The Charms of The Lost World

Rotten Tomatoes has Jurassic Park at 92% fresh, in contrast to the rotten 53% of The Lost World and even worse 49% of Jurassic Park III. Clearly, among most critics there’s a widely agreed-upon loss in quality between the first film and its sequels–and audiences generally agreed as well. But while I recognize that The Lost World isn’t as good a movie as the original, I’m with the 53% of critics who had a generally favorable impression of the first sequel.

Part of my fondness for the film is pure nostalgia. I was only 8 years old when the movie released. By this point, I’d watched Jurassic Park many times on home video and played even more hours with an assortment of tie-in toys; I’d read the sequel novel by Michael Crichton (although, curiously, I wouldn’t read the original until a few years later); and while I no longer remember the particular entertainment magazine, I remember flipping through glossy photos of the actors, sets, and dinosaur animatronics while reading behind-the-scenes details in advance. While I had been very interested in Jurassic Park, I was a bit too young for it when it came out; I just loved dinosaurs, but the movie was initially a little too scary for me (I vividly remember covering my eyes the first time during the kitchen scene), and I certainly didn’t get to go see it in theaters. I was primed to love the newer movie in the full, over-eager way a kid can love anything, and with a nearly quadrupled promotional budget over the original, Universal was clearly doing everything in its power to burrow brand recognition and excitement into every young person’s head.

As I’ve aged, my views about the movie have shifted, but I’ve never been able to regard it too harshly. For what it is, it’s a lot of fun: a big, prehistoric safari for the first half that shifts to something resembling survival horror and ends with a King Kong– or kaiju-style monster rampage through San Diego.

The cast is truly great, too. Jeff Goldblum’s return as Ian Malcolm, now the lead protagonist, offers a new spin on the character, who has gone from rock star to worn-out dad. I like that the movie inverts his role within the narrative, especially as it builds on the trauma he endured at the park. I also like that Malcolm is prominently confronted by the consequences of his former cavalier attitude toward women and relationships. Then there’s Julianne Moore, who’s great in everything, as not only an adventurous paleontologist but a sort of maternal force: Sarah Harding argues that dinosaurs nurtured their young and views the island as a way to test her views, she’s supportive of Kelly in a way that Ian isn’t, she attempts to care for the wounded juvenile tyrannosaur, and she protects Kelly when the adult tyrannosaurs show up in the camp site. Pete Postlethwaite is shockingly sympathetic for a poacher, with his wearied no-nonsense attitude in working for yet another rich idiot, his concern for the injured, his focus on problem-solving and willingness to set aside a grudge, his quixotic quest to be the best hunter on the planet, and his eventual separation from the mercenary lifestyle that all together suggest an inner nobility guided by self-imposed rules of honor, like some modern-day knight. Richard Schiff plays loveable tech geek Eddie Carr, completely out of his element but a downright good guy who sacrifices his life for his colleagues (in a truly horrific death that deeply disturbs me every time–I find myself screaming, “Eddie’s a hero! He deserves better!” on just about every viewing); Peter Stormare has a notable side role as Dieter, the asshole second-in-command for the poachers; Arliss Howard is an anti-Hammond whose snide and overconfident façade that barely covers a weaselly inferiority complex is easy to hate; Vince Vaughn plays his usual laid-back-bro-with-a-heart-of-gold; and Richard Attenborough’s single appearance in the film is scene-stealing.

The Lost World also has a little more darkness and moral complexity than the original. After all, it confronts the audience again and again with the proposition, are the heroes even the good guys? Hammond sends Sarah off alone to an island full of lethal prehistoric animals, which just isn’t smart regardless of her survival skills on the African savannah, and he dispatches the remainder of the team without even adequately informing them of the risks–for instance, that another, and much better funded, InGen team would soon arrive to pillage the place. To be fair, he clues in one member of the team, but of course Nick Van Owen is a saboteur and eco-terrorist who’s willing to put others’ lives in danger for the sake of freeing the dinosaurs, and he doesn’t bother to fill anyone in until things get set in motion. Sarah and Nick make several decisions that compromise the safety of both teams: freeing the dinosaurs in the camp, taking the juvenile tyrannosaur with them, keeping the bloodied clothing instead of discarding it so that the tyrannosaurs are all that much more easily able to track them, and taking the bullets from Roland Tembo’s gun. Sure, most of these actions were inadvertent, but it’s also true that most if not all of the deaths can be traced to their choices. Of course, it’s still easy to root for them since they care about the dinosaurs and we know them better than the hunters. And who really wants to cheer for poachers, even commanded by someone as charming as Pete Postlethwaite, when the scummy Peter Ludlow is writing their checks and some of them, like Dieter, are just vicious, uncaring, and brutal? (Whether we should actually devote so much to conserving species brought back from extinction after dozens or hundreds of millions of years is another question entirely that this film doesn’t really wrangle with; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at least engaged with that debate but quickly backed away from it.)

Then of course the dinosaurs themselves are great. I love the speculative socialized and nurturing behaviors shown. Would Stegosaurus really have cared for its young like that? It doesn’t matter; it was still some fun behavior to model, a nice counterpoint to dinosaurs as dumb and slow brutes, and the animatronics and computer animation that brought those stegosaurs to life is really something else. In general, the special effects look even better than those in Jurassic Park, showing some impressive updates in technology in a few short years, and all of the returning dinosaurs get a bit of a makeover even as a few new critters make their appearance. And while the Compsognathus / Procompsognathus amalgam is maybe a bit of a miss, most of the other new additions seemed rather true-to-life for the time. Plus, in 1997 paleontologists were only beginning to discover more and more feathered dinosaurs, so it was fair enough (probably) to leave them all scaly.

There are things that I truly don’t like about the movie. The pacing is a bit all over the place, as the plot moves forward in fits and starts, and the San Diego sequence, while exciting, feels like it belongs to a different movie (of course, if you think of the whole movie as an homage to King Kong, which surely would have been in Steven Spielberg’s mind, then the final act makes more sense). And that San Diego sequence offers a tantalizing possibility but in some ways doesn’t go far enough; dinosaurs on the mainland would have been a practical way to move on from the repeated trips to remote islands for similar survival stories, and it wouldn’t be until Fallen Kingdom that the franchise finally took advantage of this. Not that all of my complaints lay in that final section of the film, but also, I can never wrap my head around the logistics of how the Tyrannosaurus buck broke out of the cargo hold, killed everyone, and then was once more trapped; an explanation could exist, and perhaps it would even be something that would satisfy me, but the bizarre appearance of the ghost freighter has always invited the question of what exactly happened–and I don’t think of myself typically as the sort of doofus yelling “plot hole!” just because something’s not explicitly depicted onscreen. Then there’s the one really bad casting choice: Harvey Jason, an English actor, plays Ajay Sidhu, the Indian assistant to Roland Tembo, and it seems to be a textbook example of brownface.

Other than that, though, I wouldn’t say that The Lost World is a bad movie. It’s just tonally different from Jurassic Park. It’s not about the same things, and its recurring characters are (appropriately) different than they were before. This is an adventure movie, a spiritual successor to movies like the original screen adaptation of The Lost World in 1925, or King Kong in 1933, or any of the kaiju movies spawned out of them. It’s part monster movie, part safari adventure, and it maybe feels a bit disjointed because of that. Or maybe it’s because The Lost World is a crueler movie with a less-clear moral center than its predecessor. Doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it difficult to categorize. It’s rough around the edges, more inclined to brutality than awe, with deeply flawed characters filling the roles of protagonists and antagonists. It’s an interesting experiment for such a damn big blockbuster movie. And I’m still charmed by it.

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