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.

Jurassic Park: Book vs. Film

It’s common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie. Except for when it isn’t. Jurassic Park is a fairly unique case, in that the movie is an incredible achievement and is distinctly superior to the book, and yet in adapting from print to screen, it takes some liberties and changes some characters and plot arcs for the worse. While I do believe that the best version of Jurassic Park exists on the screen, there are some notable caveats that go with that statement, and depending on your storytelling priorities, it’s perfectly reasonable to favor the book. It’s sort of a tie, then, isn’t it?

Below are the elements I favored in each version.

Better in the Film

  1. Almost all of the characters. Except for the case of Gennaro (made into a symbol of corporate greed and embodied primarily by cowardice) and Nedry (who remains a fairly simple bumbling villain, and yet another character motivated by greed), they’re all more human and complex.
    1. Hammond is refreshingly reformed, not a simple corporate bad guy or “evil Walt Disney” like the book, and I think his realization over the course of the film that the park was a bad idea, his recognition that his consultants’ concerns about power, control, and chaos were right, provides a fantastic character arc that also serves to reinforce the central theme of the movie in a better and more subtle way than the preachy lectures from Malcolm in the novel; this also provides a nice setup for Hammond’s reformation and attempt to get the dinosaurs left alone that motivates him to act in The Lost World.
    2. Grant has a fantastic new arc, becoming more comfortable with children and developing paternal characteristics that had otherwise been lacking and suggest a likely improvement in his long-term relationship with Sattler (and so I’ll never really forgive Jurassic Park III for bringing the two back as exes, with Sattler having found another partner to start a family with).
    3. Speaking of Sattler, the sensitivity and fearful resolve brought to the role by Laura Dern make for an improved character over the more generic Action Hero Woman defined solely by beauty and nerves of steel in the book.
    4. Malcolm is made to be hipper and funnier, somewhat less a boring know-it-all, in part thanks to far fewer speeches and in part due to the magnetism Jeff Goldblum naturally produces.
    5. Switching the relative ages of dino-nerd Tim and scaredy-cat Lex, and then making Lex a computer geek, makes Lex far less annoying and gives her something practical to do while retaining Tim’s function in the story. Helpful, endearing kids–who are still kids and require protection–make Grant’s arc even more plausible and, more importantly, make it easier for the audience (or at least me) to care when the kids are imperiled. (I literally gasp every time I watch that Explorer slide over the edge with Grant and Lex barely grasping the line to safety in time.)
  2. The design of the park is gorgeous, the sets are amazing, and it looks better than I could have imagined from reading the book alone. In fact, the book makes the park seem smaller, in a way, even though there’s a more involved tour and then the extended river raft sequence to show more of it and more of the dinosaurs in it. (Tough to beat the lush Hawaiian ridges in the background of the film for making the island and park seem enormous.)
  3. The movie focuses on a smaller set of intense action scenes with plenty of smaller character moments in between. The book is too much a run of threat after threat, with virtually no character development (I’ll talk in the next section about the cool moments of meandering the book gets into, but they’re not there for character development).
  4. The movie really nails moments of awe. In the book, there’s more sickening dread throughout. Whereas the movie still opens with the Velociraptor attack, it then shifts to introducing our characters, and when we get to the island, we get the cool Brachiosaurus scene. The book lingers on moments of horror, characterized by the introductory scene in which a maimed man is brought back to the mainland to die, followed by a prolonged subplot about several Procompsognathus that have escaped to the mainland to prey on infants.
  5. The movie ends with a sense of hope and renewed purpose. The book ends on a darker note, with a much higher body count, the island napalmed, predators escaped to the mainland, and the surviving protagonists held prisoner.

