Bob Seger has a song called Like a Rock, a powerful and wistful rock ballad detailing a man recalling his younger self and the entire world of possibilities that was once laid out before him. As the song flows from memory to memory, Seger gently sings, no, sighs, the following lyrics, “Twenty years now, where’d they go? Twenty years, I don’t know…” That’s exactly the thought that crossed my mind when I realised that Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World is twenty years old this month. Holy crap! I recently revisited The Lost World one wet Sunday afternoon and, while I never thought it a classic, time has been kind to one of Spielberg’s underrated popcorn films. Yes, a popcorn film. Once you realise what type of film you’re looking at then it makes the sophomore Jurassic Park effort far more palatable.
It is fair to say that The Lost World didn’t really catch like its predecessor did in 1993. In fact, it generated mediocre to negative reviews and even now some critics class it as the worst of the four films so far. I have to disagree. The Lost World is a very enjoyable film and while it never equalled Jurassic Park, it certainly goes toe to toe with it for 11 or 12 rounds. I compare it to a heavyweight boxing match as that is exactly what Jurassic Park and The Lost World were, heavyweight blockbusters, that unfortunately sparred against each other. There is no doubt, from reading the novel and watching the film, that the concept of a sequel was simply a cash in on the runaway success of the first novel and film and following the devastation Jurassic Park wrought on the box office in 1993 a sequel seemed as inevitable as a Meryl Streep nomination every February. Based upon books by that Midas-like writer Michael Crichton and directed by the equally Midas-ian Steven Spielberg, much was expected and the main reason why The Lost World failed was simply because of the weight of expectation heaped upon it, a sequel to the biggest film of all time at that point in history (soon to be usurped by Titanic).
Crichton himself admitted the real reason why he wrote a sequel was because he wanted to see a follow up to the film, but not necessarily to his original novel – but he wasn’t willing to let anyone else tackle it. Spielberg is just as guilty. The overarching feeling from watching The Lost World is that Spielberg is flying on autopilot; the sense of enthusiasm which seems to be naturally intrinsic to a Spielberg film is sadly missing. I don’t think it’s boredom or some mercenary take on filmmaking from one of the mediums undisputed greats, but I do feel that Spielberg felt an obligation to making the sequel as opposed to an interest in it. What may be slightly more problematic is the fact that it is obvious Spielberg himself was aware of this and so tried to make it a different film from the first while still trying to be a worthy successor to Jurassic Park. Some of these worked and some didn’t.
One of the big tonal changes from the first film to The Lost World is the humour. The Lost World has several moments that raise a chuckle such as the scene where Malcolm, Eddie and Nick Van Owen are searching for Sarah on the island, shouting her name. Nick shouts her full name to be playfully rebuked by Malcolm, “how many Sarah’s do you think are on this island?” Or Roland Tembo struggling with the dinosaurs’ names, “A Pachy … a pachy … oh, hell. Uh, the fat head with the bald spot. Friar Tuck!” These moments stand out as the humour in the first film was rare and came exclusively from Ian Malcolm, such as exclaiming when viewing the Triceratops droppings, “that is one big pile of shit”, or arguing semantics with John Hammond, “Yeah, but John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” This may well be why Malcolm was put front and centre in the sequel and while the humour does dilute the tension I found it a welcome addition. While Jurassic Park was a very tense, well plotted film, it was also very serious. With The Lost World, Spielberg made a conscious decision to not give the audience more of the same and, personally, the humour works for me.
The Lost World is also a much darker film than its predecessor, much like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was far darker than Raiders of the Lost Ark. But again, I think this really works in its favour as it sets a totally different tone. In Jurassic Park John Hammond was the misguided philanthropist who wished to bring dinosaurs back from the dead for the enjoyment and wonderment of everyone the world over, exemplified by his conversation with Gennaro who offers, when Hammond tells him that money is not going to stop people from seeing dinosaurs, that Jurassic Park can have a “coupon day.” Money was never the motivation for John Hammond. Peter Ludlow, the new InGen CEO, is no John Hammond – he is solely in it for the money and where Jurassic Park was filled with sympathetic characters which the audience rooted for to survive, Spielberg peppers The Lost World with characters whom you want to see meet their comeuppance in the most satisfying ways possible – Peter Stormare’s nasty mercenary and Peter Ludlow to name two.
