One of the writers of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), I think it was Lawrence Kasdan, spoke negatively of the film’s sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), calling it mean-spirited. That film was a relative disappointment (though it still made plenty of money), and that’s fairly common for movie sequels. Now, The Lost World isn’t quite as mean-spirited, but it does kind of feel like it’s leaning that direction.
The movie tries to copy what made Jurassic Park a hit, but then it also tries to one up itself, kind of like how every big budget superhero movie these days destroys entire cities in an effort to one up September 11th:
I’m going to discuss what I think The Lost World tries to do, how it fails and maybe what it could have avoided.
First, our protagonist is Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a charming character from the previous film. The difference here is that he goes from the comic relief to Hollywood leading man, and the makeup department made sure the change is noticeable.
Here he is from Jurassic Park as just an ordinary guy, albeit with interesting sunglasses and a wonderfully-thick head of hair.
…and here he is from The Lost World, his hair shorter, his superhero face more prepared and his stubble prominent.
*NOTE: I write these posts ahead of time, and I didn’t finish this one before I took a quick, impromptu trip to Joshua Tree, so now I will try to pick up where I left off.
Malcolm’s quips in Jurassic Park felt natural, like a music producer adding in just the right amount of tambourine to make a song pop. But in The Lost World, his humor is more forced in there, like a music producer saying “WE NEED MORE TAMBOURINE, THEY LOVED THE TAMBOURINE LAST TIME” but it doesn’t always fit. It became more predictable, I suppose. Watching Jurassic Park, I wasn’t expecting Malcolm to chime in with his thoughts and jokes, but in TLW you could start a countdown clock. Something crazy scary happens, and you know it’s 3,2,1… Malcolm quip.
Also, I’d say the humor was a pretty essential part of his character in the first film. His character contrasted with the others, namely Hammond who took himself too seriously but pretended he didn’t. Throughout that film, Hammond tried to laugh everything off, but you could tell he was coming undone underneath while his he watched his plan (his park) go up in smoke. Hammond’s plan is so flawed and crazy ridiculous that you needed Ian Malcolm there to say what the audience might be thinking. We could look at Hammond’s obvious hubris and say “I don’t know about this…” but then Malcolm does it for us. His role in the film is to tell the audience that the filmmakers know how unbelievable the premise of the movie is, but you should go along with it anyway, like he is.
Malcolm serves a similar role here, but the first couple of scenes feel like a crappy “Greatest Hits” CD of Jurassic Park except that the recordings of the “hits” are somehow worse, maybe missing the bass line or with the singer forgetting the chorus. You recognize it, but you don’t enjoy it. It just makes you yearn for a re-watch of the previous film.
The story starts with Malcolm visiting Hammond who tells him that there’s another island full of dinosaurs, and that it had been in existence as long as the park. It’s a lot of exposition, and we have to just accept that Hammond was withholding this information from the other characters and the audience. I don’t like when sequels do this, but it always happens. It’s basically a new film because of the introduction of new ideas and characters completely unrelated to the first film. Malcolm is the only constant (despite Hammond’s brief appearance as long as the grandchildren’s cameo).
I don’t think I’m writing clearly enough about what I’m trying to say, but we just get one of those talk-heavy exposition scenes in which we’re caught up with everything. So not only does Hammond have another dinosaur island, but he wants Malcolm to lead a team to document what the dinos have been up to. Malcolm, of course, says no because of what happened last time, but oh wait, he has a girlfriend named Sarah (Julianne Moore) who has already volunteered to go to the island, and she’s there already. Malcolm knows she’s in danger, so he has no choice but to go save her.
I dislike this for multiple reasons. Sure, I guess Malcolm has a girlfriend, but of course she’s in the same line of work as him, of course Hammond sent her to the island without telling him, blah blah blah. It forces Malcolm to go on the journey because he would never volunteer to go, and the film needs Malcolm in the story. It’s all forced because the movie has to have certain elements that connect it to the first film. It’s like The Lost World needs to prove it’s a Jurassic Park film instead of it’s own movie.
