Sunday, July 05, 2015

Film Review: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

It wouldn't be going too far to say that Jurassic Park was one of the most important films for me growing up. There were a lot of other contenders, most of them Disney animations, but Jurassic Park was the first film I remember being completely floored by. It helped that I was obsessed with dinosaurs, as most six year olds were at the time and, it seems, still are, but the way that Steven Spielberg blended special effects with a lean story to create a sense of wonder and magic really captivated my little, still-forming imagination. It probably didn't hurt that it was one of the first examples I had encountered of a film being everywhere thanks to a huge marketing campaign, so even if I hadn't loved it, I would not have been able to escape it. Watching it (not to mention rewatching it) was a formative experience, to say the least, and while I wouldn't put it as my favourite film ever now (I'm not sure if it would even crack the top 100, assuming that I was crazy enough to make one), its importance in shaping me as a film lover is immeasurable.

The sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, has a similar level of importance in my own personal film history since it was the first film that really, truly disappointed me. What hardcore Star Wars fans went through two years later with The Phantom Menace, I got a sneak preview of with The Lost World. (I was also disappointed by The Phantom Menace, but by that point I'd already read something like a dozen Expanded Universe novels, so the idea that Star Wars could be terrible wasn't exactly a foreign concept.) Everything about it felt wrong. The effects looked worse, the story was less interesting, and even Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the most enjoyable character from the first movie, seemed to have had all the fun sucked out of him. Needless to say, it was a disheartening experience.

In the wake of Jurassic World's frankly ludicrous success, I decided to revisit The Lost World for the first time since seeing it in the theatre some eighteen years ago to see if it was really as bad as I thought it was. Much like every character in the Jurassic Park series, I clearly have no concept of how bad an idea it is to keep messing with dinosaurs.

Things don't get off to a great start since, as is often the case with sequels that aren't in any way necessary, the opening ten minutes are spent justifying the film's very existence, rather than getting on with it. After a stilted opening scene in which a young girl is attacked by a group of Compsognathus (tiny lizard creatures which I think of primarily as the thing you ate to gain health if you played as a raptor in the Jurassic Park video game), the film jumps to New York, where Ian Malcolm, who has been discredited for going against his NDA and revealing details of what occurred at Jurassic Park four years earlier (I bet the pitch meeting where someone suggested they kick off a summer blockbuster with talk about contract law was fucking scintillating, and probably involved George Lucas somehow), is on his way to meet John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). The cuddly old loon wants Malcolm to go on an expedition to an island where dinosaurs bred for the park have broken free, all as part of an attempt to stop Hammond's nephew (Arliss Howard) from exploiting the dinosaurs for profit. Again, there's nothing better than using corporate backbiting as the inciting incident for a summer tentpole.

While he is understandably reluctant to go, Malcolm relents when he discovers that Hammond has already sent his girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore) to the island, leaving Malcolm with little choice but to follow suit. Oh, and he also takes his daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) along with him because, in addition to becoming a lot more boring between films, Ian Malcolm became a whole lot dumber. Maybe it was the result of all that blood loss, or he got infected by some prehistoric parasite that reduced his capacity for judging whether something is a good idea or not. Honestly, it would explain a great deal.

Once the film gets to Isla Sorna, things pick up, even if also it's beset by problems. Some of the special effects look incredibly ropey - a scene in which Julianne Moore dives under the swinging tale of a Stegosaurus looks particularly terrible, and suggests that she was trying out for some kind of Jurassic Park stunt show that never got off the ground - and in many places manage to look worse than those in the first film. There are practical reasons for this, namely that the number of effects shots in the first film was comparatively small, so they have more impact, and they tended to be used at night, or at the very least in shadowy places, so the seams could be hidden better than those in the many daytime scenes in The Lost World. Still, it marks a clear progression of the Digital Creep that would eventually lead to Jurassic World's plasticity.

On a related note, the film also looks incredibly drab, especially compared to the vivid and lush greens of the first movie. This was the second film Spielberg shot with Janusz Kaminski as his director of photography after Schindler's List, a partnership which continues to this day since Kaminski has shot the majority of Spielberg's films since 1993. While I wouldn't want to downplay the suffering of people who have been eaten by dinosaurs, Kaminski's work seems ill-suited to the story being told. The classiness of his visuals works for something like Amistad, or even a bleak sci-fi film like Minority Report, but when placed in a supposedly vibrant environment it leaves the film looking a little plain, especially compared to Dean Cundey's work on the original.

The performances are also wildly uneven. Goldblum occasionally shows some of the off-kilter spark that made Malcolm an iconic figure, but upgrading him to the hero position just seems to iron out all the rough edges. It's as if they wrote the script with a blander actor in mind, then had to hastily rewrite it when they discovered that Goldblum was available. Vince Vaughn and Richard Schiff are fun in minor roles, while the late Pete Postlethwaite does the best he can to imbue his character, a Muldoon-lite hunter called Roland Tembo, with a bit of gravitas, but there is only so much you can do with someone who is only in the film to hunt down a T-Rex. Peter Stormare is just kind of baffling, (though he at least gets an hilariously silly death) while Julianne Moore seems a little lost in such a big-budget spectacle.

