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“Life finds a way,” Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) famously warns in the original Jurassic Park, and so to do studios looking to cash in on the massive popularity in dinosaurs that that film ignited. Hence we get this sequel, a tyrannosaurus wreck that is too frightening for the audience it often caters too, and too silly for those that hoped it would be something more.
On the island of Isla Sorna, a wealthy British family have come ashore with servants from their yacht to have lunch. While the adults are occupied, the couple’s young daughter frolics in the flora nearby. There, a tiny Compsognathus pops out and is cute enough to make the girl curious. Then all its Compy friends join and things go bad. Quickly.
Back on the mainland, Malcolm, since disgraced for his unbelievable account of the events from his experience on Isla Nublar, is summoned by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the man behind the first terribly expensive and murderous dinosaur park. He explains that Isla Sorna is actually Site B, and that a hurricane destroyed the facility. Now all the dinosaurs are roaming free. Shouldn’t be a problem. He wants Ian to fly to the island and document how the creatures are living and raise awareness to protect the island and keep it as a kind of dino-sanctuary, something that would surely never happen. Malcolm refuses at first, but has a change of heart when Hammond tells him that Ian’s girlfriend, paleontologist Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already there.
Soon, Ian, two specialists and his stowaway daughter (ugh) make it to the island and meet up with Harding. Meanwhile, InGen, the company once headed by Hammond, and now, by the laws of movie corporations, turned evil, have sent hunters to the island to capture dinos for a theme park in San Diego because any theme park where guests are considered part of the buffet is a win-win. Conflict ensues, people are eaten, there’s lots of screaming and staring in awe, and some light gymnastics. While a couple of well-executed set pieces, as only Steven Spielberg can do, and a few cast members in stellar performances marked for some highlight, they can’t save this mess of a movie that simply isn’t able to compete with it’s predecessor and should as soon as possible go extinct. But, like every movie, it has one great moment . . . oh wait, maybe not. Read on.
Our motto on the site is that Ever Movie Has One Great Moment, and so far, we’ve written about just that, but for this one post, well, I’m going to write about a scene that was particularly noteworthy for being a not-so-great moment. Positivity be damned. This is a bad movie.
A quick setup. Ian and his team have found Sarah and they’ve been tracking around the forest following her and a pod of stegosaurus’s. Heading back, they discover a fire at their base camp. That’s all you really know need to know. Oh yeah. There’s a lot of dinosaurs around.
There are several moments prior to this scene that had me scratching my head, but it is here where I finally threw up my arms. Seriously. Ian Malcolm is a noted mathematician, genius and, by all accounts, a loving and protective father. Sure, I understand, he’s in a hurry to “rescue” his girlfriend, so when he called his young daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) to the garage where the team is rushing to pack the gear and head out and he gives her a slip of paper with the babysitter’s address, I thought, huh? That’s how he says goodbye? So ends his parental obligation it seems because after some entirely innocuous chitter chatter between them, he literally walks aways telling her not to listen to him. This is important because it makes us believe she’s now gone but since we’re not 5 years old, we know for a fact she’s not. So when we reach the island and Ian returns to camp with the other to learn that Kelly has in fact stowed aboard . . .
This is a Steven Spielberg film. That means a lot, especially for 1997. A real gift for storytelling, visuals and creative camera work, his movies are synonymous with quality and are, perhaps unfairly held to a different standard. Here’s a guy who gave us Schindler’s List and the original Jurassic Park both in the same year. He released Amistad right after The Lost World and Saving Private Ryan after that. He understands very well the power of the medium to educate and entertain. But here, he stumbles. Mightily. This moment is a perfect example and feels forced, as if Malcolm’s daughter is on screen for one reason only: bring in a younger audience.
The original Jurassic Park was a phenomenon and created a whole new interest in dinosaurs. The film, on release, was a wonder for most, with its stunning portrayal of creatures we’d seen on screen only in jaggedy stop-motion or in animation. In Jurassic Park, they seemed alive, touchable, real, and it probably left many viewers less than critical of the fairly pedestrian story and underdeveloped human characters. Seeing it in theaters utterly blew viewers away, and naturally praised it as an amazing achievement, which it is. But in the years since, repeat viewing show some flaws (of which we poked fun at a little in our Tremors post).