So none of this feels organic, and it feels tired almost immediately. The other annoying part of the story is that Malcolm has a daughter and she sneaks onto the boat and comes to the island with him. That would never happen, and why does there always need to be a kid in every Spielberg movie? He loves kids onscreen, and I certainly get why, to a point. So many of his films are about things bigger than us, whether that’s real world events (World War II and The Holocaust, even archaic social constructions) or fantastical elements (crazy scary shark, aliens, dinosaurs, Nazi Archeologists) that the most efficient way to express the desired sense of wonder is to show it all through a kid’s eyes. Hell, you could just film a kid, maybe an 8 year old, walking up to the empire state building and looking up at it in awe. Use a low camera angle that tilts upward, revealing the enormity of the building and combine that with a doe-eyed kid and a John Williams score, and boom you’ve said what you need to say. It works, and I’d say it worked in Jurassic Park too because the kids were somewhat exciting and fun to follow. They had personalities, they were stubborn, they bickered like siblings do, but ultimately they represented the innocence and naivete of humanity as a whole when confronted with something so primal and vicious and terrorizing as dinosaurs. Hammond’s and humanity’s hubris is tragic because it could affect everyone, not just the withered, stubble-bound adults with drinking problems and a surprisingly muscular physique who are inexplicably prepared for what happens in Act 3.
In The Lost World, Malcolm’s daughter, Kelly, is just… there. She doesn’t understand the shitstorm she’s gotten herself into, and maybe that’s supposed to represent the idea that no one believes Malcolm about the dinosaurs (because everyone has remained silent about the experience in Hammond’s park due to Non-Disclosure Agreements…), not even his daughter.
But there’s another problem. Did his daughter not believe him? Just like Vince Vaughn the cameraman? But his girlfriend believed him, that’s why she’s there? Unless I’m missing something (and hey, I probably am), it feels like the movie is jumping around, inconsistent in the way the characters view Malcolm. Most people don’t believe Malcolm about the dinosaurs, jeopardizing his career as he insists there are living dinosaurs while everyone calls him crazy. I guess everyone else on that island who made it has willingly shut up about the many near-death experiences they shared. Okay, so that’s what the film establishes early on. But then Sarah believes there are dinosaurs because it helps the plot move forward if she does. Again, maybe I missed something, it just feels like the movie isn’t consistent because it doesn’t care and it doesn’t have to be. The studio execs just shouted at them “GET THEM TO THE ISLAND ALREADY,” and that’s how our heroes made it to the island. That’s also how we get something like a National Lampoon Vacation movie with Malcolm, his girlfriend and his daughter in an RV on an island full of things that will kill you for 400, Alex.
I’m going so far down these discussion threads that might lead nowhere, it’s dark down here and I can’t see anything. Anyways, they’re on the island, but they’re not alone. There’s also a military-esque crew of people left by Hammond’s lawyer who wants to start a Dinosaur zoo in San Diego. His goal is to capture the dinos and take them to the mainland. Again, it’s the villainous character who is full of hubris and can’t see the danger he’s causing.
In Jurassic Park, Hammond was the villain, I think, but he was never villainous. He was blind to the park’s danger, sure, but he had grand aspirations that weren’t reduced to greed or power (okay maybe a little power). He loved the idea of bringing dinosaurs to life. He was like Walt Disney, and once he had his eyes set on this idea, he was committed to it. I’ve been blind to things in my life when I get tunnel vision like that, but usually it doesn’t lead to dinosaurs. It usually leads to apologies and promises that I won’t forget your birthday again.
Oh man, though, could you imagine if it led to dinosaurs? “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was already the third of the month and I forgot to pay rent, but there’s a stegosaurus outside my door, and I’m a littler nervous to go outside.”
Basically, Hammond felt human, and his mistakes were ultimately very human. In TLW, though, the lawyer, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard) is greedy and constantly sneering. He is immediately antagonistic towards Malcolm in a way that boldly declares “this is the guy whose inevitable transformation into ground meat will be the emotional climax of the film.”
So the film is falling into simple, broad character types. Malcolm is less nuanced and thrown into the hero category while Ludlow becomes the new Hammond, only much less likable and much more overtly evil. It’s like Spielberg thought, “what if I took one of the Nazi guards from Schindler’s List and made him more likable,” and thus Peter Ludlow was born.
Another problem is that Vince Vaughn’s character, Nick Van Owen, steps on Malcolm’s character. They serve the film in the same way. They’re both a little sardonic, pretty masculine with a good head on their shoulders. The only difference is that Nick is in awe by the dinosaurs (but so are most people so this isn’t new), and he’s younger. I half-expected him to learn he was Malcolm’s son by the end of the film. In other words, Nick’s character feels unnecessary.
