Believe it or not, I come here not to bury The Lost World, but to praise it.
Jurassic Park hit theaters in June of ’93 and the rapturous reception it received at the box office was exactly the kind of alchemy you’d expect when you put “Spielberg” and “dinosaurs” together. With critics and audiences alike primed for more, additional entries were all but assured. At least, that’s what home studio Universal was probably hoping for. However, for director Steven Spielberg, who’d previously seen the same studio squeeze Jaws, which he started for them, into Michael Caine-starring oblivion, the only way Jurassic Park would spawn a franchise was under his terms. And so the waiting game began.
First, the director turned to Michael Crichton. The author, whose bestselling 1990 tome had launched the entire Jurassic endeavor, was hesitant to attempt an add-on after the staggering success of both the book and the film. He ultimately committed to one after prodding from Spielberg, who felt that any cinematic sequel should follow tracks laid out by a novel. Thus, Crichton crafted his follow-up novel, The Lost World, which saw print in 1995. Following the book’s publication, Spielberg, who’d hedged about whether or not he’d helm the inevitable movie adaptation, finally committed, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park went into production for a Memorial Day 1997 release.
The story for this go-round, once again adapted by screenwriter David Koepp, only loosely follows the outline of Crichton’s novel. Picking up four years after Jurassic Park, we learn that the promised theme park never did materialize (understandably so), and the various parties involved were all hushed up via the non-disclosure agreements they’d signed. All except Ian Malcolm. The eccentric “chaotician” (who Crichton brought back to life in his book after killing him off in the first novel) felt it was his duty to inform the public of what had transpired on Isla Nublar. As a result, we find a Malcolm at the outset of The Lost World who is a shadow of his former swaggering self.
He’s been sued into insolvency and laughed out of academia, and that’s where he’s at when, at the beginning of the film, he’s summoned to meet John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). It seems the billionaire has developed a bit of a social conscience since last we saw him, noting that while the dinosaurs had been bred to die off, they’ve somehow survived and thrived. And while InGen, the company he once headed, is intent on profiting from them, Hammond wants to protect and preserve the creatures’ unique habitat. Thus, Malcolm is enlisted to lead an expedition to Isla Sorna, a.k.a. “Site B”, where the dinos were bred and created before being shipped to other island, in hopes of cataloging and documenting them before the nasty corporate types get in there.
While there’s no question that The Lost World fails to meet the bar set by its predecessor, its failure to do so is hardly cause to dismiss it outright. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was a “thing” that you’re supposed to dislike the movie. I know I certainly didn’t dislike it when I saw it in the theater back in ‘97, nor have I disliked it in the many times I’ve seen it since. Maybe part of that comes from the fact that I wasn’t as blown away in summer of ’93 when I saw the first Jurassic Park (a notion I’ve since corrected), so I didn’t have as far to fall as a lot of others. I also think part of the reason I’ve always dug the first sequel is the same reason a lot of other folks don’t: Jeff Goldblum.
Although I liked Sam Neill’s Alan Grant and Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler just fine, Ian Malcolm was my favorite character in movie one, so I couldn’t have been happier when he became the lead for the follow-up (both Crichton’s book and the film). While some might argue that Malcolm worked better in a subordinate role, elevating him to the center of the action is a smart move. It also helps that he’s surrounded with capable performers like Julianne Moore (as Malcolm’s long-suffering girlfriend and fellow scientist, Sarah Harding) and Vince Vaughn (as wildlife photographer Nick Van Owen).
Now, Spielberg himself has admitted in previous interviews that his heart wasn’t really in The Lost World at the time of production. And when you think about it, that kind of makes sense. Other than Indiana Jones, he’s never done any other sequels in his career. And while this kind of effects-heavy fantasy had been his bread and butter during the previous decade, after winning a well-deserved Oscar for Schindler’s List (which was released the same year as the first Jurassic), the man behind Jaws was starting to feel the itch to do more serious stuff.
Of course, “bored Spielberg” can still comfortably stand head, shoulders, and partial torso above your average director who’s giving it everything they’ve got. Case in point, a thrilling dinosaur hunt enacted under the orders of Pete Postelthwaite’s big game hunter Roland Tembo. Another action highlight involves a baby T-Rex, its two parents, and a truck trailer containing our heroes dangling precariously over a cliff. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better use of the sound of glass slowly cracking. The third act, featuring a Tyrannosaurus running wild in San Diego as Malcolm and Harding race through the city trying to recapture it, is the kind of sequences that showcases exactly why the director is at the top of his class.
There’s no doubt that The Lost World has its share of structural flaws. Perhaps unavoidably, it lacks the clean throughline of the original, and works perhaps a bit too hard to pack in additional material to pad the time. As a result, we have major plotlines being given considerable weight until they’re arbitrarily dropped and never referred to again. Major supporting characters disappear from the action without explanation. And Malcolm’s daughter (Vanessa Lee Chester) who conveniently stowed away on the trip, is almost entirely useless until she’s suddenly called upon to drop a velociraptor using the power of gymnastics. Nonetheless, this first sequel certainly isn’t deserving of the outright bashing it often gets.
The Lost World is no Jurassic Park, but it’s an enjoyable action spectacle with fun characters and top-drawer effects (not to mention another terrific John Williams score). And while contemporaneous critics were pretty well divided as to the movie’s worth, there was no question that audiences were hungry for more. The movie opened to $72 million over its first three days, setting a new opening weekend record in the process, and while its eventual global total of $600-plus million was well short of the billion that Jurassic Park had accrued, it was enough to ensure more trips to the islands. For the next time though, the franchise would have to do without not only its original director, but also an original novel upon which to be based.