The Premise: Though it was pretty much universally panned upon its release in 1997, Spielberg’s The Lost World, the sequel to his own hit Jurassic Park, is actually a worthy and interesting summer blockbuster in its own right.
The Background: Steven Spielberg’s return to dinosaur adventure in 1997 marked his return to filmmaking after a four-year break from 1993, which featured the record-breaking original and his acclaimed Oscar-winner, Schindler’s List; it was his longest break from filmmaking ever. It’s understandable that some might have seen the return to dinosaurs as a crass cash grab as the film broke box office records that Memorial Day weekend, the first film to crack $100 million in the first four days of release. Along with Titanic that Christmas, it helped redefine what the blockbuster would be (for good or bad). Critics decried what they saw as a lack of interesting characters, and a paint by numbers plot (It still scores “rotten” on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic). But aside from a few groan worthy one-liners from screenwriter David Koepp, I find JP2 to be masterfully composed and thrilling to experience. As we approach the beginning of the summer movie season, I’ll be happy if there are one or two films as curious and exciting as this blockbuster sequel is.
1. The action is truly thrilling. Perhaps there isn’t any scene as iconic as the T-Rex attack in the first film, but The Lost World is filled to the brim with action pieces that showcase the dinosaurs, particularly the fan’s beloved T-Rex, in new and more dynamic ways. The dual T-Rex attack on the heroes trailer, which leaves Julianne Moore’s Sarah lying on a slowly cracking glass, suspended above the roiling Pacific ocean is as intense as it gets. The early scene with the InGen dino-hunters snagging up various dinosaurs is dynamic and breathtaking, with motorcycles darting between the legs of Diplodicus. The T-Rexes’ second attack on the camp, beginning with the threatening creature’s silhouette against Sarah’s tent is chaotic and frightening in a way not much of the dinosaur action in the other films is. The action is grittier and harsher. As, Ian Malcolm states, “Hang on, this is going to be bad.”
2. It has a great cast. Perhaps the best move the film makes is putting Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm front and centre. No offence to Sam Neill, but Goldblum was always my favourite part of the first film. Spielberg surrounds him with what, in retrospect, is a pretty fantastic supporting cast. Julianne Moore throws herself into the role of palaeontologist with gusto. A post-Swingers Vince Vaughn plays the wild-card Greenpeace activist. Fargo‘s Peter Stormare even has a small role as a sadistic InGen employee. But best of all is the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as the InGen safari lead, Roland Tembo. Postlethwaite digs into his lines with gusto, selling them in a way few other actors could. Even though he is cast as the ostensible “heavy,” he garners sympathy and makes you believe that hunting a T-Rex is the greatest challenge in history.
3. The filmmaking is darker and riskier. The Lost World is, for all its summer movie thrills, one of Spielberg’s darker and riskier films. And I’m not just talking about the palette, which eschews the theme park primary colours of the first film for darker, rain and mist soaked jungles of Isla Sorna. The film opens with the implied attack on a young girl (it’s later mentioned off-hand that she survived, but still!). In the first film, one of the first major characters to die is the despised lawyer Gennaro. Here, The West Wing’s Richard Schiff (a good guy!) gets torn in half by the T-Rex parents within the first hour. Some hated final act transition to the mainland, but I loved the way the film teases with the possibility that it’s all over after an hour and forty minutes, then unleashes the T-Rex on the mainland. The scene of the T-Rex with the dog chain hanging from its mouth as an excited boy and his parents look on is priceless (an eaten dog and a threatened child? I thought Spielberg was supposed to be a sappy sentimentalist?). In the end, the film understands that the dinosaurs are supposed to be front and centre and delivers.
While I’m not going to argue that it’s a masterpiece, in retrospect the negativity surrounding its release seems odd considering how actually un-conventional it is. At the very least, it’s vastly superior to Joe Johnston’s third film. Agree? Disagree? Let us know.