Okay, gosh, where am I in the story? So we have our group of heroes, kind of like a little family (well the actual family and then two other guys), and they’re good because they just want to document, preserve and protect the environment. But then Ludlow’s gang of hunters and mercenaries arrive and immediately start driving through the island, shooting and capturing dinosaurs. Okay, more problems with this. First, they arrive and, again, IMMEDIATELY start hunting. Like, they hit the ground running, didn’t even take time for a bathroom break or a light nap after that long trip. I think the extended version of the movie might show the scene they cut out in which they’re snorting cocaine and injecting themselves with extra adrenaline.
There’s no awe on their parts. Maybe a couple characters show it, but by and large they are ready to go. Someone might say “oh yeah there are dinosaurs” and the wave them off saying “dinosaurs, dinosaurs yeah I know, those things from history, tell me more about the climate.” Sure this contrasts them with our heroes, but again it’s resorting to broader characterizations. These guys, good, those guys, bad.
They capture a bunch of dinosaurs, but then Nick and the Malcolm crew sneak into the camp and open their cages, pretty easily. These mercenaries are not a fan of security or even strong locks.
During this nighttime raid of positivity, Nick rescues an injured baby t-rex which was harnessed to the ground in an effort to lure out the adult t-rex (which Ludlow’s team wants to capture for the San Diego zoo). Nick takes this baby t-rex to their own campsite as he and Sarah try to rescue it. All the while the baby t-rex cries out in pain. Malcolm’s daughter says she doesn’t feel safe there, so he takes her up to some sort of lift that carries them to above the tree line, the safest place on the island. Now that I think about it, this window washer-type lift is too perfect.
So they notice the adult t-rex parents moving through the trees, on their way towards the RV. Unable to call down to them with the phone, Malcolm hurries back to warn Nick and Sarah. The dinos stand patiently outside, breathing heavily, and the frightened crew returns the baby dinosaur. Instead of leaving them be, the t-rex pair nudges the RV over the edge, trying to punish and kill the humans. It’s not that they’re hunting anymore, they’re just pissed. This already seems to go against what we know about the dinosaurs, basically giving them a personality. It’s a bit weird, and I think it also shows another weakness in the script. These characters aren’t enough to build a story around. In Jurassic Park, the characters had enough conflicts between them to drive the narrative. We knew what they wanted, what they were scared of and we learned how far they were willing to go to do what was needed. The dinosaurs were never really characters in the film. They were more like a natural disaster, something like a tornado of terror. This made sense considering the theme of the film was about nature and the way it protects itself and can’t be controlled. The dinosaurs were part of a bigger message.
In TLW, though, there isn’t enough going on between the characters. What’s the conflict between Ian Malcolm, Sarah and Nick? There is none, they’re all on the same side. Sure, Malcolm wants to convince Sarah to leave the island, but that’s just glossed over as she makes it clear she won’t leave. In this moment, though, they both want survival. And Nick is just there.
So then that’s how you end up with the dinosaurs exerting something more on our protagonists than something akin to a very strong natural disaster. The dinosaurs decide to punish the characters for taking their baby t-rex, and I feel like in this scene, the writer was saying “They give the baby back, and then I don’t know what happens. OH, how about the parents are mad so they punish the three characters by nudging the RV off the edge except we can’t kill the main characters, so how about they only nudge it part of the way off the edge, and then we can get an exciting setpiece out of it in which they have to avoid falling to their deaths, and the producers will love it because it can be shot cheaply on the studio lot with a green screen.” Then his assistant overheard this and said “wouldn’t the dinosaurs just eat them instead of pushing them over the edge? And why would they wait a few minutes after getting their baby back to do it rather than immediately attacking the characters? And why, if we momentarily accept your premise that they push the RV over the edge, don’t they push it all the way? Was their goal to annoy the humans by moving their RV a few feet so they had to walk further to go to the restroom?” And then that’s how the writer’s assistant got fired.
So the next scene takes a long time to play out. The three of them almost fall to their deaths, but the fourth guy in their group, Eddie (Richard Schliff) aka the guy you know is going to get killed to re-enforce how dangerous the dinosaurs are because he’s not a child, he’s not our main character, he’s not the main character’s love interest and he’s not Vince Vaugh, tries to save them (and does!) but is killed in the process. His death is ridiculous. The dinosaurs play hot potato with his body, one of them tosses him up in the air, and then they both catch him and tear him apart like the opposite of this famous scene:
Actually, I guess it’s kind of the same.
