REVIEW: The Lost World: Jurassic Park [1997]

Rating: 3 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 129 minutes
    Release Date: May 23rd, 1997 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Steven Spielberg
    Writer(s): David Koepp / Michael Crichton (novel)

So you went from capitalist to naturalist in just four years. That’s something.

It’s one thing for a movie to spawn a sequel for no other reason than money—especially at the Hollywood level where the capitalistic gains of producers usurp the artistic worth of its creators. But it’s another to ask the artist who spawned the property to go down that bankrupt well with them. This is exactly what happened when the time came to follow-up the smash hit Jurassic Park, however. The original book was a bestseller that only needed three years to find its way onto the big screen courtesy of cinematic legend Steven Spielberg and the technical wizardry of his friend George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic. And within just two more years Spielberg talked author Michael Crichton into rushing a continuation he never desired to write.

We know this because he killed the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm without pause in his prose. Crichton’s story of a billionaire philanthropist (John Hammond) dreaming up an amusement park with genetically re-engineered dinosaurs long-since extinct was meant to end with an exasperated gulp of air taken by those lucky few who survived to tell their tale and ensure the monsters never hurt anyone else. And the film adaptation embraced that course of action besides its decision to let Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) live. So now Crichton had to work his magic to bring a dead man back to life and craft a new chapter around him that was convoluted enough to con his skeptical pragmatist into returning to a world of nightmares he just barely escaped.

I remember laughing while reading his resurrection—my derisive joy the sole aspect of the book I’ve retained two decades later. I also recall finding Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp‘s (who shared credit with Crichton on its predecessor) The Lost World the epitome of how a pursuit for money can ruin a classic’s legacy. But I wondered if this revulsion was hyperbolic. Maybe I felt this way because I believed Crichton writing a sequel that catered to the movie instead of his creative intent was a cop-out. So I allowed myself an open mind to finally watch it again with the hope that time would provide the necessary hindsight. As soon as the end credits began to roll, however, I realized I might not have hated it enough.

This film plays out as though it was only ever a question: How do we move a dinosaur from Isla Nublar to mainland America? It seems a simple query deserving of an equally simple answer such as DNA traveling there first (Nedry couldn’t have been the only one trying to smuggle some off the Caribbean island for a third party). I guess the rejection of this avenue proves why the question wasn’t: What would happen if a dinosaur were set loose in America? The filmmakers (and I suppose Crichton) didn’t care about the latter’s Godzilla-like carnage as much as the continued hubristic drama that taking the scenic route would ultimately provide. In comes Isla Sorna—a secret sister site where more dinosaurs were unleashed with full autonomy.

Now a gratuitous cameo from Hammond (Richard Attenborough) himself (along with a quick glimpse of grandkids Tim and Lex) shows a man trying to save face by sending a team of researchers there with the sole purpose of showing the beasts can exist naturally without humanity worrying about destroying them. He’s already recruited photographer Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), tech man Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), and Behavioral Paleontologist Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore). Knowing the latter was Ian Malcolm’s current squeeze becomes Hammond’s way of blackmailing his old “friend” into doing the exact thing he never wanted to do: go back. With Malcolm’s young stowaway of a daughter (Vanessa Chester‘s Kelly) rounding out the quintet, they eventually find their peaceful—albeit dangerous—quest comes with party crashers.

Those arrive in the form of Hammond’s nephew’s (Arliss Howard‘s Peter Ludlow) team of hunters and extractors. After wresting control of InGen away from the elder statesman, Ludlow seeks to turn a profit by bring “Jurassic Park” to San Diego so his prospective customers can cut down on travel expenses. With him is big game poacher Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) and a crew of mercenary-like personalities including Peter Stormare‘s Dieter Stark). What this all means is that we have our good versus evil fight regardless of the fact massive dinosaurs able to take them out with a sneeze should be conflict enough. An hour of overlong set pieces and boring character reveals with explosions to boot later and the main plot of survival finally kicks in.

Who cares by that point, though? All that time gets spent and only one person dies. To make matters worse, most of the high drama is intentionally subverted by Malcolm’s inability to bite his lip and not ignore his dire straits for a knee-jerk quip. A Tyrannosaurus Rex can be bearing down on them or they could be screaming the name of someone seconds from death and he still can’t help himself from smugly throwing a barb of comedy. Most of these instances are genuinely funny, but at what cost? With action sequences often devoid of action in lieu of half-baked attempts at suspense from drawing out the inevitable “close shave” to eye-rolling lengths, taking us out of what little tension is present does the film no favors.

It’s not long before the only two characters of any substance are Kelly (she’s not supposed to be there) and Tembo (the one person who understood the risk and dove in head-first because of it). She’s unpredictable because she’s innocent and he’s complex because he doesn’t want anyone to die (besides the male T-Rex for which the permission to kill was negotiated as his fee). But these two are periphery figures at best. They’re distractions and/or dinosaur food while the altruistic Malcolm and Harding work towards standing toe-to-toe against Ludlow’s sleaze ball opportunist. That means the second hour consists of thirty minutes of mindless killing to cut the chaff and thirty more of what we came to see: a metropolitan city under siege by a ten-metric ton carnivore.

So where’s the intellectual science fiction? Gone. Where’s the humanity of personal arcs driven by emotional evolution? Gone. Spielberg has taken a timeless blockbuster he helped create and turned it into a hollow thrill-ride devoid of any real thrills since the only character we know as more than a two-dimensional stereotype is a smart mouth that Crichton’s gut was correct to kill the first time out. Who will survive? Malcolm, obviously—you don’t bring someone back from the dead only to kill him again before the finish. The rest are inconsequential pawns unless they can assist in pushing him out of harm’s way. So say goodbye to stakes and forget about receiving a story worth even half the runtime The Lost World is afforded. We got conned too.

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