Review: The Lost World: Jurassic Park

lostworld

You know something has gone horribly wrong with your action-adventure movie when you’re left thinking how much better it would have been if they had just cut out the ‘heroes’ entirely and made the entire movie about the ‘villains.’

The story: four years after the events of Jurassic Park we find Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) visiting John Hammond (Richard Attenburough). Malcolm, we learn, has hit hard times due to his insistence on telling the truth about what happened on Isla Nublar, which InGen, Hammond’s company, preferred to cover up, an effort headed by Hammond’s snooty nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard). Hammond then tells Malcolm that there was another island, Isla Sorna, in which the animals were actually bred before being shipped to the island. After the events on Nublar, Sorna (Site B) was abandoned and the animals left to die in the wild. Instead, they survived and formed their own ecosystem on the island, an ecosystem Ludlow intends to ‘exploit’ to recoup the loses from Jurassic Park. To counter him, Hammond intends to send a team to document the dinosaurs to build up public opinion to keep their habitat untouched. Malcolm is initially adamant against this idea, until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already on the island.

Rushing the team – comprised of photographer/ecoterrorist Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn) and field equipment specialist Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) – to the island to rescue her, Malcolm finds Sarah studying stegosaurs and casually dismissing all his concerns, implying that they’re outdated and sexist (!). The argument is interrupted first by the appearance of Malcolm’s semi-estranged daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), who turns out to have stowed away in their high-tech trailer, and then by the arrival of another team from InGen, this one led by Ludlow and commanded by Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite giving what is easily the film’s best performance). This one has come to capture the dinosaurs and rounds up a number of herbivores. That night, Nick and Sarah sabotage their camp and release the dinosaurs, destroying most of their equipment. They also find an injured infant tyrannosaurus and decide to take it back to their trailer for medical attention…

Their brains are the size of a walnut, just like the stegosaurs you can see in the background.

Their brains are the size of a walnut, just like the stegosaurs you can see in the background.

Now, I’m sure you can see the main flaw just in that brief description. Honestly, didn’t anyone involved in this picture stop to think “wait a second; ever single death in the movie is the direct fault of our supposed heroes!

They don’t even try to disguise it; Sarah and Nick sneak into the camp and release the dinosaurs, who proceed to trash all the high-tech equipment InGen brought (you’d think at least some of it would have survived). This is what strands the teams, this is what leads to the many horrible deaths…and they’re praised for it! Nick even tells the mercenaries that, because of their plans, they ‘have no rights’ (this, incidentally, comes immediately after the ‘bad guys’ save him and offer their assistance).

And what is the villains’ evil scheme? To capture some of these (extinct, artificially-resurrected) animals and put them in a zoo. Quelle horreur!

Let’s think about this for a second (something the writers obviously didn’t do). First of all, Ludlow’s claim that “an extinct animal that’s been brought back to life has no rights” is not at all unreasonable. It could be argued with, and I don’t think I’d agree, but it’s not unreasonable. InGen made these creatures, and made them specifically to show and turn a profit. Why is it so unconscionable for them to try to follow through on that plan?

For those who aren’t convinced by the above, there’s this. We’re talking about the most endangered creatures in the world here; a single ecosystem of a dozen different species isolated on a small island. Most of these species have double or even single digit populations. All it would take is a small plague to hit the island and suddenly brachiosaurus is back in the museums. Heck, it wouldn’t even take that! If the T-Rex population starts expanding (you know, beyond the current three), it’s going to be bad news for some of the prey species.

The simple and obvious fact is that a life in captivity is the best chance of survival for most of these species. Not only would it give those particular individuals protection from predators, natural disasters, and disease, but they could be then bred and either reintroduced into the wild (on another island, or back on that same one) or sold off to other zoos. That way, not only would the overall populations increase, but the temptation to take animals off the island – i.e. the very thing the heroes are trying to prevent – would be consequently reduced. If it’s a choice between a very expensive and dangerous recovery mission and a very expensive living animal, most people will choose the latter.

Then again, the heroes’ plan makes no sense. Hammond wants to rally public opinion to preserve Isla Sorna as is and leave the dinosaurs in peace (by documenting the dinosaurs in their “natural habitat,” conveniently forgetting that their natural habitat has been gone for sixty-five million years). But documenting living dinosaurs is probably more likely to produce the desire to go and see them in person, so far from preventing InGen’s plans he’s more likely to be encouraging them (“look at these awesome dinosaurs! Don’t you agree they should be left completely isolated so that you’ll never actually see them?”).

