Once Bitten, Twice Shy 

Leapin' lizards, little else in "The Lost World"

Leapin' lizards, little else in "The Lost World"

There was a time when sequels weren’t sequels per se. Patrons would line up at their local cinema for the latest adventures of Blondie or Andy Hardy, and though the films were formulaic, there were no big Roman numerals to cue the audience that they were eating leftovers. The numbers game started in the 1970s, with Jaws and Rocky, and it flourished in the ’80s, when it seemed every blockbuster and B-movie had a second installment waiting in the wings. The public quickly became cynical about the whole process, to the point where even the least media-saturated consumers would look at the movie ads on the weekend and snort, “I can’t believe it, they made another Problem Child.”

Steven Spielberg has always steered carefully away from the sequel trap, with the exception of his Indiana Jones films (more a throwback to the adventure-driven serials of yore than the marketing phenomena of late). His acquiescence to the idea of a sequel to Jurassic Park was said to be driven by two things: first, by the many letters from children, who asked that he not abandon the dinosaurs the way he abandoned E.T.; second, by his own desire to give Jurassic Park his full focus (rather than the divided attention it received in the year of Schindler’s List), and to tell a more compelling story about man’s relationship to his dwindling natural resources.

Ergo The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which anchors this year’s summer movie season the way its predecessor anchored 1993’s. Spielberg and writer David Koepp bring back Jeff Goldblum’s funny, voice-of-doom Ian Malcolm character from the first film, setting him on a second island of bio-engineered dinosaurs that have run amok from their creators. Joining Malcolm are his girlfriend (Julianne Moore), his stowaway daughter (Vanessa Lee Chester), and a videographer (Vince Vaughn); also on the island are a pack of hunters (led by Pete Postlethwaite, who steals the movie as always), who are out to trap “the animals” and bring them back to America for exhibit at a San Diego theme park.

As a standalone entity—as a breezy summer’s entertainment—The Lost World works just fine. It’s exciting and scary in healthy doses, and it has moments of humor and charm. Unfortunately, sequels do not stand alone. The very problem of releasing a sequel is that a filmmaker runs the risk of cheapening his original. Sadly, Spielberg has done just that.

The first problem is that Spielberg has listened too closely to his critics (namely those same preadolescent letter writers), who complained that Jurassic Park was too slow and took too long to get to the dinosaurs. So instead of the first film’s grandiose buildup, which was filled with science, philosophy, and teasing glimpses of what was to come, we get an in medias res mishmash of furious, confusing action and rattled-off dialogue passing for backstory. The result is the same, only now, by the time we get to the excitement, we’re fed up with Jeff Goldblum’s incessant “No, no, won’t you listen” patter, and we halfway hope that our hero gets eaten first.

Although there are more dinosaurs in The Lost World, they seem diminished without the awed faces of Sam Neill and Laura Dern—Moore and Vaughn don’t seem awed so much as stoned—and without the benevolent evil of Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, the billionaire who dreamed up the dinos. Attenborough appears briefly in the sequel, but the misguided entrepreneur in this film is his nephew (Arliss Howard), who is traditionally bad in a rinky-dink way. With the exception of Postlethwaite, the motley crew of good guys and bad guys seems hardly worth terrorizing, and when the beasts are finally unleashed, the effect is like watching the Olympic Dream Team beat up on Greece.

To give Spielberg credit, he does reel off some good, spine-tingling scenes and images—better than what we usually get from big-budget Hollywood, which has deemphasized the poetic in favor of the jittery. The opening scene, involving an unwitting family set upon by a pack of “compys” (1-foot-tall dinosaurs with razor-sharp beaks), is genuinely unsettling. Elsewhere, there are masterful shots of a window cracking as Moore lies flat against it (counting on the glass to keep her from falling to her death) and of a terrifying velociraptor attack, which is bookended by two great shots: an overhead glimpse of raptor tails snaking through high grass, and an unexpected lunge that rivals the “raptor leaping into the ceiling” shocker of film one.

The only big flaw in Jurassic Park—its disappointing lack of a third act—is remedied here by a grand finale on the mainland, as a T-Rex terrorizes San Diego and Spielberg gets to revisit the car-smashing and suburban subversion of early films like The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters. The climax is too jokey and cluttered, but it does provide a more satisfying closure than the first film’s abrupt tyrannos ex machina.

But Spielberg never fulfills his goal of making a challenging point about man and nature, and therein lies the film’s undoing. Spielberg and Koepp set up a conflict between the scientists’ desire to study an undisturbed natural habitat and the hunters’ desire to conquer it and win trophies, but the director and the writer can’t reconcile the many contradictions in their scenario: The scientists do too much disturbing of their own, and Postlethwaite’s hunter seems too noble to doubt. Ultimately, the debate is rendered moot when T-Rex is attacking. Even when the filmmakers try to earn the beast some sympathy by giving her a missing baby to seek, we still want the monster put down.

The Lost World is by no means a bad movie; it’s just quality hackwork, with no special charge to convince the audience that it had to be made. Rather than continuing the story in a meaningful way, or finding a fresh angle on the material, the creators fall into the standard sequel rut of repeating bits of business that worked the first time around (and thereby rendering those original bits less special). Had Spielberg and company been wittier in purpose, they would have made more of the story’s most obvious irony: John Hammond’s nephew exploits the old man’s dream in hopes of squeezing a few more bucks out of a good idea. In The Lost World, the filmmakers have done the same.

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