The Lost World makes the mistake of thinking more is better. Much more. Instead of one Tyrannosaurus Rex, we get two. And a baby. Instead of one bad guy, we get three. Instead of a few humans in trouble, we get more than a dozen (and eventually half a city population). Every scene feels more like a set piece that begins and ends without feeling connected to anything whole. It has a kind of checklist approach as if a team of writers sat at a table and started agreeing on what must be in the film and thought of ways to stitch them together. Loosely.
For instance, early in the movie, for fan service we guess, Ian is at Hammond’s home, where, suddenly, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim Murphy (Joseph Mazzello), the two children from the first film, come down as Ian is going up. They speak a few lines, get sent to the background, and then literally walk off screen never to be seen again. Cameos in movies can be fun, but this has an element of, “See? Do you remember us?” and only serves to remind us of how much charm the first film had.
That isn’t to say that the young actress playing Ian’s daughter is bad. She’s properly curious and precocious and is effectively cute and endearing on screen. But, whereas the first film utilized the children as a way for the audience to follow along and discover the thrills and spills of the original Jurassic Park, carrying us through nearly every up and down in the story, in The Lost World, the little girl is a prop, mostly relegated to reaction shots.
The character does have some other moments. The now infamous gymnastics defense against a raptor is especially silly, including the dinosaur that stops, turns, and watches the parallel bar stylings of his oncoming demise.
Humor is often an effective tool for easing tension and adding a sense of reality to a film. We need only go the original Jurassic Park and listen to Malcolm unnervingly state, “Must go faster” while in the back of a jeep being chased by a T-rex. That scene is terrifying but humanizing and the combination works very well. Cut to this film and the same Malcolm, after surviving the raptor attack shown above, asks his daughter, “The school cut you from the team?” and it feels like a punchline they thought of first and wrote a scene around later.
And this is where the real problem exists for The Lost World, which may not be any fault of the movie itself. There is no sense of discovery. With the first film, we had that profound wonder about the experience, which Spielberg wisely and cleverly expressed by having two children be part of our guide through that epic journey. We all became like children, with childlike awe and imagination as things we never thought could be real again sprang to life, and dangerous or not, seeing each new creature on screen was a joy. In The Lost World, all those creatures are never allowed to be discovered. They are hunted, caged and used for punchlines.
Take these two scenes. The first is from the original Jurassic Park and shows a pack of dinosaurs running as a herd.
The second is from The Lost World and shows the moment we are introduced to the InGen hunters.
There is little doubt that the second is an homage of the first. The roles are reversed and the humans are the ones chasing the animals (though I know the Gallimimuses were not really chasing Dr. Grant and the kids). They are even going in opposite directions of each other. In the first, we are struck by the power of the dinosaurs, their movement and speed. We know the characters well and have a sense of dread and anticipation. We care.
In the second, we know nothing. The dinosaurs are a haphazard collection of species coming in and out of frame. The people are wearing masks and helmets and are completely unknown to us. The dinosaurs, once a vision of majesty and awe, are reduced to a fleeing herd of weak and frightened animals, which we will concede may be the point, but is a terrible misstep in a movie that is meant to further the intrigue and joy of learning about these extinct creatures. We lose hope for any sense of wonder and astonishment.
Certainly, under Spielberg’s expert guidance, many scenes look fantastic and are dripping with atmosphere. There is great attention to detail in the animals and the island. The dinosaurs looks incredible and seem as if they are actually there with the actors. Truly, it’s a great work of splicing CGI and live action. We especially like the T-Rex as it smashes its way down a street in San Diego.
Yet there are some scenes that are also questionable, such as any time there is a baby dinosaur on screen. While adorable to look at, and obviously well made, they are clearly puppets and cannot stand up to the fluidity of their adult CGI counterparts. Stiff, jerky and full of special effects air bladders and hydraulics, they pull us out of the reality in spectacular fashion.
