saving the lost world

When word came in that Jurassic World would effectively ignore the previous two installments in the Jurassic Park franchise and act as a direct sequel to the 1993 original, fans rejoiced. Like the Terminator and Alien franchises, which have and are currently employing similar strategies, the Jurassic Park franchise is in the paradoxical position of being a beloved property of which fans generally disapprove. The selective sequelling strategy is opportune then, as it takes all the best qualities of the reboot approach (a clean slate for storytelling, free from years of convoluted back-story and narrative detours) while circumventing its drawbacks (telling the origin all over again). The James Bond series has been doing this since its inception, and only ever to its benefit, but it can create its own form of convolution – certain movies being “less canon” than others and all the headaches that qualified absolute phrase inspires – and it runs the risk of measuring a movie’s worth solely on its narrative relevance to a larger franchise, instead of on its own artistic and historical merits.

1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his 1993 blockbuster, is not in dire need of defense or resurrection. It was a major Hollywood studio production that turned into a major box-office hit, it spawned a galaxy of merchandise, it fared decently with critics, and it was nominated for an Academy Award. But as evidenced by its reputation amongst the people currently in charge of the Jurassic Park property, it’s a movie held in much lower esteem than its predecessor, generally regarded as an inferior and forgettable sequel to an all-time classic. The shadow of Jurassic Park is not an easy one to thrive under, its landmark achievement in computer-generated effects, coupled with its iconic suspense sequences, will forever make it the essential entry into the franchise. But when divorced from its (not-insignificant) technical accomplishments and setpieces, Jurassic Park has little to say for itself, the initial criticisms about its flat characterizations and underdeveloped story all the more glaring upon contemporary viewings. There’s nothing resembling Spielberg’s restraint in Jaws, which held off on revealing its shark for a good hour, not only building suspense but also a solid, character-based foundation for its scares. Jurassic Park has significantly more interest in its dinosaurs than it does its humans, and while The Lost World also wastes no time in getting to the dinosaurs, and at times too bluntly attempts to recall or upstage its predecessor, its strongest elements are those that set it apart entirely – not only from the original, but from Spielberg’s prior filmography. Where the first Jurassic Park is entirely of a piece with Spielberg’s earlier work – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones movies, etc. – The Lost World is the first of its kind for the director, a rough draft of the form of filmmaking he’d perfect come the new millennium.

The Lost World was Spielberg’s first movie to begin production after what was by far his most somber work to date, 1993’s holocaust drama Schindler’s List. Schindler’s List had hung around Spielberg for nearly a decade, as he tried to pass the project along to other directors, unsure of his ability to handle the weight and scope of the story. Production didn’t begin until MCA-Universal president Sid Sheinberg agreed to finance the project, on the condition that Spielberg film Jurassic Park first. “He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park,” Spielberg said, and thanks to The Lost World, we don’t have to imagine how the reverse would have played out.

The Lost World marked Spielberg’s second collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom he worked first on Schindler’s List and every release up to and including the forthcoming Bridge of Spies and The BFG.  Kaminski’s trademark shadows and sunlight set the film apart from its colorful and broadly-lit predecessor, the theme-park-artifice and majestic framing of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park traded out for a murkier and more organic palette, and compositions that often obscure the total grandeur of the dinosaurs, opting to make them more a part of the scene rather than the focus of it. Likewise, production designer Rick Carter and the costume department follow suit, using dirt, grime, and rust in place of shiny metallic surfaces, the khaki and camouflage disappearing (as it should) into the environment. Even composer John Williams, who has sometimes been known to wield his baton like a bludgeon, is relatively restrained here, holding off the original’s iconic theme until the last moments of the film.
Spielberg and company no longer bore the burden of making the dinosaur movie as they did with Jurassic Park, and as such could afford to tone down the roller-coaster bombast, though this may have hurt the film in the long run. Though it made a very respectable $618 million at the worldwide box office, its middling critical reception and diminishing reputation since is likely rooted it being perceived as a mere “monster movie,” as Roger Ebert noted. “Where is the awe?” he asked, and save for a few trademark Spielberg gazes and a killer shot of the T.Rex roaring in front of the San Diego skyline, there is indeed little awe to be found.

