Make It Stop: THE LOST WORLD - JURASSIC PARK (1997)
I would like to nominate The Lost World: Jurassic Park (hereafter known as JPII) as the worst film of Steven Spielberg’s career. Yes, there are other strong contenders; I would put the unwatchable turd that is Hook high at the top of the list. But at least Hook, as stunning a failure as it is on every level, feels like a Spielberg film. JPII feels like someone imitating a Spielberg film - badly*.
The story goes that Spielberg was busily trying to win an Oscar with Amistad and was essentially (and possibly literally) phoning it in on this film. I suspect that David Koepp, who is credited as the second unit director (and who wrote the original as well as this stinker) ended up directing a large share of the movie - especially the awful T-Rex in San Diego scenes (which chillingly predict Transformers, by the way). Whatever the case, 1997 was no 1993 for the beard. 93 saw him release Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, while 97’s crop of JPII and Amistad sort of sucked ass.
Everything is wrong in this film. It begins with the premise, which has Ian Malcolm coming back for a second round of dino-adventures in order to save his girlfriend, played by Julianne Moore. Malcolm is exactly the wrong character around whom to structure the film; a cold, cerebral character, Malcolm has no time for awe or wonder. Which I guess is okay, since neither does the film, which is relentlessly dark and cruel and completely unfun.
Right from the start JPII pisses me off because it has that horrible Ghostbusters II retcon happening; it turns out that InGen stifled everybody about what happened at the park and only Malcolm spoke out, but the world thinks he’s a crank. It’s so unimaginative to go back to square one like this, and it always feels like a cheat. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the sequel examined what impact the return of dinosaurs would have on the world? Jurassic Park III, a superior movie to this one in every way while also being fairly trashy schlock, at least has the common decency to explore that.
Erasing the events of the first film is far from the movie’s only opening cheat. The other is the very concept of a Site B, a second island filled with dinosaurs that nobody ever bothered to mention in the first movie. This is soap opera bullshit, where they kill a character and then explain he had a twin brother. I’m not even really sure why they needed to do this, since the movie doesn’t end with the Costa Rican air force destroying the island, as happened in the book.
What’s amazing about JPII is how a movie with so many good to great actors can have so few interesting characters. Julianne Moore is a blank slate throughout the film, and she has the opposite of chemistry with Jeff Goldblum, who seems visibly tired and bored. Moore gets on better with Vince Vaughn, here in the days before The Bloat got him. His character is supposed to surprise us by turning out to be an Earth Firster, but he’s such a nobody before the reveal who cares? Richard Schiff is great, but the movie is so mean it murders him in a terrible way, robbing us of his delightfully dry line readings.
The big standout is Pete Postlethwaite, playing a big game hunter who InGen sends to the island to help bag dinos to bring back to the mainland for a stateside park (great fucking plan, guys). But this movie is so angry at the world that it allows Postlethwaite, who breaks the leg of a baby tyrannosaur in order to trap its dad, to live while killing Schiff, the nice guy.
And then there’s Vanessa Lee Chester, playing Ian Malcolm’s Black Daughter. This is the only part of the movie that feels like Spielberg took an interest in it, as he has a multiracial family of his own. Sadly, the Black Daughter is a character so rotten that she makes the worst Tim and Lex bits from the first film feel like they came out of The 400 Blows. She’s useless, she’s whiny and she is involved in the series’ lowest point, when she does an entire gymnastics routine that culminates in her kicking a raptor in the face. I guess we should be thankful that she didn’t do a breakdancing routine or something.
There’s not really much of a story to JPII. John Hammond is sending a team to Site B to document the dinos so they can be preserved. Even the characters in the film find this a sudden and radical and unmotivated change of character for the man. For some unknowable reason Julianne Moore has gone ahead, all by herself, which is probably the stupidest idea that John Hammond has had, and if you saw the last movie you know he’s veritably made out of stupid ideas. Malcolm, being her supposed boyfriend (again, they generate all the heat of Popsicle), tags along to make sure she’s safe.
And she is and all of a sudden the film is like, wait, what the hell are we supposed to do with the next hour and change of runtime? So out of nowhere a whole bunch of expendable InGen jerkoffs show up on the island, driving around in vehicles designed by Kenner, catching dinosaurs. All of sudden the movie shifts gears into some half-assed environmentalist bullshit that makes no sense - these dinosaurs are most assuredly NOT part of the natural order, and in fact we should be exterminating them to make sure that they don’t totally upset the current world.
