Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic Week, part II: If we so much as bend a blade of grass...


Sure it's awful, but you gotta laugh.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)
With Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcom), Julianne Moore (Dr. Sarah Harding), Vince Vaughn (Nick Van Owen), Vanessa Lee Chester (Kelly Curtis), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), and Pete Postlethwaite (Roland Tembo)

Spoiler alert: high

Only one thing about Jurassic Park demanded a sequelor rather, 357 million things, back when $357 million in box office receipts meant a movie was a smash success rather than a disappointing misfire.  Still, there was no good argument against a sequel, either.  Jurassic Park, recall, did end with an island full of dinosaurs, and a planet still full of humans just ripe to be munched.  The only angle from which The Lost World: Jurassic Park looks the slightest bit like a bad idea is hindsight, although it is true that we can already see the strain without even looking past that terrible bass-ackwards title.

With Park now made a phenomenon, Michael Crichton was inevitably pushed by the whole wide world to write a follow-up he'd never intendedincluding by Steven Spielberg himself, who wanted to film the thing, although for God knows what reason.  It's said that, after Schindler's List, Spielberg felt he owed The People one more popcorn movie before devoting himself to making unfun movies forever (or at least until Minority Report).  It's a nice sentiment, though sentiment carries one only so far.  The production of Lost World overlaps with and suffers from the director's transition from the Steven Spielberg Whom People Liked to the Steven Spielberg Who Wanted Respect.  The transformation's midpoint is clearest in the following year's Saving Private Ryana film seemingly directed by the best of bothwhereas Lost World often seems like a film directly overseen by neither one of them, which (sadly) is kinda accurate.

In any event, Crichton succumbed to fame and money, and wrote a book that was more of a sequel to Spielberg's movie than his own novel.  Now, I don't blame everything, or even anything, on Crichton.  My memories of the novel are awfully hazy, and I'm not willing to cast even the first aspersion when every sign in the film is already pointing to its screenwriter, David "But you liked Snake Eyes" Koepp, and Spielberg himself.  Even so, we can apply some Chaos Theory to the problem.  In this particular instance, the butterfly that started this hurricane of dumb was Crichton's decision to resurrect Ian Malcolm, made bafflingly popular via his film incarnation.  That was that; whatever else Koepp and Spielberg wanted to do, they were stuck with the rock star of math.

"I'm happy, er, notto be here.  But everyone, ah, loved meso.  Here we are."

Thus is the stage set for a sequel that promotes the first installment's least appealing character to the rank of hero, then surrounds him with a clutch of new characters who are even worse.  Alan Grant, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, possibly because Sam Neill's exploding star power had rendered him far too expensiveor, anyway, that's what happened in the fantasy version of 1997 I just made up.  More realistically, it's because if Alan Grant had been involved in Lost World, the plot would have stopped 20 minutes in.  Foras everyone who has ever seen it knows all too wellLost World's narrative would have collapsed immediately, had it made but the slightest contact with competence.

Pointedly not pictured: competence.

Dr. Malcolm's had a tough time since the Isla Nublar horror.  Though he returned to civilization with one hell of a story to tell, no one believed him, and his continued promotion of paranoid conspiracy theories about hubristic geneticists has resulted in the loss of his tenure and a transformation from science celebrity to media punchline.  Even so, the last thing he'd ever want to do is go back.  Which, naturally, is exactly what John Hammond asks him to do, offering him the leadership of a fact-finding expeditionpresumably, after Drs. Grant and Sattler, as well as his two minor grandchildren, had told him no, although this is not explicitly said to be the case.  Malcolm would say no, too, but Hammond offers an extra incentive: Malcolm's girlfriend, "Dr." Sarah Harding, a "naturalist" and "paleontologist," is already there.

(Ah, but "there" actually means Isla Sorna, the InGen company's mysterious "Site B," what Hammond calls the "factory floor"and if you don't look too closely at this, it continues to make sense.  Isla Sorna is, in fact, a leftover from Crichton cheating his way out of napalming Nublar at the end of the first book, and from Koepp never bothering to change it back even though that didn't happen in the first movie.  Either way, the Nublar/Sorna distinction doesn't even slightly matter.)

Malcolm agrees to Hammond's offer for Harding's sake.  To this end he's teamed with Nick Van Owen, a documentarian, and Eddie Carr, the tech guy.  However, an unwanted addition tags along, andin Lost World's first cannonball into narrative inspidityMalcolm discovers his latchkey kid of a daughter, Kelly, has remained hidden for however long it takes a small boat to travel from California to Costa Rica.

But do they learn to care for one another amidst a disaster that half-assedly reflects those filial themes?  No, seriously, I don't think they did.

Reunited with Harding, Malcolm's first instinct is to get the hell out, but complications ensue when InGen sends a second team.  Their motives could be construed as "sinister," I suppose, if you, like David Koepp, were addicted to paint thinner.  They're here to capture Sorna's free-range dinosaurs for a new park, something simplistically likened to poaching except for the uncomfortable counterargument thatas far as ecological concerns goInGen is doing Mother Earth a solid, cleaning up the mess they made in the first place by removing the invasive alien species they accidentally unleashed.  (The good guys certainly never ask how long it'll take the massive sauropods to strip Sorna of every tree star it's got, wheras we can at least imagine that InGen's dino-accountants have considered it.)  For the most part, the hunters are gross, trueone of their number is portrayed by Peter Stormare, no lessbut they are led by Roland Tembo, and for all intents and purposes, Tembo is the actual hero of the film, something I'd rather not say about someone whose dream is to hunt down and shoot a "buck tyrannosaur" because it gets his dick hard.  But, in The Lost World, it's a description altogether impossible to avoid.

If you reach the point in your action-adventure script where your "villain" is selflessly rescuing your "heroes" out of a general sense of humanitarian obligation, it might be time to start on a new draft.

At this point, the film takes on something like the structure of a collegiate comedy, Tembo in the role of the uptight dean, and our protagonists the rag-tag incorrigibles who mercilessly prank him.  Unfortunately, on Isla Sorna "pranks"such as releasing captured dinosaurs and removing the shells from Tembo's gunresult in the deaths of what I conservatively estimate to be about 20 people.  The Lost World can't drag even one scene's worth of either morality or aptitude from our principal cast.  It thereby fails to provide a solitary character worth latching onto: Van Owen is revealed as an ecoterrorist with an unexamined disinterest in human life; Harding is an irritating dilettante who seemingly can't avoid poking every animal she sees; the best that can be said of young Kelly is that gymnastics are more cinematically vibrant than "hacking"; and Malcolm, unable to muster an interest in his daughter's welfare beyond the moment-to-moment concern of whether she's still alive, finds himself swept along by Van Owen's violent activism, but since he has no terroristic skills he spends the bulk of the film just standing around, perhaps even more worthless than one might have initially expected, with only Goldblum's reliable persona rendering him remotely palatable.  Even poor Tembo, the only inherently interesting human in the whole movie, is kept at arm's length from us by the scriptas if Koepp realized, a hundred pages in, exactly what he had doneand thus the moral arc he somehow undergoes appears to take place largely in Pete Postlethwaite's imagination.

Unpleasant characters aren't the insurmountable problem.  And far be it from me to insist that a movie need to possess something as dull as a respect for life.  Conceivably, a successful version of The Lost World could have existed, with the exact same lazy premise and terrible characters: it only needed to be a machine built to feed human meat into the slavering maws of giant carnivores, a slasher film with the maniacs replaced with marauding dinosaurs.  Indeed, copious death is one of a very few obvious ways that a Jurassic sequel could justify its existence.  The visions that made Jurassic Park so awe-inspiring would never be new again anyway, so let's go nuts.

It's counterintuitively to Lost World's credit, then, that it doesn't even try to recapture Park's spirit.  Malcolm arrives at Isla Sorna with surprising speed, and the film is insanely eager to reach a flashpoint of violence rather than any state of ecstasy.  That's how Harding, within the space of her introduction, becomes nothing but a stupid tool Koepp can use to instigate action scenes.  Clearly it's a waste of Julianne Moore.  Certainly it's clumsy as all hell.  But, hey, at least it's lively.

Tragically, what it never isor, rather, very rarely isis actually thrilling.  Nearly our first impression of Lost World is of its cowardice, the signal failure of horror and action alike, as we witness Spielberg and Koepp back away at lightspeed from its lying opening shock scene. "Don't worry!" Hammond says of the little girl who didn't die in a dinosaur attack. "She's all right."  Don't worry?  Good advice.  If they can't follow through on the simplest atmosphere-building with almost two more hours to go, what should we be worried about?

With each subsequent misstep, Lost World stumbles more and more, its failures so patent as to seem indifferently malicious, which is almost more believable than the frightening idea that nobody involved ever noticed the way the script was undercutting the tension at every opportunity, or the blithe manner in which the actors were quipping their way through complex deathtraps, or how Spielberg had spent 100 minutes doing everything but establishing an actual tone.

And that is the true film-killing problem of Lost World, even worse than its protagonists.  Not so much an emotional thruline as a dashed zig-zag, the tone whipsaws from scene-to-scene, shot-to-shot, line-to-fucking-line, between deadly serious terror and a hateful slapstick that feels less like popcorn movie lightheartedness than it does curdled self-loathing.  There's scarcely a single scene not sabotaged by it.  Even the technically well-accomplished  set-piece that everyone mentions, the trailer hanging off the cliff, falls victim to dumb jokes, puncturing heretofore white-knuckle tension with something like a chainsaw.

In its final 20 minutes, the tone of Lost World does at last cohereunfortunately, into nothing less than naked contempt.  What I dearly hope is the most preposterous idea in the whole Jurassic tetrology is buried in the ellipsis between the capture of a live t-rex on Isla Sorna and its arrival in San Diego, wherein the tyrannosaur evidently commandeers a boat.  Ah, but Spielberg: he has just begun.  The ending of Lost World is the very first time in the whole film that an idea is explored that wasn't already done better in Jurassic Park, and it sounds so enjoyable on paper: "t-rex vs. San Diego."  What it becomes, however, is an endless escalation of humiliating self-harm so miserably laughable that even when Koepp makes a cameo and dies, one can only be embarrassed for him.

But the biggest problem of Lost World is arguably its greatest strength, for Lost World is so badso transparently easy to mock, yet vital enough in its professionally craptastic filmmaking that something is always happening that's either cool to look at, stupid enough to laugh at, or (usually) boththat it rises totally to the level of "so bad it's good." I would never in 65 million years deign to give it a passing grade; it is a dire piece of shit.  But, perversely, I'm still glad it exists.

Score:  4/10

Other reviews in this series:
Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World


  1. You know, invariably one seeks out opinions of their favorite movies, and this one never ceases to make me feel like a masochist. I love this film, but I also enjoy reading well-written takedowns of it for some reason, even if I don't agree.

    Hunter, I'm curious if you'll indulge me: I wrote a lengthy review of this film on Letterboxd and rather than regurgitate my talking points here, it would make my day if you read it and gave me some feedback (provided it stimulates any thoughts you didn't already put in your review here). It's not nearly as well-written as your review, but I tried to capture its appeal: https://letterboxd.com/johnzilla2179/film/the-lost-world-jurassic-park/

    1. Y'know, I in fact read a few days ago, and I love that you love it, though it baffles me. I'll drop you a note.