Yet what weakens the film more now are its callbacks to the original material and its reticence to fully conform to its aesthetic darkness. There was prescience in Sheinberg’s belief that Spielberg wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park after Schindler’s List, but Spielberg was less willing to admit it, even after the four-year hiatus between Schindler and The Lost World (the longest break of his career). “I wanted to step in the shallow end and get used to the water. I wanted to do something familiar,” he told Peter Biskind, though this didn’t quite work to his liking, as later on he would say he found himself asking, “Is that all there is? It’s not enough for me,” during the shoot.

Spielberg is his most restless in the film’s familiar moments, either in the sequel-typical “one more time” opening scenes, or in sequences that have direct equivalents in Jurassic Park.   Having all of its expositional heavy-lifting done in the first installment, The Lost World cuts right to the chase. Park founder and former InGen CEO John Hammond (Richad Attenborough) hires Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm to go Isla Sorna, the so-called “Site B” where the park’s dinosaurs were bred and continue to thrive without human interference. Malcolm is incredulous at the proposal, sarcastically batting down Hammond’s enthusiasm and abrupt shift in character – “So you went from capitalist to naturalist in just four years. That’s – that’s something.” (He stops just short of turning to the camera and rolling his eyes. See Ray Winstone-as-Spielberg facing down the camera and shrugging “I’m a capitalist, and they pay,” in Indiana Jones in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Malcolm – publically humiliated after his account of the park got him laughed out the scientific community – only agrees to the mission when he learns that his zoologist girlfriend Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already on the island and thus susceptible to danger. It’s not an accident that Jurassic Park’s least enchanted character has taken the lead here. Not only was Malcolm’s ironic commentary the original film its best means of making its absurdities palatable, Goldblum is especially gifted at turning the blandest dialog into the most inventive line readings this side of Christopher Walken, and David Koepp’s script has no shortage of clunkers.

The film’s first major suspense sequence is a conscious evocation of Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attack. Our heroes – Malcolm, Sarah, Malcolm’s stowaway daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), along with engineer Eddie Carr and documentarian/environmental activist Nick Van Owen (Richard Schiff and Vince Vaughn, respectively) – realize that they are not the lone expedition on the island. Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), current InGen CEO and Hammond’s nephew, has brought along a team of big game hunters and scientists in order to track and bag a Tyrannosaurus Rex for display in San Diego. Under the advisement of international game hunter Roland Tembo (the late, great Pete Postlethwaite), they have captured a baby T-Rex as bait. When Sarah and Nick free it and return it to their RV for medical attention, they attract the vengeful ire of not just one, but both Tyrannosaur parents. The scene directly evokes its counterpart sequence in Jurassic Park – rippling water set to distant booms, dinosaur eyes peering right into windows, shattering glass, toppling vehicles, a thunderstorm – and it delivers the goods, especially when the RV is sent dangling over the edge of cliff and Sarah is stuck on the slowly cracking rear window. It’s Hollywood’s premiere action filmmaker shooting a literal cliffhanger, but it also smacks of the self-conscious, uninspired, one-upping endemic to sequels – two T-Rexes instead of one, Eddie ripped in half by the dinosaurs in a long take while Jurassic Park merely plucked a man off a toilet – and the shoehorned comic relief – angry Spanish-speaking radio dispatchers, the dangling heroes requesting cheeseburgers along with the rope – doesn’t help any.