In a pretty brilliant move our heroes, upset by the way the InGen guys are being mean to the dangerous, genetically engineered monsters, set loose the captive dinos and trash the InGen camp. Which leaves EVERYBODY stranded on the island. The film then leaves behind the environmentalist stuff to become a long rip-off of the Skull Island sequence of the original King Kong.
There’s stuff that almost works. I like Postlethwait’s badass hunter who wants to be paid only by allowing him to bag a T-Rex bull (I’d like to see how he determines who is the dude). I like the idea behind the scene where the trailer goes over the side of the cliff, but it lasts way too long and becomes Three Stooges-level absurd as the characters keep ALMOST falling to their deaths. And the concept of the T-Rex loose in San Diego is awesome. It blows in reality (unless you’re the kind of numbskull who thinks Japanese businessmen running away from the dinosaur is just the height of comedy, and in that case I’d like to recommend Epic Movie to you), but it’s a great concept.
But there’s so much more that doesn’t work. This film has all the same dinosaurs as the first with only a few additions. The big change is that there are TWO T-Rexs, and one has scars on its face so you know it’s the toughest dino on the island. The movie comes to an end, loses most of its characters and then has a twenty minute long epilogue in San Diego. And it has a little girl kick a raptor in the face.
If the final T-Rex rampage had worked my feelings on JPII might be kinder. Sadly there’s nothing good in the sequence; right from the start it’s stupid, as the T-Rex remains in the hold of the Venture (sorry, Steve, another Kong reference won’t make your film less shitty) and yet has somehow eaten the crew. I’m sure there’s a deleted scene or a tie-in comic that explains this nonsense, but it’s not in the film. The stupid keeps going as the T-Rex tiptoes through the suburbs (this is the part that foretells the idiocy of Transformers) and then engages in a chase with Jeff Goldblum’s sports car. San Diego is a military town and yet it falls to Ian Malcolm to wrangle the beast.
JPII is the kind of bad, stupid movie where the bad guy CEO rich jerk puts himself into harm’s way at the end rather than have a hired goon take care of business; here the baddie, English Bob Balaban, chases the baby T-Rex into the hold of the Venture, only to be eaten by the momma. Take that, we’re supposed to yell. Instead we yawn, and wonder why the Great White Hunter who broke that baby’s leg got to just take off at the end of act two and a half.
Even the look of JPII is bad; gone is Dean Cundey, who brought a classical feel to the first film. Replacing him is Janusz Kaminski, whose flatter look makes many of the night scenes boring and only enhances the stagebound quality of many of the sequences. I will say that John Williams’ Kong-influenced drum-heavy score is a lot of fun, though.
Thing get really bad when it comes to the FX; while Jurassic Park was a perfect blend of CGI and practical FX, JPII leans all over the digital stuff in the worst way. The big hunting sequence is one of those terrible uses of CGI, where the camera just weaves in and out between a dinosaur’s legs simply because they can do that now. It’s a George Lucas-type sequence, all ugly pixelbeasts slammed unconvincingly into a landscape while the camera bobs and weaves everywhere.
There’s none of the masterful suspense of the first film in JPII; in its place are running and yelling scenes, and slapstick action sequences that want to be like the action set pieces in the best Indiana Jones films but really are sub-Goonies quality. It’s like Spielberg knew he couldn’t top the T-Rex attack from the first movie so he didn’t bother trying, and to make up for it he made the other set pieces longer and more convoluted and often more full of CGI (the characters dangling out of the cliff-hanging trailer is utterly unconvincing on any level).
JPII is a movie without decent characters, without a compelling story, with an incoherent thematic point of view, with loud noises and special effects but no wonder or scares or real thrills. It’s a bunch of shit thrown at the screen in the hopes that one or two pieces will stick. But worst of all it’s boring; JPII is a tediously paced film that staggers along without a strong structure or any sort of narrative throughline. Just when it seems to have collapsed, exhausted, at the finish line it has twenty more minutes for you to suffer through. It’s an ugly film, without any of the visual splendor of the original. It’s a mean film, without any of the excitement for dinosaurs that made the first movie such a joy. It’s a film about destructive corporate greed created because of destructive corporate greed, and I’m not sure that Spielberg was invested enough to even see the irony.
* the only other movie that I think truly rivals JPII for a ‘worst of Spielberg’ honor is Crystal Skull, which also feels like a less talented person aping Spielberg.