But more than all that, the script is an oddity, with dialogue often serving only to either propel the next scene or sound like jargon. For example, take a listen to this short clip from not long after Kelly makes her surprise entrance. The team is safe at camp and while Ian is trying, rightly, to get himself and his daughter off the island, Dr. Harding is running down a checklist of warnings about the observation and documentation of these once extinct creatures to ensure that they have the least impact on the animal’s environment.
Just in case you weren’t able to hear everything, she says:
“Okay, listen, when we’re out in the field, nothing we do can leave any room for people to say our findings were contaminated. Once the academic world smells blood in the water, you’re dead. We leave no scent of any kind. No hair tonics, no cologne, no insect repellant, seal all our food in plastic bags. Our presence has to be one hundred percent antiseptic. If we so much as bend a blade of grass, we bend it back the way it . . .”
But let’s return to our chosen That Moment In. We first need to say that Jeff Goldblum is by far the best thing in the movie. He’s charming, confident, amusing, and familiar, allowing us to easily become involved in his journey. Unfortunately, that journey is often highly implausible. For instance, we mentioned above how at the garage as he prepares for departure, he met Kelly and gave her the babysitter’s address. It is wholly unbelievable that he would simply give his daughter a slip of paper with this information and then go on about his way before heading off to the island. Even if that is to be accepted, are we to believe that he didn’t even say goodbye to her? In the film, this is how we last see them before she pops out of the camper after arriving on the island:
This is in the massive garage where a lot of activity is happening as the team prepares for departure. Right after, we see her discovering the (completely unattended to and wide open) camper trucks that will be used for the mission, supposedly cluing us in to her plan. It then cuts directly to the small ferry boat where the vehicles and equipment are being transported. Now let’s take a second here to think about this. This means that Ian would not have seen her off before leaving. He just presumed she took off and made it safely to the babysitter on her own. He didn’t check, he didn’t make sure she was safe. He didn’t even say goodbye. He just went. And conveniently (sarcasm alert), every dang phone in the entire operation doesn’t work. (I’ll go ahead and assume that the babysitter back on the mainland panicked that Kelly didn’t arrive, desperately struggled for days to contact Ian and warn him his daughter never showed and worked tirelessly with police to try and find the missing child. That must have happened. Right?)
So now we are on the island after hours and hours on a boat where NO ONE noticed a child was in one of the campers. These same campers have now driven for miles along the island, parked and gathered their gear, and still no one saw her. It is shown a little later that the camper she is hiding in is a total mess as she spent all that time NOT hiding in a sleeper bunk but right out in the open with food wrappers strewn all about the camper. When the three leave the base camp, Kelly then decides to build a campfire to make dinner. Even if she somehow was able to hide and not be seen while in the camper, she MUST have heard her father and the team talking about dinosaurs while either on the ferry boat or as they prepared to search for Sarah. It is the entire reason they have come to the island. It’s not like they would have been discussing stocks or the score of the big game the night before. She must have heard something. Does she think by making a campfire and cooking food she won’t be in trouble?
So at this point, your’e probably waiting for me to bring up the center piece of the movie, the much-lauded double T-rex encounter on the base camp as they look for their captured baby. We’ll admit this is pure Spielberg. It is well-paced and superbly directed. But (you knew there was a “but”) it is also, much like Harding had hoped for, antiseptic. Clean and precisely edited, it has a staged feel about it where things happen in exactly the order they should. Yes, the dinosaurs are fun to watch, but the humans are a bore. The great Richard Schiff and his characteristically sardonic persona (made famous on The West Wing) simply don’t work, and having people joke about fast food orders while suspended over a cliff as two of history’s most feared predators are attacking just seemes pointless in getting a laugh where one shouldn’t be. And why was conventional window glass used in that camper instead of laminated safety glass?
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Michael Crichton (novel), David Koepp (screenplay)
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite