Monday, November 27, 2017

The Lost World, 20 years on

Last week, fanpersons all over the world were sent into a tizzy by a precious few seconds of footage from next year's Jurassic World sequel. In it, hunk-o-saurus Chris Pratt appeared to be acquainting himself with some sort of slightly unconvincing-looking, bug-eyed, lizardlike CG creature. It got me thinking about an idea that I had earlier this year, but rejected 'cos it seemed way too predictable and slightly tiresome - a retrospective on the first JP movie sequel, The Lost World, which was released 20 years ago this year. You never know - it might be more fun than trashing San Diego and eating the family dog.

From Jurassic Wiki.


As everyone knows, The Lost World started out as a sequel for its own sake. Michael Crichton wasn't especially interested in writing a sequel, and Spielberg wasn't terribly enthusiastic about directing one, at least initially. Happily, Crichton changed his mind (no doubt a sizeable advance was involved), and his sequel novel to Jurassic Park was published in 1995. Its plot is notably very different to the movie's, perhaps moreso than with the first JP; it involves InGen's rival Biosyn, their attempts to steal secrets from Site B, and themes involving the ethics of exploiting genetically-engineered animals that are starting to be touched on more in the Jurassic World series. It also features a disease spreading among the dinosaurs, dubbed 'DX' - just in case you haven't read the book and were wondering why those mysterious letters appeared all over the movie merchandise.

The film, although deliberately 'darker' than Jurassic Park, is comparatively lightweight thematically, as one would expect. For some reason - possibly involving utterly incompetent management - John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has lost control of InGen, ousted by his own board. He's replaced by his nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), whose suit cost more than your education. Ludlow hatches a plan to capture a bunch of dinos from InGen's 'research island', Isla Sorna, aka Site B, where they are currently roaming free. Outraged, wily old Hammond puts a team together to document the dinosaurs and 'rally public support' against his nephew's scheme - with the noteworthy backup plan of sabotaging the InGen effort, probably leading to numerous human casualties. (The loveable old scamp.)

Subway Goldblum. Images from the film are copyright Universal and stuff. Please don't sue me.
The quasi-naturalist ethos of the plot, which involved some seriously dubious character motivations and decisions on the part of Hammond, supposedly experienced and diligent palaeozoologist Sarah Harding (played by Julianne Moore), and psychotic wildlife photographer and chancer Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), hardly mattered to a nine-year-old me back in the summer of '97. I'd been waiting four years to see more 'real dinosaurs', and I got 'em. The list of extinct genera in the film is truly impressive for the time, even if some only got cameos - Compsognathus, Stegosaurus, Gallimimus, Parasaurolophus, Pachycephalosaurus, Mamenchisaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor(ish) and Pteranodon all feature. And Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm was back, elevated to the lead role. What wasn't to love?

Predictably, the film was a merchandising juggernaut. It was absolutely everywhere, and I wanted every piece of tat I set eyes on. For whatever reason, the marketing twonks settled on a yellow-green colour scheme to tie everything together, which was nowhere near as cool as the original film's moody reds, yellows and blacks, but who cared when you could give absolutely everything in your life a Lost World theme? Rubbish lenticular keyrings given away in cereal boxes. The FunFax Lost World file (and mini-file). Posters, pencil cases and rubbery hand puppets, oh my. The action figures were worthy follow-ups to the original Jurassic Park line, unlike everything since. Oh, how I coveted them.

Hello there. Would you kindly take one of our pamphlets?
In a pre-Walking With Dinosaurs age, I was keen to see a more naturalistic portrayal of dinosaurs on film. Jurassic Park had already delivered some of that, with a T. rex that didn't immediately attack people for no good reason, and animals that were happy just coexisting with and sometimes sneezing all over humans. Happily for nine-year-old me, The Lost World seemed to have a lot more. Here were family groups, with different ages and genders represented; tyrannosaurs with strong parenting instincts; and predators stalking their prey silently and stealthily. In retrospect, it's easy to see that there's an awful lot of Hollywood silliness in the film as goes dinosaur behaviours (not least the ending), but seeing dinosaurs portrayed as anything other than mindless monsters mattered hugely to me at the time.

So yes, I loved it back then, but that was really just for the dinosaurs. Seeing dinosaurs up on screen that reflected (more-or-less) what I was reading about in my books (especially Dinosaurs! magazine) was thrilling. There really wasn't anywhere else one could go for that sort of thing, and I think it's that that's been missing in the franchise since. Jurassic Park 3 had sexual dimorphism and family dynamics in its raptors, but also took their intelligence to a comically ludicrous, super-smart extreme. Jurassic World, meanwhile, is deliberately backward-looking and nostalgic; a throwaway line excusing the retro-tastic appearance of the beasties in-universe can't excuse lazy creature design and a lack of curiosity on the part of the film makers.

Oof.
Having said all that, I'd still rather watch Jurassic Park 3 or Jurassic World today. The Lost World has any number of significant problems, in pacing, acting, colossal plot holes, over-earnestness and more besides. For me, it simply doesn't stand up to the high concept, groundbreaking original, nor the much better paced and more entertaining further sequels. It has its moments; the tense trailer sequence and the odd flash of gleeful, inventive sadism when human snacks are torn apart or crushed underfoot like a piece of a gum (and the dog gets it this time). Still, it seems destined to be remembered as the confused Sequel For The Sake Of It, the victim of a slightly muddled production, driven by the money men and the marketing machine. And it has that bit where a raptor is improbably kicked through a window.

It's not brilliant. But for very rose-tinted reasons, I still can't help but remember it fondly. After all, as respected palaeontologist Mark Witton says,
"Two good things about TLW: 1) David Koepp is the guy getting eaten by the Tyrannosaurus at the end - sadly just a special effect, but we can dream - and 2) we see a promotional poster for Arnold Schwarzenegger as King Lear. Oh, and the reflection on the back of the DVD disc is a good way of entertaining chickens for a while, before they poop on it. Which is a fitting end for this movie."
 And there's no arguing with Dr Witton.

15 comments:

  1. I always hated this one, more than any other film in the franchise. I could never get past the San Diego ending. It's like something from Godzilla! All that's missing is King Kong entering stage-left and the rumble kicking off!

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    1. The ending seems to be really divisive. A lot of people hate it, mostly for the reasons you've mentioned. On the other hand, others think it's a good bit of silly fun (I tend to fall into that camp).

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    2. For me, the absurd San Diego ending is the saving grace of the movie, and a sequence I'll happily watch again out of context. Lots of great details and the VFX crew pushing the limits beyond what they were able to do with the CGI rex in the last film.

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    3. Yeah! I understand that! My problem was I read the first book in 1990 and put it down thinking it was a brilliant examination on the ethics of exploiting scientific advance. The films hijacked it for entertainment value. Sure they introduced post renaissance dinos to Joe Public, but Crichton's message was just pushed to one side! Never was that more apparent than in the San Diego scenes.

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    4. I neither hate nor like the ending - I simply cannot recall it.

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  2. Lost World is the melancholy story of our hero Roland Tembo as he looks back on his life and realizes it is perhaps not what he imagined.

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    1. I didn't mention Pete Postlethwaite in this post, but I should've done. He was brilliant, as usual.

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  3. Well, I was with you right till the end, when you said you prefer JP3 or even (gulp) Jurassic World! Clearly we can agree that the original JP had a magic that none of the sequels have emulated -- mostly because it treats the dinosaurs with such respect -- but TLW is by far my favourite of the subsequent films.

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  4. I remember watching TLW in its opening week at a cinema in Weymouth. Dragged three friends along with me to watch it, too. They were brutally objective about it, whereas I had already decided how good it was going to be, and I wasn't able, on an emotional level, to divorce myself from that.

    And whilst I do think it's a fairly well-polished movie, I don't care about anyone or anything in it. None of the dinosaurs feel like characters; they seem anonymous - even the T. rex parents. Couldn't tell 'em apart, and their behaviour was identical. Nearly every character has willingly put themselves in danger, either for ethically questionable reasons, or for morally sound reasons which are still tainted. The science speak is HORRID and turns me right off characters I'm supposed to like. In fact, the only guy I liked gets pulled in half by the two parent tyrannosaurs fairly early on, in a scene which I think put me off the whole film. It was so violent, I was stuck thinking about that scene for the rest of the movie! The CG is fine, but the baby Tyrannosaurus is a horribly clunky animatronic puppet and every time it gets screen time, I feel like Stan Winston commentary should be playing.

    And the gymnastics scene... Oh gawd, why? "Hey, raptor, gimme thirty seconds so I can set up this routine. Don't move!"

    JP3, for all its faults, didn't leave me with that bitter taste in my mouth. It was a bit meh, but I was expecting worse.

    I don't have those nostalgic feels for TLW, probably because seventeen-year-old me felt some sort of betrayal! :D

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  5. @Marc Vincent

    "Happily, Crichton changed his mind (no doubt a sizeable advance was involved), and his sequel novel to Jurassic Park was published in 1995."

    Out of curiosity, what did you think of it? I haven't read either novel in forever, but I remember liking the sequel more. Like you, "I was keen to see a more naturalistic portrayal of dinosaurs".

    BTW, just a heads up: I think you're really gonna like my Feb. 2018 negative review given the the book shares several striking similarities w/this movie.

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  6. The book is awful. I tried a couple years ago; didn't even make it halfway.

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    1. It is terrible. I was sort of looking forward to seeing the chameleon carnotaurs (however ridiculously stupid) ... but they didn't make it into the movie. (Maybe for the best, though, given how much JP influences popular depictions.)

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    2. Aside from being way too big and bulky, I really liked the carnotaurs in Disney's Dinosaur.

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  7. Dinosaur movies are truly vile things. I accidently saw a five second clip of a old stinker called "King Cong" that portrayed dinosaurs as massive slow moving reptilian brutes and I went screaming naked out of my apartment and kicked a small child in the face.

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    1. Seems like a reasonable reaction to seeing a small child in the street.

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