Museum of Jurassic Technology

Reviews of the latest films.
May 25 1997 3:30 AM

Museum of Jurassic Technology

Glitzy dinosaurs. Not much else.

The Lost World
Directed by Steven Spielberg
A Universal Pictures Release

"You didn't know about Site B," says the dotty old millionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to the wiseacre scientist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Site B, eh? You'd think, given the money and brainpower involved, that someone would have come up with a less galumphing way to launch the sequel to Jurassic Park than the old "you didn't know about Site B" speech. But people who make sequels to blockbusters don't act as if they need to recapture your imagination--they act as if they have a 99-year lease on it. Early in The Lost World, Hammond updates Malcolm on all that has occurred in the four years since his would-be dino-Disneyland came to a chaotic end; this includes the population of Site B by dinosaurs. You must go to Site B and document the beasts, says Hammond. No, John, says Malcolm. I wouldn't go to Site B if you paid me. Surprise, says Hammond, your paleontologist girlfriend is already at Site B. Yikes! says Malcolm. Where's the plane? I must go to Site B and rescue her! You get the feeling that Steven Spielberg's mind isn't fully engaged.

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It would be imprecise to say that the thrill is gone, because The Lost World recovers from its turgid opening and comes to life, or does so in spasms. At Site B, a couple of tyrannosaurs shove a long trailer with our heroes in it over a cliff, and the heroine, Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), lands smack on the windshield, the only thing between her and the roiling water below--her slightest move to extricate herself producing blood-freezing spider-cracks in the glass. A guy gets picked up by a pair of dinosaurs and pulled apart like a wishbone. In a field of tall grass, a platoon of velociraptors converges on a hunting party with the choreographic precision of Busby Berkeley dancers, the pattern of attack viewed from on high, godlike, until the camera suddenly shifts to eye level as one by one the men are toppled, thrashing. Swarms of chickenlike dinosaurs ("compys") squawk and leap and nip their victims, who swat at them like gnats until they realize (uh-oh) that they've been paralyzed by poison, that they're about to be nipped to death. I screamed louder at The Lost World than at any film I've seen in years, but between screams I groaned and rolled my eyes at the general air of purposelessness.

Am I holding the picture to too high a standard? Aren't dinosaurs, a couple of crackerjack action sequences, and some really juicy killings enough for a good night out? The first Jurassic Park was hardly faultless; it had sloppy plotting, windy speeches, and a payoff bungled by the arrival of a tyrannosaurus-ex-machina. But it also had a magical synergy: The awe its characters felt seeing dinosaurs revived after 10 million years of extinction merged with the awe the audience felt at seeing such impossibly fluid and lifelike creatures on-screen. Hammond's Jurassic Park was a subset of the larger miracle that was Jurassic Park.

What's missing in The Lost World is that sense of wonder, along with the quality that makes a Spielberg thriller so singular--elegance. He and screenwriter David Koepp have cooked up a bloody porridge: a re-tread of the first picture, set on yet another island with yet more genetically engineered dinosaurs running even more nastily rampant; then a safari movie, with corporate-sponsored hunters defiling this "natural" world and stirring our sympathy for the vicious beasts from which we've previously recoiled; and finally a sort of King Kong Takes Southern California, with an angry tyrannosaurus drinking from backyard pools and eating little dogs in well-heeled San Diego. Spielberg and company outdo themselves in places, which is saying quite a bit. But the film as a whole is dissonant, assaultive--and a mess.

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F rom what I can glean, Spielberg made The Lost World because there had to be a sequel and he didn't want anyone else to make it. (He is said to be peeved to this day by Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D.) The concept he came up with has nothing to do with Michael Crichton's sequel to the novel Jurassic Park (the last film was reasonably close to the book), and is far removed in spirit from Crichton's engaging blend of scientific philosophy, Saturday-matinee thrills, and clinical descriptions of what it feels like to be eaten alive by tyrannosaurs, velociraptors, dilophosaurs, and procompsognathids. Crichton has an infectious zest for data, the kind of thing that sci-fi freaks (and brainy adolescents) enjoy and that Spielberg hurries past in order to dump you onto the roller coaster.

No, Spielberg sought to make a movie about "hunters vs. gatherers," which is actually a great idea, and is beautifully worked out in visual and rhythmic terms. When the small army of dinosaur-catchers arrives, led by Hammond's snooty son-in-law (played by Arliss Howard) and a grave bounty hunter (Pete Postlethwaite) whose sole ambition is to bring down the T-Rex, the effect is dynamic. Suddenly, motorcycles are roaring through the bush, lizards are shocked with electric prods, and massive beasts are wrangled and thrown, bellowing. And suddenly, too, our enmities shift, from the dinosaurs--who are acting, after all, out of primitive instinct--to the humans, who are doing this for sport and profit. For a spell, the film develops a resonant schizophrenia. We cheer for the good guys and their acts of eco-sabotage (their ranks include an Earth First!er) while realizing that the animals they're protecting could come along and chomp them in half--the flesh of a deep ecologist being just as tasty as the flesh of a hunter.

Like a virtuoso litigator, Spielberg can make the case for either side: He can sell the terror-of-dinosaurs scenes and he can sell the cruelty-to-dinosaurs scenes. But he can't seem to dramatize the ambivalence, and I'm not sure he realizes he ought to. He's an opportunist who believes in one thing--audience manipulation--and so he doesn't have any problem with getting you to root for a couple of people who are not so nice to animals to be eaten by the dinosaurs, and then getting you to root for those animals to be blown away when they come after the good guys. The film is barbarously PC. When Howard's character mentions the price of his suit, you know he'll have to be eaten, just as you know that Malcolm's African-American adolescent daughter will have to serve as a positive role model for young African-American women and kick some velociraptor butt.

Spielberg makes you flinch in the face of those jack-in-the-box, 3-D velociraptors, and although he cheats like mad, his Rube Goldberg ingenuity (and the timing of his editor, Michael Kahn) is undiminished. But nothing can fill the chasm where this movie's core should be--neither Goldblum, our most brilliant cinematic babbler (perhaps the only actor who could yell, in the course of a cliffhanger, "Increase your rate of climb!" and not break an audience up), nor the terrific Postlethwaite, whose leathery skin is pulled so tight over those sharp cheekbones that he looks like an Egyptian mummy. Julianne Moore has proven her fearlessness in films like Safe, but here she has a Diane Keaton-like airheadedness that makes her seem dissociated from her scientific spew. We want to see her chomped for her blithe naiveté.

And then there are those dinosaurs. They don't look rubbery. Their musculature ripples with their weight. They breathe. At irregular intervals, they blink their heavy lids. Stan Winston, Michael Lantieri, and their armies of artists and craftspeople have put more than their time into these creatures--they've put their souls into them. Watch the way the stegosaurus exhales, or how the tyrannosaurus bobs and weaves as it runs. I know that these artists are thrilled that their work will be seen by billions of people all over the world. But what can they think when they see their dinosaurs--the triumph of late- 20th century technology--employed in the service of drama so primitive? I daresay cavemen could have chiseled better scripts.