of the big showcases for the CGI though, which has improved significantly in the intervening 4 years between films. In fact, I'd say that The Lost World deserves the reputation that Jurassic Park's special effects are so often bestowed with, because the CGI is utilized more often and holds up nearly flawlessly. That said, the animatronics and puppets are still being used frequently in this film, which is great to see as well and helps to ensure that the film's effects still remain great to this day.


All-in-all though, The Lost World is disappointingly mediocre. It has promise, but it seems content to just squander all of it and turn into a mindless romp packed with as much dinosaur carnage as possible by the halfway point. The non-existent character development also cripples any sort of emotional investment in the film, making the carnage far less engaging than it was in the first film. In fact, The Lost World is the 3rd-lowest-scoring film in Spielberg's filmography, after Hook and 1941, making it something of a black mark on his directoral career. Maybe with a bit more time in the oven and a bit more enthusiasm, Spielberg could have spun gold again, but as it is, The Lost World falls short.

5.5/10

Tune in next time as we tackle the third film in the franchise, Jurassic Park III!

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