Yet again, these dinosaurs aren’t just dinosaurs, they’re personality-drive, vindictive, playful dinosaurs who know they’re in a movie. It’s like if you made a movie and cast a regular guy to play himself, knowing it would have the effect you’re looking for. He plays himself, acting without really realizing he’s acting, and the movie is a hit. Then you make another film and want to cast him again to play the same type of character but this time he shows up having lost 60 pounds, with a new haircut, and he’s been studying the Meisner technique and tries to be Tom Cruise onscreen.
The movie keeps playing because that’s what movies do, and more characters die. They all die because they’re supposed to die, whether they’re mercenaries or Peter Stormare being mean to the dinosaurs that you know will kill him just because he’s mean (though his death means little to the overall story).
The end of Act 2 deals with all of our favorite characters running for their lives from the velociraptors. Just like Jurassic Park, the first big setpiece deals with the t-rex, the next one deals with the raptors, and the third one is like the t-rex’s encore. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The raptors are planted in this wide open field, and they tear apart the group of mercenaries running for their lives through it. Then our heroes run through that same field, but they’re completely fine because all the raptors aren’t there or don’t care. But later the raptors doe show up, and Malcolm’s daughter suddenly goes from scared child to gymnast action hero as she grabs a pipe, swings around it and punts a raptor through the wall of a dilapidated shack and onto a spike like a skewer. It’s over the top, and maybe you don’t mind that, maybe I shouldn’t have minded it, but I did. The movie both tries to one up itself and take itself seriously. It felt imbalanced, struggling to survive between two worlds, hey kind of like the characters in this movie struggling to survive in two worlds, first the island and second the mainland when the adult t-rex attacks San Diego.
So Ludlow and his gang capture the t-rex, and when they bring the creature to San Diego, it gets loose and rampages through the city. Despite the buffet full of delicious humans, the t-rex only eats a dog and one guy.
Malcolm and Sarah lure the dinosaur to follow them, using the injured baby t-rex as bait. They are able to get away and lure the dinosaur into the ship which brought it to the mainland. Ludlow is still hanging around, and despite all the hell that’s been unleashed, he’s convinced if he captures the baby t-rex, it’ll have been worth it. Well he tries to get the baby t-rex (not sure how he thinks he can do it), and the adult t-rex kills him as the music swells.
This is where I return to what I opened this post about, the idea of a movie being mean-spirited. When the music swells as it did in that scene, it means the audience is supposed to be cheering (ideally even though that rarely happens outside of Star Wars viewings). In Jurassic Park, this moment came when the t-rex killed the two raptors and ROARED, celebrating its own sheer power and highlighting how foolish us humans were to think we could ever control it. It’s a positive, cheer-worthy moment because it’s the exclamation point on what the movie has been saying the whole time. It’s a bit epic too, with the dinosaur fully visible, the roar vibrating through the audience and the banner that reads “when dinosaurs ruled the earth” falling to the ground, the final joke in a movie full of them. That movie is funny, but that humor is both sardonic and heartfelt, if that’s even possible. In a way it suggests we’re completely dumb (humans) but we aspire to something and that’s admirable in its own way, even if it’s not entirely thought out. That’s why Malcolm is there, to make it clear that not all humans are as blind as Hammond.
In TLW, the music swells when the bad guy gets got. There’s no broader message, just a dumb guy venturing into an obvious trap because he’s greedy and the bad guy. When he is killed, I guess we’re supposed to cheer and say “I’m glad he was killed because he sucked.” And I did do my own silent cheer, because I wanted that guy to get his comeuppance. But really it’s the film toying with me, saying “hey look at this guy, he’s awful right, I bet you just want to see him get what he deserves, you’d like that wouldn’t you?” and I nod and say “I sure would.” Then the movie dangles his death in front of us like a string in front of a wide-eyed cat before finally saying “okay, I’m tired of this, here it is” and we ravage through the string, playing with it, while the the filmmakers go away laughing at us for how badly we wanted it.
Or maybe I’m wrong, but it felt that way. It felt cheap and easy.
All in all, this movie is full of action-packed scenes like performing an ultra sound on a dinosaur’s leg, discussing Non-disclosure agreements and parenting.