Sequels are hard, man. Especially when they have to follow up one of the most beloved science-fiction masterpieces of all time. Steven Spielberg had the unenviable task of topping himself and despite his best efforts, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the redheaded stepchild of the series (because apparently nobody remembers how truly bad Jurassic Park III was. Seriously, did you all forget?). In anticipation of Jurassic World releasing this Friday, I thought it was time to go back and defend The Lost World from you carnivores, because the movie is actually quite solid. So, shall we begin the tour? (Spoilers follow…)
The Lost World was released in 1997 by director Steven Spielberg. The script was written by David Koepp and based on a book by Michael Crichton, a sequel to his original novel that was only published after the success of the first film. Jeff Goldblum returns as Ian Malcolm, and he is joined by Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, and Arliss Howard. And because we can have nice things, John Williams once again provides an amazing score. The film was received lukewarmly by critics, currently holding a 52% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert said that “Steven Spielberg… 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.” Indeed many at the time felt Spielberg had gone for spectacle over substance because this was 1997 and it would be two more years before our innocence was taken out back and put down unceremoniously by George Lucas.
Four years after “the incident” at the park, Dr. Malcolm is summoned by John Hammond who needs Malcolm to assist in a documentarian mission of Isla Sorna, the InGen breeding ground which after abandonment has naturally evolved into a biological preserve. It turns out InGen is planning to take dinosaurs off the island and bring them to a zoo in San Diego, and Hammond is fighting to protect the island and keep it isolated. He is assembling a team, including Malcolm’s girlfriend Dr. Sarah Harding, who went in ahead of him, to get documentation of the island so he can sway public opinion. Malcolm, who is understandably upset, dictates “It’s not a research expedition anymore. It’s a rescue operation and it’s leaving right now.” Unfortunately as Malcolm arrives on the island, InGen’s team is shortly behind. And then things go bad. Quickly.
The reality is that The Lost World was always going to be held up to the standard set by the first film, and Spielberg knocked Jurassic Park out of the…well, you know. As such, contemporary reviews at the time were unfair, though audiences also were critical of the film. Upon review though, I’m hard-pressed to understand why.
First, by making fan favorite Ian Malcolm the lead, audiences should have been ecstatic. To this day audiences are in uproar at his absence from Jurassic World. And Goldblum does well the second time around. His character is a bit more sullen and apathetic this time around, in stark contrast to everybody else’s amazement at the miracles of science on display in front of them. As he so eloquently puts it…
Malcolm is the great flawed hero of the movie. He is really bad at relationships. He’s also really bad at making his point, even armed with logic and common sense he sabotages his own point by being…well, himself. And yet, he’s charismatic enough and you can’t resist rooting for him.
The rest of the cast is also great. Julianne Moore plays Malcolm’s headstrong scientist girlfriend who is smart, capable, and independent, and who ascends to more than love interest. In fact, she is just a scientist girlfriend involved in the film as opposed to love interest, there is minimal romantic drama. (And thank god, because why would I care about that when I can see a Velociraptor?) Pete Postelwaithe also gives a good turn as the leader of InGen’s expeditionary force who is driven by one purpose: to kill a Tyrannosaur purely for bragging rights. He even gets his own character arc, as by the end of the film he sees the chaos wrought. However, he is painfully on the nose when he delivers his final line, “I’ve spent enough time in the company of death.” Arliss Howard however is wasted as Peter Ludlow. Ludlow is obviously the greedy CEO who is victim of his own hubris. While seeing him get his comeuppance is grandly satisfying at the end, it’s wasted somewhat as he spends the film going back and forth between being arrogant and incompetent.
Which brings me to my first problem with the film, and that is the script. The script really is the film’s biggest downfall. There are moments of horrendously self-aware dialogue peppered throughout. There are also too many conversations where characters are talking on top of each other to a distracting degree. But the real problem with the script is that the film didn’t have a clear ending in mind. Koepp and Crichton did a good job of getting everybody back onto an island to which no sane person would go. And after a few bits of bad luck, the story should have gone to a natural conclusion: getting off the island alive. The underlying theme of the whole series thus far has involved man interfering with nature. In Jurassic Park, man tried to play god, and it backfired. In The Lost World, man tried to tame a piece of nature that it had no right to. Despite this, InGen was confident it had the firepower and brawn to handle whatever was on Isla Sorna, but as they always do, things went wrong. The obvious conclusion for the film should have been the teams escaping the island.
However, Spielberg and Koepp must have felt that finale wasn’t grand enough in spectacle and too similar to the ending of the first film and that not enough plotlines were wrapped up. So they added what feels like an awkward last minute scene where a T-Rex gets to run amok in downtown San Diego. After escaping the island, the film abruptly jumps forward and undisclosed amount of time to a press conference being held at night where InGen is announcing the arrival of the T-Rex as well as their grand plans for Jurassic Park, San Diego. Somehow though, the T-Rex has broken free, and the ship crashes into the San Diego docks. The Rex escapes and it is up to Malcolm to lure the animal back to the boat to be exported.
The finale itself isn’t the worst set-piece Spielberg has put together at all. It’s actually a lot of fun and refreshingly to the point. The problem is that it is so obviously tacked on that it just dilutes the intense adventure we just experienced on the island. Which once again comes to script issues. The original script had a sequence of Pterodactyls attacking the fleeing helicopters, but that was scrapped for San Diego instead.
Still, the awkward finale isn’t enough to sink the film. So what else did people have a problem with? Some felt the CGI was too overbearing. Again, this was before George Lucas returned to moviemaking. Having rewatched the film in blu-ray (a format unkind to older special effects) I can confidently say the creatures still look incredible. And Spielberg still employed many animatronics and shot on locations adding an authenticity that he specializes in.
And the animal set-pieces (calling them action set-pieces feels wrong) still hold up. In particular, the T-Rex attack on the trailers and the cliffs are still flat out thrilling. It’s one of Spielberg’s most intense and jaw-dropping sequences to date. And the fan-favorite Velociraptors get more screen time this time around, having their pick of InGen mercenaries to slaughter. And while the script can be chaotic at times, there are still some pretty good lines. “Mommy’s very angry” in particular still makes me grin.
The film isn’t perfect. I can’t argue that. But it’s not bad either. The story may have been drawn out twenty minutes too long, and a few characters could have been removed without anybody knowing otherwise (I’m looking at you Kelly). But the movie is better than a 52% by far. We’ve seen dozens of films since that commit the “CGI spectacle over substance” sin in the years since 1997, and to a much more egregious degree. When looking at the Star Wars prequels or any of the Transformers films, The Lost World looks Shakespearean in comparison. And yet, a sequel should go bigger and bolder, and anybody who told you they wanted fewer dinosaur scenes is lying to you. So, no, it is not that bad. It is not the worst Jurassic Park film (you all seem to forget how dreadfully bad III was). And honestly, it’s a great adventure and a fun ride despite its missteps. So don’t be so harsh on The Lost World. It’s a perfectly fine sequel. And sequels are hard, man.