The jokes are duds and delivered with fleeting commitment, and they pervade the rest of the film, including the cringeworthy moment in which Kelly employs middle-school gymnastics to kick a velociraptor out of a window. But what darkness there is The Lost World is rooted and potent, and all the more so for how jarringly it stands next to the perfunctory light moments. What’s unique about the attack scene is what puts it in motion. The rexes and raptors in Jurassic Park were solely motivated by their predatorial instincts, no different from the shark in Jaws. Here the Tyrannosaurs have a personal stake in matters, and a distinctly Spielbergian one at that. The core objective of nearly every Spielberg plot from ET to Empire of the Sun to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has been to protect and/or reunite the family unit, more often than not in the form of a rescue mission. While Malcolm only agrees to travel to Isla Sorna when he learns that Sarah is there, and the stakes are raised when he discovers that his teenage daughter has snuck along for the ride, these threats to the family unit are a false lead. Malcolm finds Sarah mere moments after setting foot on the island’s shores, and Kelly is rarely out of the protective reach of her guardians. The real family under threat in The Lost World is that of island’s nuclear T-Rex unit, and when the injured baby squeals in pain the audience is meant to empathize. The conflict of the attack is thus considerably less clear-cut than its counterpart in Jurassic Park, as two families try to protect themselves, their mutual provocateur absent from the showdown. These murkier stakes don’t readily endear the movie to viewers the way the first film did, but the attack sequence is hardly a lesser effort in scares and suspense, and it packs a more provocative punch. When the Rex parents nab Eddie, his death is more unsettling than any in the first film, not so much because Eddie is an innocent, but because the brutality has an emotional and righteous motive.

Their equipment sent over a cliff and their engineer ripped to shreds, the heroes have no choice but to join Ludlow and the mercenaries in their search for a way off the island. While the stakes in this stretch are at times more conventional (raptors don’t need an excuse to kill), the invitation to root for the humans isn’t so plain as it was before. Where Jurassic Park could not imagine a human menace greater than its carnivorous creatures, The Lost World does – as per this exchange between Tembo and Malcolm: “My point is, predators don’t hunt when they’re not hungry.” “Yeah, only humans do.”

In adapting Jurassic Park to the screen, Spielberg and Koepp made numerous changes to Michael Crichton’s novel, one of the more crucial being in the characterization of John Hammond. Crichton, ever skeptical of the influence profit-chasing suits had over science and medicine, painted Hammond in the manner he did most executives – arrogant, miserly, and near-Machiavellian in his pursuit of capital.  Nevertheless, Hammond is a shameless dreamer and a benevolent family man, something that no doubt resonated with Spielberg.  The film’s Hammond is thus written more as foil than antagonist, somewhere between Francois Truffaut’s Claude Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (an authority figure whose nominal opposition to the hero is trumped by a mutual sense of idealism) and Jaws‘s Mayor Vaughn (whose penny-pinching is cast aside once his family is threatened).  Consequently, Jurassic Park on film has no major human antagonist.  Wayne Knight’s computer professional/bumbling idiot Dennis Nedry comes the closest, but he’s merely a figure to set the main conflict in motion – once he’s disabled the park’s security systems, his function is fulfilled and he is promptly killed off.

The Lost World differs even more dramatically from its source material, but in a sense remains more faithful to Crichton’s Jurassic Park by grafting the negative qualities of the novel’s Hammond onto Ludlow. Ludlow stinks of villainy the moment he walks on-screen, all faux-aristocratic body language and condescending dialog (“This suit costs more than your education.”). His money-grubbing arrogance, coupled with his willful ignorance of the catastrophic events of the last film (and the last act of King Kong, for that matter) pits him as the film’s unambiguous villain. On the second tier stands Postlethwaite’s Tembo, less enchanted by money, forgoing payment for an opportunity to hunt a T-Rex. Together they personify the twin failures Spielberg considered The Lost World’s themes: “the failure of people to find restraints in themselves and the failure of morality to protect these animals.” Bold words for a fast-tracked sequel to a movie about a dinosaur island, perhaps, but words nevertheless confirmed within the film.