Not only that, but say they succeed; say he manages to stop InGen from capturing and displaying the dinosaurs (which, again, they created). What’s to prevent someone else from going to the island to do the exact same thing? Does Hammond intend to station eco-terrorists on the island 24-7? Once word gets out that there are living dinosaurs on this island, all the public opinion in the world isn’t going to prevent a stampede of people to capture them and put them on display…unless, of course, they have a safer and more convenient alternative, as outlined above.

Realistically, it ought to be obvious that the scenario Hammond is trying to prevent is inevitable and the best he could hope to do is control and curtail it.

In short, the ‘heroes’ are both criminally indifferent (at best, since they clearly don’t care that their actions are almost certain to get people killed) and incredibly stupid and short-sighted (since they’re making things worse for the dinosaurs long-term). So, basically your typical environmentalists. In contrast, the worst that could be said about the bad guys is that they’re a little rough with the animals. The five-ton animals that could kill them with a careless movement.

Again, neither Nick nor Sarah nor Malcolm ever express any remorse or regret over the dozens of deaths that they are directly responsible for, and the only time they are confronted with that responsibility is a single line of dialogue from Roland which is passed over almost immediately (and which Nick answers by accusing them of “strip-mining the place.” Even if that weren’t a gross hyperbole, that still wouldn’t justify him endangering all their lives!). Actually, the ‘villains’ are a lot more pleasant and forgiving towards our heroes than they have any right to be; they immediately take them into their party, offering help and protection to the very people who caused their predicament. And in return, they get nothing but smug, self-righteous accusations and continued endangerment; Nick keeps trying to sabotage their weapons and Sarah is too stupid to take off the jacket covered in blood! Meanwhile, Roland and Ludlow are nothing but solicitous, offering help and concern for their welfare at every turn.

In the original, the human characters were, if not especially deep, at least genuine and likeable enough that you worried about them. Here the most likeable characters are the ostensible bad guys, whom the so-called heroes deliberately place in danger time and time again. This represents such a gigantic misstep that it would be enough to singlehandedly sink the movie even if everything else worked.

But it doesn’t. Outside of Malcolm and Roland, the characters are almost all horrible. Sarah, as noted, is a moron. We hear all about how capable and experienced she is, but the very first thing we see her do is to go right up close to a baby stegosaurus and rub her hands all over it, sparking a stampede. Come on, Boy Scouts are taught not to do stuff like that!

Animals just love it when their young smell like human.

Animals just love it when their young smell like human.

Not only that, but, as noted, she keeps wearing the jacket soaked in blood while trekking through Tyrannosaur territory, even though she was the one who warned about the T-Rex’s super-powerful sense of smell. Worst of all, even in the midst of all this, she still takes it upon herself to lecture everyone else about how they can’t disturbed the animals, about how she’s right and everyone else is wrong and she gets praised for it! She’s the worst kind of self-righteous asshole, and she’s supposes to be the heroine.

Nick’s even worse, seeing as he’s the one who gets everyone else killed. He’s literally plays the exact same role as Nedry did in the original, except he does it for ‘environmental’ reasons so no one blames him for it. Add in that when he’s not playing the nature hero he acts like a frat-boy, and that the first thing he does after getting rescued by the mercenaries is to insult them and pick fights with them, which he continues to do throughout the movie (Roland, for his part, is unfailingly polite, making the whole thing even more obnoxious).

Kelly, meanwhile, is pretty much everything that Lex and Tim weren’t: obnoxious, whiney, and entitled. Worst of all, while poor Lex and Tim were simply caught in a bad situation through no fault of their own, Kelly got herself into this mess, which makes her presence even more infuriating.

Ludlow’s an unreconstructed caricature of an evil capitalist. The trouble is that, apart from being snooty and obnoxious, he never actually does anything evil. Almost none of the deaths of the film are his fault (except the ones in San Diego, which are, again, partially Nick and Sarah’s fault as well), and apart from some vague accusations that he helped cover up the first film’s accident he’s really guilty of nothing except wanting to build a zoo for profit. And in the end, he actually does show some remorse for his actions, more so than Nick or Sarah ever show. That’s right: the villain evinces more regret and sorrow over the consequences of his actions than the heroes do for their far greater culpability in many more horrible deaths.

One quasi exception is Eddie, who doesn’t have much screen time, but at least is amiable and decent enough and doesn’t participate in any of the, you know, terrorism. So, of course, he gets subjected to the most horrific death in the film due to the stupidity of his compatriots (whom he dies trying to save from the disaster that they caused). Then there’s Roland’s friend Ajay, who’s perfectly decent but since almost all of his scenes got cut he barely counts as a character. He dies horribly too.

"I can't think of any way this could possibly go wrong, can you?"

“I can’t think of any way this could possibly go wrong, can you?”

Remember how I complained that in the first film characters sometimes did really stupid things just because the script wanted them to die? The same thing happens here, except worse. For instance, if you have a secure, armored trailer to protect yourself from eight-ton predators, would you park it, say, in a nice defendable position near the beach, or right next to a hundred foot cliff overlooking the ocean!? Similarly, if you are going on a very dangerous expedition to a remote island, whether to hunt or to observe, would you a). arrange regular check-ins and an automatic pick-up should you lose contact, or b). just assume that nothing will go wrong with your equipment and that the one person in your team who speaks the same language as your rescue boat will always be around?

Even otherwise intelligent characters like Roland do stupid things just because the script says so; like the fact that Roland apparently doesn’t carry any extra rounds for his elephant gun, which he carries barrel-up in a driving rainstorm and leaves unattended next to the known-saboteur.

The supposedly hardened mercenaries go off to use the bathroom and get lost. They sleep without setting a watch (to the point that they don’t notice a Tyrannosaur entering their camp until someone wakes up and starts screaming) and move on without doing a head count. They leave their guns lying around and don’t check them afterwards (survival skills aside, that’s basic gun usage) and panic as soon as anything goes wrong. I mean, granted InGen is near Chapter 11 at this point, but you’d think they’d splurge a little here, rather than hiring the lowest bidder.

You know, between these guys, Nedry,  I’m starting to think InGen’s problems all stem from their HR Department. An examination of their hiring policies would seem to be in order here.

It’s not totally worthless. The dinosaurs themselves do what they can to class up the joint. The first scene with the stegosaurs is suitably impressive and Spielberg wisely settles for honoring rather than trying to repeat the grandeur of the first film’s brachiosaurus. There are some undeniably cool sequences, such as the big round-up scene where the ‘hunters’ chase and capture several herbivores, including a pachysephalasaurus and a parasaurolaphus.  A late sequence involving the velociraptors is overlong, but has its moments, including a darkly slapstick bit where Malcolm and a raptor end up knocking out all the windows of a shed as it tries to get at him, and a scene with Malcolm trapped in a car that tells me someone working on the movie had just seen Friday the 13th Part 3. This sequence is also preceded by perhaps the most striking image of the film; an overhead shot of the raptors approaching their prey through the long grass like torpedoes streaking through the water. As for the infamous San Diego sequence, on the one hand it’s arguably one of the stupidest bits in any major studio picture of the 1990s (which is saying something), but on the other it’s about the only time in the whole movie that the filmmakers appear to be having any fun. For that, I’m willing to give it a pass (right up until the needlessly cruel death they serve up for Ludlow – one of the few scenes lifted directly from the book, except there it happened to someone who actually deserved it).

"Now to find Jack Horner..."

“Now to find Jack Horner…”

And that’s another thing; the deaths here (and there are a lot of them) are almost all a lot meaner than the ones in the first film. There’s more vitriol, more “take that!” than we had last time, compounded by the fact that, with one exception (Roland’s asshole second-in-command, Dieter, played by Peter Stormare), all the characters who die here are basically ordinary, decent people just doing their jobs. In contrast, consider the deaths in the first film; Nedry and Gennaro both at least crossed a moral line and so their horrific deaths could be said to represent a kind of ‘poetic justice.’ And while Muldoon and Mr. Arnold didn’t do anything wrong, they were both killed by the velociraptors: the ‘villain’ dinosaurs. There really aren’t any ‘villain’ dinosaurs this time around; we’re still supposed to root for the T-Rex. This makes the fact that the dinos slaughter people by the dozen, usually in long, drawn-out ways, a lot more, well, uncomfortable than the deaths in the first film. Eddie’s death is a particularly dramatic example of this; it lasts a good minute or so, is especially gruesome, it’s directed against one of the most decent guys in the film, and it happens at the, er, hands of the dinosaur we’re supposed to ‘like.’ It’s practically a guide on how not to do a monster movie encapsulated in one scene.

Even the dinosaurs have lost some of their bite (sorry). The velociraptors are reduced to practically a cameo and none of the herbivores come close to the grandeur of the brachiosaurus. The Tyrannosaurs are front and center almost the whole time, but despite (or perhaps because of) a jacked-up body-count they never create the same impact as the one from the first film.

Let me explain: in the first film, when the Tyrannosaurus knocked over a car it seemed to take her some effort. She had to hit it a couple times before it flipped. Here, the Tyrannosaurs introduce themselves by sending an armored jeep flying with, apparently, a single blow. Do you see the problem? In the first film, we never doubted that the Tyrannosaur could do what she does, in part because we saw that it took some doing. She was believably powerful because the car was believably heavy. Here, where cars go flying when the T-Rex nudges them with his foot (seriously, that’s not an exaggeration; it happens), all we see is a bunch of special effects. It’s a similar dynamic to the fact that the stunts in classic Jackie Chan movies are much more impressive than the ones in, say, The Matrix because we believe that they could actually be done.