Better in the Book

  1. Gennaro is done a great disservice in the film by combining his character with Ed Regis and killing him off early. I really like the Gennaro of the book. He’s still representative of corporate greed and irresponsibility, but he’s frankly not a bad man, and he’s provided an opportunity for reluctant redemption. Gennaro’s also the book’s everyman and therefore makes for the most relatable viewpoint character, in contrast to the author’s mouthpiece that is Malcolm or the Action Heroes of Grant and Sattler.
  2. There is not a single best version of Muldoon, but the book’s version has some strong points in his favor. I love Bob Peck’s portrayal, but I also like the older, alcoholic, roguish figure of the novel. I also enjoy Muldoon’s meatier role, as he becomes centrally involved in the subplot of attempting to get the park back online, doing things like tranquilizing the adult Tyrannosaurus, finding Nedry’s corpse, and distracting the raptors when attempting to restore power. And there’s the fact that Muldoon makes it out alive in the book. I do prefer the film’s treatment of death–anyone and everyone is at risk, and even though the body count is lower, it’s not the simple use of violent death as moral consequence that Crichton tends to employ in his books. Still, Muldoon’s a character I want to make it off the island; he knew better, and he actually paid attention to the threat the dinosaurs represented. It’s especially humiliating for the film version of the character in that he’s taken down by the dinosaurs he’s supposed to know and respect/fear.
  3. The dinosaurs in the book are more accurate, at least for the time of publication. The film takes too many liberties with some of its dinosaurs, though they are still mostly quite realistic (again, for the time of release) and certainly dynamic in a way that most audiences hadn’t seen before. Even the weird divergences in the book, like Velociraptor actually being Deinonychus, are explicitly discussed, and the speculative behaviors presented for some of the dinosaurs are exactly that–speculative, not necessarily inaccurate.
  4. The book actually answers the questions raised by its central mysteries. The movie never explains why the Triceratops keeps getting sick (nor does it even bother to suggest that Sattler is right) or how the Velociraptor were breeding without notice or able to escape their confinement to lay eggs in the park. The novel simply had more raptors, so it was easier to imagine them secretly disappearing at night in small numbers, but the movie has only the three, so it’s a little harder to imagine that no one would ever notice (then again, they had a skeleton crew to run the park, even more so in the movie).
  5. The book also spends more time fleshing out how the park is run and staffed, how things go to hell and how systems are restored, and even what the dinosaurs really are. I liked the moments spent with Muldoon, Wu, and Harding and the more behind-the-curtain elements that their stories, and Hammond’s, provided. While I’d never want to see a movie remake of Jurassic Park, which is more or less perfect as is, I really wouldn’t mind at all a television series that adapted the novel and mirrored its more meandering pace and curiosity about every element of how this park could possibly exist. Spielberg rightly focused on the awe and spectacle, but I like Crichton’s intense focus on rationalizing everything, on making it seem real, like an incident that had actually occurred. Crichton was interested in the infrastructure and logistics of it all, and I suppose I am too.

A fairly neutral point is how each version left the state of the fictional universe for potential sequels. Certainly sequels are never necessary, but we’ve certainly had plenty of sequels nonetheless, and it’s interesting to consider how the changed landscapes at the conclusions of the original stories impacted what later stories could reasonably be told.

The book closes off any option of a return to Isla Nublar, given its dramatic napalm bombing finale. However, it does leave the dangling thread of some of the dinosaurs having reached the mainland–at least some Procompsognathus and what is suggested to be Velociraptor. That might have been a rather limited scope for a sequel, but you’d immediately be in a world where dinosaurs were coexisting with remote human populations, and that could have been interesting. I’m rather glad we didn’t see that sequel, though, because I don’t think I’d much care for such a scenario where there were only a few small theropods left. Sure, it could have been an interesting story about preserving and containing de-extinct and now endangered life that was nonetheless an invasive species, but I bet it would have been more a monster narrative about killer dinosaurs.

Ultimately, it was the better choice for Crichton to abandon this subplot. And, given his interest in a plausible prehistoric park and in the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of it, the existence of a Site B makes a lot of sense and is a good starting point. It doesn’t feel like a do-over, but more a reflection that Jurassic Park would have required considerable facilities for genetics, manufacturing, incubation, and raising the young dinosaurs that likely would have to be larger than the infrastructure suggested even in the book’s version of the park. It’s a natural development. I’m also hardly alone in finding that Crichton’s best stories tend to borrow themes and structures from classic literature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he turned to perhaps the most signature adventure story of humans stumbling upon a lost prehistoric land for the sequel, lifting even the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for his novel. Once more, Crichton spends a lot of time on nuts and bolts, building out a plausible sequence of events for the characters to discover this lost world and articulating a coherent explanation for its existence and abandonment. But the plot itself suffers, and he reuses character types from Jurassic Park, down to bringing along two kids. Truly, once the team gets to the island, the plot takes a backseat to a series of mostly disconnected action set pieces, interesting speculative dinosaur behaviors, and long-winded philosophical debates among the protagonists. The central mystery on the island–how can the ecosystem support so many carnivores?–is not especially interesting and keeps getting derailed by the next action scene. And the central antagonists are just bumbling poachers, as Crichton apparently felt it necessary to bring the BioSyn corporate antagonist behind Nedry back into the mix in a rather mundane way. Perhaps the most unusual carryover from the first book is the return of Ian Malcolm, a character who was quite dead. While a bizarre choice, I imagine this was an acquiescence to audience interest and the very living version of the character in the movie. It might perhaps be another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, who in addition to writing The Lost World was of course the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom he once killed off and later brought back.