This shift is very important and it’s probably the biggest thing that audiences had a problem with when it came to the sequel – in Jurassic Park the humans didn’t know what they were getting themselves in for, in The Lost World they went in looking for trouble when trying to capture the dinosaurs. Only morons would do such a thing, especially when you consider that Roland Tembo, the game hunter, wished to hunt a buck T-Rex with a tranquiliser dart and an elephant rifle! The deaths are also far more graphic – Eddie is torn asunder by the Rex’s, the long-haired dinosaur expert is munched on by the waterfall turning the water red, Peter Stormare’s nasty mercenary is savaged by the Compy’s, the “Unlucky Bastard” in the video store is nipped on by the rampaging Rex, the crew of the S.S. Venture are left in pieces and Peter Ludlow is injured by the adult Rex only for the baby Rex to step up and finish him off. While Jurassic Park had plenty of deaths, Gennaro on the toilet for one, none of them were as graphic as those in The Lost World. I think this darker sequel explains the humour too, considering it was so much darker than the first, it really needed humour and for the most part Spielberg balanced both well.
For me, The Lost World works so well for one simple reason, it comes almost exclusively from the World War Z school of adaptations – take nothing from the novel bar the title. Spielberg’s sequel is only a shadow of the book and thankfully so, Crichton’s novel is readable but only barely enjoyable. It was very much a novel designed as a spring board to a film and wisely Spielberg took only the bare bones of the narrative and created a far more interesting film. Lewis Dodson – remember him from the first film, the guy who hires Nedry to steal the embryos – is the villain and he’s a terrible character, terribly written. Peter Ludlow, Richard Hammond’s nephew, is a terrific villain, a real boo/hiss bag guy if albeit a stereotypical one. But this involvement of a clear-cut villain does change the Jurassic Park formula. Dodson spent only a few minutes on screen in the original and Nedry was one of the first to meet his end in Jurassic Park, thus leaving Mr. T-Rex to step up as the main bad guy. In The Lost World all our villains are human. We find ourselves almost caring for the dinosaurs, especially at the start as Tembo and his goons attempt rounding up the dinosaurs on the island and at the end as the Rex prowls San Diego looking for its baby. For me this is one of the more interesting elements of The Lost World as it takes the Spielbergian family situation and turns it on its head. We care for the T-Rex pursuing her baby and the lengths she will go to to reunite with the child. Where his earlier films such as Close Encounters and ET dissected a dysfunctional family situation and/or the damage an absent parent can create, the T-Rex shows just how far a parent will go to protect its child.
While mentioning the darkness and the sympathy reversal it should also be said that there is plenty of fun, plenty of Spielbergian moments in The Lost World. Although opening with a scene lifted directly from Crichton’s original novel, the slow build-up introduction to this new island, Isla Sorna, is pure Spielberg. The wealthy family, the curious child, the tiny Compy dinosaurs all build this wonderful tension only to instantly cut, as the mother begins to scream, to Ian Malcolm, framed by an advertising hoarding for a Caribbean holiday, yawning madly as a subway train screeches past. He’s done it before, think of Chief Brody chumming in Jaws – “slow ahead, I can go slow ahead, why don’t you come down here and chum some of this shit.” To that point, Chief Brody had been bored and irritable and the word shit made the audience laugh and relaxed them, then suddenly, the shark appears out of nowhere and the audience shriek, catching them off guard. It’s genius really, flipping the audience from one emotion to another instantly.