The only new dinosaurs who come close to having the impact that the ones in the first film did are, ironically enough, the tiny procompsognathus (‘compies’). They succeed due to the fact that they seem so cute and harmless, being about the size of a chicken and squeaking and chirping like birds. Then, before you know it, you’re being swarmed by dozens of them at once, like piranha. They’re genuinely unsettling creatures and, consequently, a film highlight.

This is where a "Please Do Not Feed the Dinosaurs" sign would really come in handy.

This is where a “Please Do Not Feed the Dinosaurs” sign would really come in handy.

There are really only two characters with any real meat to them: Jeff Goldblum provides a small window of likeability, relying on the audience good-will he has left over from the previous film. The fact that Malcolm is the only one who seems even remotely aware of how dangerous this whole thing is and keeps frantically trying to warn the others (especially Sarah) to take the damn dinosaurs seriously earns him a lot of audience surrogate points, enough that we are willing to overlook his tacit consent to the, you know, negligent homicide. I also like an early (and easily missed) line of his in which he angrily tells Ludlow that “There are no ‘versions’ of the truth!”

On the other hand, Malcolm has undoubtedly lost his edge. He’s no longer a ‘rock-star’ mathematician, swaggering around and lording his intelligence over everyone else. He’s…well, pretty much just Jeff Goldblum; he might as well have been reprising his role from Independence Day, the unique features of his character from the first movie almost all gone. I mentioned in the previous film that Malcolm acted as though he thought he was the hero. Here he actually is the hero, but doesn’t seem aware of it. Malcolm doesn’t mention Chaos Theory once, and only mentions mathematics or science at all a couple times in passing. Pretty much all he does is snark and try to get the idiots he’s saddled with to understand the situation they’re in. Granted, it’s reasonable that Malcolm would be considerably subdued by the events of the first film (and there are some fairly well-done allusions to that idea without making it specific), but if you’re going to strip so much of the character away, why bother bringing him back in the first place?

The other enjoyable character is Pete Posthlethwaite’s Roland, a classic aging Great White Hunter who is bored with hunting, feels out-of-step with the modern world, and has pretty well resigned himself to a quiet retirement until he is met with the prospect of one final hunt pitting his skills against “the greatest predator who ever lived:” Tyrannosaurus. Posthlethwaite is sadly underwritten, and a key establishing scene was unfortunately left on the cutting room floor (possibly because the scene – which featured him defending a waitress from some rude tourists – would have had him overshadowing the ‘hero’ characters even more than he does), but he plays the role so well that we immediately understand this man and are invested in his story. That, of course, makes it all the more frustrating that we don’t get to see more of it. There are a lot of themes that could be drawn on here: contrast of old-school men with modern businessmen like Ludlow, the grandeur and folly of great achievements, parallels between Roland the outdated hunter and the Tyrannosaurus itself, etc. But Spielberg isn’t really interested in making any of them. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with Roland except have him acting cool all the time. Here he has a great actor in a role that could have an honest-to-goodness poetry to it, and he’s content to simply have him hang around in the background.

This points to an interesting facet about Spielberg; that he seems to have lost his ability to make movies like this. The younger Spielberg made perhaps the greatest monster movie of all time (Jaws), the greatest adventure movie of all time (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time (Close Encounters). These movies – along with his other masterpieces like E.T. and the first Jurassic Park evinced an enthusiasm, a delight in the material, a sense that he was having just as much fun as anyone else, that The Lost World does not. It seems as though Spielberg were, well, tired of this kind of movie, or was just going through the motions trying to recapture something he had lost. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, in the meantime, he had made Schindler’s List and had simply lost his taste for adventure films. His later efforts in that direction – i.e. War of the Worlds, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – have all been middling, sloppy efforts at best that tell me his heart wasn’t in them (the only time he seems to have been having any fun recently was the lighthearted Catch Me If You Can). For better and for worse, Spielberg had made the transition into a ‘serious’ director and now there was no going back.

In short, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is not a good movie. It could have been a good movie. It had all the elements in place for a good movie: talented actors, a great director, masterful special effects, dinosaurs, etc. But the apathy on the part of the writers and director are palpable, in depressing contrast to the enthusiasm that was so evident in the first film, and leaves us with a pile of wasted possibilities strung together with poor writing.

Final Rating: 2/5. The still-spectacular visuals and talented cast might make it worth seeing, if you can stomach the bad writing and mostly horrible characters.

"See ya next time, folks!"

“See ya next time, folks!”

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