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had their own loose ends they could have followed up on. After all, there’s no mention of bombing the island. There could have still been dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. Perhaps InGen could have sent in a team to try to control the situation, encountering new threats and exploring previously unseen areas of the park. The mysteries left unanswered in the film could have been addressed. And while the lysine contingency would have gone into effect with the absence of human intervention, the animals’ continued survival would have been another mystery to answer–after all, that was another question left to address on Isla Sorna either way. While they largely scrapped the broad adventure plot of Crichton’s sequel, they did pull in several of the characters, a few of the action sequences, and the broad concept of the second island, so Nublar was left neglected. Of course, the films did eventually get back to Isla Nublar and a reorganized park, but in the process, they left the fate of the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna in shadow. Why was the volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar a potential threat of re-extinction for the dinosaurs if they were thriving on Site B? The only for-certain explanation, provided in ancillary materials like the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide, is that the animals were relocated from Isla Sorna to the new park on Isla Nublar. Were they all moved? How did InGen get around the apparent preserve status set up for Isla Sorna after the events of The Lost World, especially if they completely depleted the newly established ecosystem in the process? Regardless, it would have been nice if each film didn’t act as though there was only one island with dinosaurs on it, that island being whichever one was the focus of that given film.

But now I’m way off topic. The bottom line: there are a great many things I like about both the book and movie version of Jurassic Park, and I’m glad they both exist.

Review: The Making of Jurassic Park

The Making of Jurassic ParkThe Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an enjoyable account of the making of Jurassic Park. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the special effects were at the time, and this narrative really drives home those elements of the production. There are also a lot of great teases about the development of the screenplay from the novel to the final product, with three screenwriters (starting with Crichton himself) taking a swing at it.

This could have been a fairly safe narrative, but the hardships of production are described, often in detail, and there are at least hints of tension and conflicts (the shifting prioritization of stop-motion, animatronics, and CGI was an interesting dramatic narrative). And there were some quotes where the creative team could be surprisingly frank. My favorite, from screenwriter David Koepp: “Here I was writing about these greedy people who are creating a fabulous theme park just so they can exploit all these dinosaurs and make silly little films and sell stupid plastic plates and things. And I’m writing it for a company that’s eventually going to put this in their theme parks and make these silly little films and sell stupid plastic plates. I was really chasing my tail there for a while trying to figure out who was virtuous in this whole scenario–and eventually gave up.”

Visually, the book is packed with concept art, behind-the-scenes photographs, and astounding images of the visual effects development process. My parents got me this book as a kid (like Tim, and many/most kids, I’ve always had dinosaurs on the brain), and the book was always a delight just for the pictures alone. Amazingly, while I had skimmed many passages before, this was my first time reading it cover-to-cover (sadly, not the same childhood copy).

The book accomplishes what it sets out to do: it tells the story of the making of Jurassic Park. A longer, more robust, more complicated and detailed narrative would have been fascinating, and I would have preferred if the story had been told in pure chronological order rather than inserting details as they made thematic sense (as some of the conflicts and detours would be more apparent that way, and the whole project would seem less destined). Still, I enjoyed reading it and will continue to enjoy idly leafing through the artwork.

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P.S. The three screenwriters were: Michael Crichton, Malia Scotch Marmo, and David Koepp. Marmo’s version was ultimately unused, but she provided extensive feedback on Koepp’s version, which evolved into the final script.