Also, the battle between the two T-Rex parents and the articulated trailer as they push it off the cliff, is one of the finest set pieces in the entire franchise. Though it is the only scene lifted from Crichton’s novel, that sequence alone is chock full of Spielbergian moments – the pause between the dinosaurs stalking away and then hitting the trailer with brute force, the rear trailer stumbling over the edge, Sarah Harding hitting the back window and watching the spider web of cracks build around her, the strap of the satellite phone dancing along the housing of the lamp teasing its way toward the edge and the plummet that will shatter the glass completely. That sequence is just pure tension, it’s one of the strongest in the film and sits very comfortably in the company of the scene detailing the attack on the children in the stalled SUV by the Tyrannosaur paddock in the first film. Probably the most Spielbergian moment in the film is one that could easily pass you by. After the hunting party and what’s left of Malcolm’s party join forces they get separated and scatter. Ajay, Roland Tembo’s loyal hunting partner, shouts to the panicked runners “DON’T GO INTO THE LONG GRASS!!!” Moving off into an aerial shot you see the humans running hither and thither in total confusion, but then your attention is drawn to the thin straight lines cutting in from all angles. Velociraptors. And we all know what Velociraptors can do.
Of course, there are plenty of negatives too and I will be the first to admit that while there are flashes of greatness in the film, those moments do not necessarily coalesce into a complete whole. While you may remember certain parts you don’t recall a satisfying film overall, the narrative thread tying them altogether just isn’t strong enough. The addition of Malcolm’s daughter Kelly was a bad move. Where the children worked in the first film very well, Kelly is redundant in The Lost World. While the father/child relationship is a touchstone of Spielberg films, it just doesn’t fit here, not for the humans anyway. The middle section of the film sags alarmingly as Malcolm, Nick, Sarah and Kelly try to radio for help from an old outpost. Also, once Pete Postletwaite’s Roland Tembo character exits, the plot – the whole thing – seems a little less interesting.
Roland Tembo was a great character, strong and unflinching and he played a perfect foil to Goldblum’s crusading Malcolm and Arliss Howard’s despicable villain. Decried by many as folly, I thought the taking of the dinosaur to the urban jungle of San Diego was a great move. I can see why so many hated it as it does play too much like King Kong but it was the natural progression for the plot as the “humans-trapped-on-dino-island” had been done already. The audience had seen them in the jungle and now Spielberg and his long-term writer David Koepp made the brave move of taking them out of the jungle. I thought it worked really well and transitioned The Lost World into monster movie territory, something that Crichton himself had tried to avoid by introducing so much science into his novels. Yet audiences did not embrace this decision. I know The Lost World was a film about dinosaurs in the 20th century and a certain suspension of disbelief must be recognised, but a lot of the audience just couldn’t reconcile themselves with the idea of dinosaurs on the mainland and many agreed with Malcolm’s own line of dialogue directed at Ludlow – “taking dinosaurs off this island is the worst idea in the long sad history of bad ideas.” I never had a problem with it and personally I love the shot of the T-Rex roaring into the night with the lights of San Diego in the distance. It may not have been executed terribly well on this occasion but the concept of dinosaurs in civilisation was returned to in Jurassic World and was greeted with universal approval. It may just have been that the timing was against The Lost World. If it and Jurassic Park III had swapped places I think that The Lost World would be more highly regarded today than it is.
With all those pluses and minuses examined, I still feel that The Lost World is a worthy match for its illustrious predecessor. It didn’t work in 1997 because it wasn’t Jurassic Park and unfortunately that is exactly what audiences were looking for. Jurassic Park will always be the better film but for me The Lost World offers far more fun than any of the other three. It might not sit neatly with the other island-bound entries in the series but I think The Lost World deserves another shot simply because it tried to be something different. Its major failing is that it also tried to be Jurassic Park and fell between these two stools and instead of being something totally unique it became a mishmash of ideas from both books and the original film. The series endured though and audiences are expecting the fifth instalment in 2018. Just like Ian Malcolm said, “life will find a way.”
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