However, for all its faults, this section of the film also boasts two great set pieces, and at least one image that stands amongst Spielberg's best. In the first, Malcolm, Sarah and their photographer Nick (Vaughn) are trapped inside an RV that is being nudged towards a cliff by a pair of T-Rexes. The setup for the scene is pretty stupid, seeing as it involves Sarah deciding to treat a baby T-Rex in an environment that is sure to attract attention, then Nick refusing to pick up the phone when Malcolm tries to warn them that its parents are on their way, but the sequence itself is brilliantly put together and incredibly tense, with the danger escalating wonderfully as things go from bad to worse to oh-shit-we're-dangling-off-a-goddamn-cliff. 

The scene also boasts one of the series' most gruesome deaths, that of Eddie (Schiff), an engineer who is torn in half by the T-Rexes as he tries to use a jeep to pull the RV to safety. Eddie's death actually traumatised me a little bit when I first saw the film, in part because it's incredibly nasty and a little out of step with the lighter tone the film had up to that point, but this time around the nobility of Eddie's sacrifice offset just how horrible his death is. Not totally, but enough that it didn't bother me the way that it did before (or the way that the assistant's even nastier death in Jurassic World still bothers me).

The second great set piece comes when a group of military types who have been sent to the island to capture dinosaurs decide to travel through some long grass in order to reach an abandoned building so they can radio for help. As they get deeper and deeper into the weeds, raptors start to hunt them, something which Spielberg illustrates by using a high-angle shot to show the outlines of the raptors converging on the hapless mercenaries. For my money, it's one of the best images of Spielberg's career at conveying inexorable dread, so much so that that one image stuck with me for eighteen years, even as I forgot everything else about the film. Like the RV scene, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense within the film as a whole (and makes even less sense when Malcolm and his cohorts come along after the mercenaries have been slaughtered, immediately recognise the danger, then walk through the long grass without any problem), but in the moment it works really well.

The extent to which parts of the film feel disconnected from each other reaches new heights (or lows) in its finale, when the action shifts from Isla Sorna to San Diego. There's a lot to like in the Isla Sorna half, and if the story ended as Malcolm, Sarah, Nick and Kelly get on the helicopter to escape, mirroring as it does the end of the first film, an argument could be made for The Lost World being a fun, if messy movie (even the moment when Kelly Gymkatas a raptor to death is kind of charming as something that feels astonishingly out of place). The San Diego segment, however, is almost transcendently stupid, and pretty much sinks the entire film by turning it from one kind of monster movie into another; from a tense sprint for survival to a self-consciously goofy King Kong/Godzilla riff, complete with a scene of the T-Rex drinking from a swimming pool like a dog, then eating a real dog (again, a moment that I found deeply upsetting back in 1997), and some funny fake movie posters that have no business being in this movie.

There are parts of the finale that are interesting, if only because it's fun to imagine what thought process must have happened for them to be included. The start, in which a massive barge transporting a T-Rex crashes into the dock on account of its crew being really most sincerely dead, feels like an attempted homage to the Demeter running ashore in Dracula, which is a nice allusion that makes no sense within the reality that Spielberg has established over the preceding hour or so. It's hard to see how the T-Rex killed the entire crew (including the guys on the bridge, which hasn't been completely torn to shreds) despite being trapped in the cargo hold. 

Spielberg has a tendency to include things for emotional impact that might not necessarily make that much logical sense (perhaps the best example being in the original Jurassic Park, in which the T-Rex manages to save the day by attacking the raptors in the visitors center, even though there's no way it could have got into the building without knocking down a load bearing wall or three) but that only works when it feels like the suspension of belief has been earned. In Jurassic Park, it's easy to accept the T-Rex's physics-defying save because it happens pretty late in the film, so there isn't time to dwell on it, and because the rest of the film avoids taking too many liberties with the trust and belief of the audience. It establishes its rules, then it sticks pretty closely to them throughout. In The Lost World, the big ask happens right at the beginning of the climax, so we have time to realise how little sense it makes, and after a film which cares so little about maintaing a suspension of disbelief that every choice looks conspicuously silly, especially one as big as a T-Rex apparently being able to kill everyone on board a ship despite not being able to reach most of them.

Removed from the context of my first viewing, where I had spent the better part of a year being ridiculously excited about a new Jurassic Park film (and also being ten, which is its own minefield of excitement), The Lost World has a certain creaky, goofy B-movie charm to it that I found oddly endearing this time around. It's not quite as gleefully silly as Jurassic Park III, which I still prefer overall because of how dumb it is and how little it cares about how dumb it is, but it's clear at times that Spielberg knew he was making a much more straightforward monster movie than the first Jurassic Park, one with less time for marveling at dinosaurs and more time fleeing from them. 

That shift is signaled relatively early on by Goldblum's one memorable line: "Oooh, aaah, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running, and screaming." Where the first film occasionally operated on a similar level to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the way it values awe and wonder over drama, the second is more akin to the pulpier delights of Duel, or even some of the creature features that emerged in the wake of Jurassic Park's success like Congo. Taken on that level, there is a lot of fun to be had with The Lost World for much of its first hour and a half, which was much better than I remembered. The last half hour, however, is every bit as terrible as it was back in 1997.