Human and moral failures abound in The Lost World, inciting Spielberg’s passions more than any other element of the film, and informing its grimmest sequences. Crichton afforded Hammond a cruel but karmic death in the Jurassic Park novel, having him eaten alive by compsognathi after attempting to flee the site. Spielberg eased up, seeing it as punishment enough for Hammond to have a few dead souls on his conscience and witness the collapse of his dream. No longer so intent on forgiveness, Spielberg employs poetic justice with a vengeance The Lost World. After observing a harmless compy of which he is told has “no reason…to fear man” Dieter Stark, Tembo’s cruel and drunk right-hand man (Peter Stormare) coldly torments it with his cattle prod, slurring “Now it does.” Later, when relieving himself in a river, Stark again encounters the compys, now traveling in a large pack. Though the scene initially casts them as more of a slapstick-inspiring nuisance, the longer the scene goes on (and it is long), the tone shifts. Stark is lost, helpless, and sauced, and the compys are hungry and aware of his vulnerability. Pathetic as Stark is, Spielberg has no sympathy for him and lets him die a protracted and audibly gruesome death, the director’s allegiances wholly with the dinosaurs. When the heroes discover the caged and wounded dinosaurs in Ludlow’s camp, there’s real empathy in how Spielberg shoots them, scarcely different from the unjustly contained and hospitalized titular alien in E.T. The difference here is that these creatures have an appetite for humans, and Spielberg provides them with a full buffet.

When the transported T-Rex is running amok in San Diego in the film’s climax, Ludlow is shocked and remorseful to the point of near-catatonia, and Malcolm-as-narrator drives the point home by bluntly telling him “Now you’re John Hammond.” (Even he, it seems, was conscious of the re-casting.) Though T-Rex is deadly and destructive in its rampage, Spielberg inflects the entire sequence with comedy. Japanese tourists run and scream a-la Godzilla, a Phillips-76 gas station globe rolls down the street in a quick nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a family screams in terror as the T-Rex devours the family dog in their backyard, a micro dino-edition of Poltergeist. Spielberg doesn’t grieve the losses of any civilians, even those who haven’t transgressed against the dinosaurs. The conflict of this sequence is again the separation of the family, and it finds its resolution not in the defeat of the T-Rex, but in the dino’s reunion with its kidnapped child. Moreover, the guilt-wrecked Ludlow isn’t let off the hook post-reunion. The parental Rex corners Ludlow in the cargo hold, briefly eases off, and lets the child finish the job in what is presumably its first kill.

Cosmic justice was no stranger to the Spielberg canon prior to The Lost World – the villains in the Indiana Jones films all get their just desserts in exceptionally graphic fashion – but rarely had he characterized villains with such cynicism. The Nazis and cultists of the Jones movies are oddball maniacs, the government agents of E.T. faceless and ultimately harmless, and Hook a literal mustache-twirler – always in the minority, never the majority.  The shift in characterization for Spielberg’s antagonists found its ferment four years earlier in Schindler’s List.  Though the film drew some criticism for making its central Nazi (Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth) a temperamental sociopath instead of a compliant soldier or rationalizing bureaucrat, the film is nevertheless cognizant of the more insidious strains in society that perhaps better typified Nazism and allowed it to thrive.  Schindler himself is initially an opportunistic capitalist intent on exploiting Jews for cheap labor, and the pervasiveness of Nazi ideology is harrowingly exemplified in a pre-teen blonde girl who taunts “Goodbye Jews!” to the citizens rounded up in the Krakow ghetto. Spielberg later referred to the shooting as “unbearable,” the cast and crew facing anti-Semitic graffiti and off-camera abuse from unrepentant locals (all whilst living among recreations of Plaszow and Auschwitz of their own making, no less).

This is not to say that Spielberg inflected every subsequent film with Holocaust metaphor, or that The Lost World’s hubristic scientists and businessmen should be read as Nazi analogues. Rather Ludlow, Stark, and the mercenaries demonstrate a shift away from the abnormal madmen of Spielberg prior, enabled now by capitalism and emblematic of the imperial tendencies once equally associated with his protagonists. The heroic crew of the Orca in Jaws has no reservations about hunting the shark in its natural habitat, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes off as a paean to white colonialism, and the central failing of the titular Jurassic Park isn’t so much that the dinosaurs are caged, but that cages are inadequate. In and of themselves the aforementioned movies and their brethren don’t engage with these issues directly, much of their success derived from their narrow focus and consequent immediacy of their stakes. Post-Schindler, global and historical implications could no longer be ignored in Spielberg’s work, thus muddying the once clear-cut morality that defined his filmmaking. The shift is clear in the films that flank Schindler’s List – in Jurassic Park and The Lost World, Hammond and Ludlow have near-identical occupations and goals, but one is a hero while the other is a villain.

In the films that followed, the once unambiguous villains of his work were supplanted by characters with sinister motives inexorable from their social authority, morally grey counteractors, and faceless forces of destruction. Minority Report’s Lamar Burgess is the corrupt inventor of the system by which the hero lives, the family is threatened equally by aliens as they are humans in War of the Worlds, and the line between terrorism and counter-terrorism is blurred beyond distinction in Munich. Moreover, the heroic Spielberg surrogates once exemplified by dreamers like Close Encounters’ Roy Neary and Hook’s Peter Banning become harder to find, and less romanticized once identified, as when Frank Abignale Jr.’s twin pursuit of family and adventure in Catch Me If You Can ultimately leads him to neither. It all begins with Ian Malcolm in The Lost World, disenchanted and impervious to awe, and Tembo and his trophy-collecting mercenaries, whose reverence for their quarry and irreverence for international law is only steps removed from that of globetrotting pillager Indiana Jones.

The central thesis of Schindler’s List, communicated by Ben Kingsley’s Stern in its final moments, as well as by one of its taglines, is a phrase from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” Before Schindler, Spielberg seemed to believe this without question, but as it has been mentioned, the state of the “world entire” never took precedence over the “life of one.”  E.T.‘s presence is scarcely felt outside of the suburbs, the collapse of Imperial Japan after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Empire of the Sun is primarily an instigator for Jim’s family reunion, and Indiana Jones and friends stop the Nazis from acquiring powerful ancient relics, but prevent little else. In The Lost World and what follows, the weight of the world entire grows heavier and heavier, the victories harder won and their voids more nakedly exposed. Cinque and his attorneys win him his freedom from slavery in Amistad but he returns to Africa to find his family gone and presumably sold off, and while Saving Private Ryan might be the “one decent thing” the men do in that “whole god-awful shitty mess,” it warrants numerous casualties that haunt Ryan into old age. The family reunions that were once the hero’s great reward turned into mere consolation prizes amidst the endemic corruption, violence, destruction, and extinction respectively found in Minority Report, Munich, War of the Worlds, and AI.

Depending on one’s perspective, The Lost World is either a light movie with dark moments or a dark movie with light moments. While its status as a PG-13 dinosaur blockbuster with gymnastics jokes would suggest the former, Spielberg’s subsequent directorial work confirms the latter. The story concludes with the Tyrannosaur family safely reunited on Isla Sorna, which Hammond and the Costa Rican government have officially declared a nature preserve. Hammond offers the film’s thesis in the closing moments: “These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help. And if we could only step aside and trust in nature, life will find a way.” He’s directly quoting one of Malcolm’s lines from in the first film, but there’s a small but crucial difference. The “if” that precedes it casts the phrase less as a logical truth as it did coming from Malcolm and something closer to “life might find a way” – an apt summary of the nagging problem at the heart of Spielberg’s later films, most of which could neatly bear The Lost World as a subtitle. More so than its predecessor, whose name can be rattled off next to its thrill-ride siblings without a pause, The Lost World at times appears lost in the filmography of Steven Spielberg. But at this vantage, as it marks the near halfway-point of his career, it’s a portrait of both who the director was and who he has become – an uneven but compelling work by a confident director atypically unsure of his standing, one foot hoping to stay in the shallow end, the other ready to jump into deep, dark waters. While on its surface a folly, the experiment was both noble and necessary – it may have come at a cost, but life found a way.


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