Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Lost World: Jurassic Park movie review.

In anticipation of Jurassic World’s upcoming release, I’ve decided to post reviews for the two Jurassic Park sequels leading up to the fourth film’s release.

As most of you know, Jurassic Park is my favorite movie of all time. I love its characters, I love its story and suspense, I love its music, and I love that it was the first time that dinosaurs in movies got the grand scope and scale that they deserved, as well as treating them like grounded, feeling animals rather than bloodthirsty, mindless brutes. To this day, it remains one of Steven Spielberg’s most popular films, as well as his most financially successful. For those reasons and more, a follow up was inevitable.

Though Spielberg had proved a capable sequel director, the book’s original author, Michael Crichton, had never had the same experience. The two, as well as writer David Koepp, began brainstorming for ideas, and two years after Crichton finished his novel, Spielberg unveiled the next installment in the series, The Lost World.

When it was released, the film sparked a polarizing critical response, especially those comparing it to its predecessor, but it proved to be another success for Spielberg at the box office. Moving out of the more carefree and wondrous light with slight horror touches of the first film, this sequel was painted in a darker, more environmentally driven action mode. Admittedly, I used to like this movie a lot when I was a kid, but this is one of the rare Spielberg films that haven’t aged gracefully. I find myself having to divide my thoughts into separate mindsets. As a standalone film, it’s more mediocre than outright awful, but as a follow up to an outstanding film, it’s downright embarrassing.

Four years after the disaster at Isla Nublar, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is in something of a rut after breaking a non-disclosure agreement signed before seeing the original park. Called for help by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who has currently been removed from his position as head of the InGen Corporation, Malcolm reluctantly joins a group of other experts, including his girlfriend, behavior specialist Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), to document the newly discovered Isla Sorna, the abandoned island where the creatures were bred and raised before moving to Nublar. However, this all happens just as InGen themselves arrive intending to harvest the different species of dinosaurs for an exhibit in San Diego. It starts as always, “Ooh, Ahh”, until the obligatory running, and… and screaming begins, and the two groups have to fight for survival… again.

The immediate noticeable change is the protagonist switch from Alan Grant to Ian Malcolm, as the character was put out of commission after the T-Rex breakout, and is given more room, some may argue too much, to stretch his legs. With the experiences of the first film no doubt leaving him more cynical than ever, He’s now intended to be the straight man of the film. All too familiar with how the experiences in the jungle island will play out, he becomes an unlikely establishment for the overall tone of the film. Disillusioned by the “wonder” that he experienced before, the character opens itself to interesting new depth in characterization, but many of these choices, including his newly established relationship with his daughter Kelly, as well as his partnership with Dr. Harding, makes the character feel a bit too much like a soap opera cliché. Thankfully Goldblum manages to establish some much needed levity, and he gives the role all he can, but it’s not enough to make up for the weaker writing choices.

The actual tone of the film is harsher than that of the original film, more reliant on action than before, but the intention ultimately backfires. I get that Spielberg is trying to do something different with the film, and you could argue that it’s in the same DNA as the Temple of Doom prequel that followed Raiders of the Lost Ark, but whereas Temple of Doom still retained a sense of fun despite it’s more obvious and grating faults, the same cannot be said of The Lost World. While attempting something different, Spielberg still feels keen on hitting the same awe-inspiring moments of the first movie, right down to relying on that source material for various segments from the first book that didn’t make it into original film. These include the opening sequence where we see a rich family vacationing on the island, with their daughter eventually crossing paths with a scavenging flock of compsognathus.

The thing is that these two things simply don’t mesh with one another. I’m not sure if the sequences of “wonder” are even supposed to ring true, since the film is more unpleasant than ever, and draws from moods and mindsets equally as such. In one notably alarming sequence, in which the group’s RV is left dangling off a cliff, Richard Schiff’s Eddie Carr, the one unconditionally likable “hero” character in this movie, is given particularly disrespectful treatment. As the other ungrateful characters mock him by sarcastically ordering McDonald’s food, he sacrifices his own safety to save them, but leaves himself open to a cruel and agonizing death scene at the hands of two T-Rex mates. It’s a crueler death than that of the film’s actual villain, and really makes you wonder what dark places Spielberg drew these ideas from.

The writing fares no better in thematic construct. The original film was an allegory to the dangers of man trying to outsmart nature, but here it switches to a self-righteous plea against animal cruelty and for conservationism. Clearly drawing influence from ongoing debates over theme parks at the time such as SeaWorld for the treatment of its animals, the message is pushed to a one-sided extreme, and unlike the original Jurassic Park’s well-meaning but misguided gray intentions, the motivations of characters here are boiled down to a classic black and white line that demonizes and glorifies with no realistic depth, and even then, it’s not that much of an open-shut case.

