Film Retrospect - Summer of '97: The Lost World - Jurassic Park
by Barry Wurst
April 2, 2007
As the Summer of 2007 movie season is heard roaring in the distance, creeping ever so slowly towards the cineplexes, multiplexes and quadroplexes (the latter being a theater full of geeks watching movies on their ipods as the film plays on the silver screen), I'll continue to reflect on the summer movies that graced audiences from the previous ten and twenty years. As I think back to the summer of 1997, I automatically go to a film that was the most anticipated of the summer, a gargantuan hit and honestly, wasn't very good. Truly I will get around to examining some of the actual great films from this year (as well as from 1987), but for now let's look at The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
A sequel to Jurassic Park was a no-brainer for Universal Pictures, as it was (prior to Titanic) the top grossing film of all time in the US, wildly popular and seemingly sequel-ready. Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, found his career going in an interesting direction. Rather than churn out another reliable thrill machine, he followed his dino-drama with Schindler's List. The acclaim and awards he received lasted until the latter half of 1994 (List came out December of 1993) and, for the first time the most popular (if not one of the best) American filmmakers was receiving the critical respect he had been denied with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.
His skill as a cinematic storyteller was unprecedented (if E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the Indiana Jones movies don't do anything for you, then go back as far as Duel and Jaws to witness how skilled he was at the very beginning), but his movies were written off as fun fluff. Even when the controversial The Color Purple became a multiple Oscar nominee, Spielberg's name was one of the few attached to the film that wasn't up for any Academy Award. With Schindler's List, he not only received an entourage of praise but received a favorable retrospective of his career from even his harshest critics (who had throttled him for Hook and Always but were over the moon with Schindler) and found renewed faith in his filmmaking abilities from his peers and audiences (who had flocked to Jurassic Park that summer and were stunned by Schindler's List that Christmas).
In the meantime, Universal longed for another Jurassic cash cow and got their wish when Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, wrote a bestselling sequel, The Lost World. I'm a big fan of Crichton's novels (a mixture of well researched science with page-turning thrills) but the tough truth about The Lost World is that it's a lousy novel. Whereas Jurassic Park is a truly great adventure novel, the follow-up feels like what it is: a forced, unnecessary sequel. It didn't even play fair - there's another island with dinosaurs? Why didn't he tell us this the first time?
The book was a success, despite most readers not being over the moon with it, and following that Spielberg decided to make his first non-Indiana Jones sequel. The official reason - he reportedly wasn't crazy about the first film, saw room for improvement and Jurassic Park wasn't a personal work that he felt passionately about. As filming commenced, the anticipation grew to T-Rex size, as a teaser trailer (nothing but lightning, a footprint and the title!) and a slowly unfolding ad campaign made it the must see movie of the summer. You have to remember, the idea of a Jurassic Park 2 was BIG, akin to Titanic 2 or E.T. 2 - this was a sequel to a movie everyone had seen, most had loved (despite its imperfections) and all wanted to see part deux.
The film had an opening so huge, it changed the climate in Hollywood overnight, somewhat. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (shouldn't the titles be reversed?) made $90 million in one weekend, and Hollywood rejoiced. What it meant to executives and studio heads was, "We can greenlight a movie with $100 million dollar budget! Want proof? Look at The Lost World - it made it's entire budget back … in one weekend!!!" Thus, with that in mind, the budget busting Titanic continued to bloat and movies without budget ceilings, like Lethal Weapon 4, continued to pop up and make one studio after another both foolishly hopeful and quite nervous. The Lost World ended up not being the biggest, most loved, through-the-roof hit of the summer - that was Men in Black. How is The Lost World as a movie? A disaster, actually.
All the awe of the first movie is gone. You have the dinosaurs, lots of them, but there's no surprise or suspense anymore. The cast wasn't given real characters to play - they were made to embody action figures, meaning you have Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Vince Vaughn, and Peter Stormare but don't have anything for them to do but run and yell. Even the delightfully droll Jeff Goldblum is misused - he has all the best lines but even he seems disinterested and Sir Richard Attenborough isn't around enough to make a bigger impression (Sam Neil and Laura Dern are sadly missed, though you do have Camille Belle in the opener).
Tellingly, the film is full of shots of the actors staring out at something in awe, but we've seen it all before and, as good as these actors are, it's obvious that they're pretending. Of course the special effects are great, but the action set pieces around them are mostly duds. Strangely, some scenes end just as they're getting started (like Moore's intro and attack), some go on too long well after they've peaked (like the cliffside T-Rex attack) and all of the first act exposition scenes are lifeless. All of the non-island scenes are filmed from far away, with the actors talking, and the camera slowly creeping up on them, while they talk away the plot points; this unengaging visual device does the impossible - makes a movie about rampaging dinosaurs boring. Then there's the climax: I know it's late at night in San Diego, but do you really think a whole suburb would sleep while a T-Rex stalked around the neighborhood? Also, a bus is struck by the T-Rex: how many public transit busses actually operate at (presumably) 3AM? Not in my city!
I know, I know, this is all a fantasy and really, the whole idea is to be entertained, right? Well, the story, an amalgamation of The Most Dangerous Game, King Kong and Heart of Darkness, fades in and out of the film, which eventually becomes a highlight reel of When Dinosaurs Attack. Most tellingly, the film became the money-grubbing, uninspired sequel that it was in book form and is (arguably) Spielberg's worst film. It was his first time directing in three years and, perhaps, the time off took a toll. Amistad and Saving Private Ryan followed and showcased a passion behind the camera, as well as his ability to helm heartfelt, character-driven stories and encourage great work from his actors. The Lost World is a joyless special effects reel with grade 'A' actors who appear to be waiting for some direction. The sequel that followed it is only slightly better. What's the antidote to fix this franchise (and you know Jurassic Park IV is only a few years off)? Start with a great story and make us care (if not tremble) the next time we see a flock of velociraptors.