The film’s most egregious creation comes in the form of Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), an environmentalist who might as well be labeled as a clichéd “humans are evil” hipster, and is the direct result of many of the film’s worst scenarios. It’s because of him that the camp of the “land looters” is destroyed, leaving them without any radio or technology to contact the mainland. It’s him who brings a baby T-Rex to the RV, along with the wrath of its parents, and therefore the destruction of their radio and camp, as well as the death of his own friend and colleague. Not only that, but when the people that he hates actually make a compassionate move by saving his group and protecting them from the creatures on the island, his way of paying them back is to steal the bullets from their guns, leaving them defenseless, and eventually leaving the male Rex free to rampage through San Diego. This is the kind of character you want to see get eaten by a dinosaur in the end, and yet we’re actually supposed to be rooting for him. By the time all is said and done, I’m more sympathetic to the “Bad guys” of InGen, particularly Pete Postlethwaite’s methodical and empathizing hunter. That said, a lot of them aren’t much better, including a caricature meant to represent Jack Horner’s longtime rival Robert Bakker that gets eaten by a Rex due to a snake sneaking into his shirt, and one character shouting “Don’t go into the long grass”, before running into said long grass where raptors await.

Even Julianne Moore has a lot to make up for that she simply can’t. I admittedly like a lot of her early scenes, where she shows a charming enthusiasm and infuses the movie with much more awe than it contributes itself, but as the actual character is saddled with weak banter with Jeff Goldblum, as well as making stupid decision after stupid decision (including continually carrying a bloodied jacket that the Rexes can easily track down), that novelty eventually wears thin. The same can be said of Malcolm’s daughter Kelly, previously teased as one of “three” kids in the first film (though the three could easily be argued as a joke by Malcolm), and is shoehorned in a useless manner. Well, almost useless, as the only thing she actually does in this movie is kill a Velociraptor with deadly gymnastic skills. It figures that a raptor can open doors, but gets axed by Tom and Jerry slapstick. Weren’t these things supposed to be unmatched in intelligence? Judging by the state of this screenplay, perhaps it's no coincidence that screenwriter David Koepp himself sufferss a grisly death at the hands of the T-Rex in the climax.

Speaking of which, to conclude my pent up negativity, I can’t help but criticize the set up to the climax of this movie. Despite feeling like a glorified Godzilla remake, including cuts to Japanese stereotypes, I don’t really mind the actual climax of the film, as the change in environment is an interesting one for the Rex, but the actual set up is an insult. In one of the most infamous and incompetent continuity errors in all of cinema, as a ship rapidly approaches and crashes into a deck, various bloody crew members and severed body parts are discovered all across the ship, yet with the Rex in captivity, there’s no way it could have done all this. There was a deleted sequence that explained that raptors had snuck aboard and killed the crew, but since that’s a deleted scene, it doesn’t count. With that sequence now cut, there should have been a better explanation, but no such thing takes place. How could Spielberg, the man behind some of the greatest and most exciting movies ever made, let something this glaring slide so lazily? WHY DID NO ONE CALL HIM OUT ON THIS?! WHY!?!

Now, if all of this makes you think I despise the movie, I don’t… not really. Sure, I’m critical of this movie, but there are still plenty of great qualities to admire. For one thing, I do think a lot of the action beats are somewhat exciting, though without the same great attention and connection with the characters that the original had, the suspense isn’t as strong or pronounced. This is especially apparent by Spielberg’s attempts at recreating the original scenarios of the first film, including the obligatory rain sequence. Still, they get their job done, and can elicit a couple decent thrills.

Also, John Williams returns to write the music, which is always a huge plus. Largely treating the film as its own musical continuity, with brief recollections of the original themes saved for specific events of the film, the end result is some engaging stuff.

In spite of the forced and hokey environmentalism preachiness, I also think the film makes a great effort at expanding upon the grounded animalism of the dinosaurs in the movie. In one of the more inspired touches, we not only get one T-Rex to steal the entire movie, but three of them. The film introduces us to a much smaller baby T-Rex that scavenges off of the prey that its parents find, and when said Rex is taken by Van Owen, the two parents retaliate by destroying the group’s camp, and continually scoping out the area for the unwelcome guests. It’s simple, but effective touches like that that further reinforce the point that the dinosaurs are animals, and not monsters, and effectively contributes to the lore where the film doesn’t. On top of that, despite some of the CGI looking dated in comparison to the first film, and feeling more plentiful in comparison to that film, the effects and creature designs still look very impressive. A lot of this is thanks to Stan Winston’s ever reliable animatronics effects, as well as some seamless puppetry work, the most impressive of which being that of the compsognathus, as well as the stunning baby Rex. Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns also return to contribute more imaginative and outstanding sound design.

Overall, I’m conflicted on The Lost World. There are things I love about it, and things I want to love about it, but they’re far outweighed by things that frustrate me. This film is a disappointing follow-up, and one that highlights both some of Spielberg’s best and his worst tendencies. He doesn’t go the full George Lucas route in trying to value effects over story quite yet, but story has clearly taken a beating the second time out. What made the dinosaurs all the more convincing in the first film is how engaging the human characters were, so with this film lacking that same virtue, we’re left with an occasionally inspired film that flip flops hopelessly to the finish line.

And you know what the worst part is? This still isn’t the worst entry in the series…

** / *****

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