“‘Ooooh… Aaaah.’ That’s how it always starts. But then later there’s running. And screaming…” As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re returning to the Jurassic Park franchise to look at its first sequel: The Lost World, the last film in the series that Spielberg directed. Featuring a darker tone and a more spectacular array of special effects, The Lost World boasts some impressive dinosaurs, but it ultimately lacks the wonder and philosophical significance that made its predecessor such a classic.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
After the astounding success of his novel Jurassic Park and the movie it inspired, Michael Crichton was immediately pressured to write a sequel, both by fans and by film executives. That sequel was published in 1995. Crichton titled it The Lost World, in a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name. In the book, Crichton brought back the character of Ian Malcolm, and described him joining an expedition to Isla Sorna, which is revealed to be the previously undisclosed second location where Jurassic Park manufactured and raised its dinosaurs.
During the time in which Crichton conceived of and wrote The Lost World, Steven Spielberg, as well as Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp, were already developing ideas for their own sequel. Once Spielberg read Crichton’s novel, he was quite fond of some elements, such as the idea of a “Site B” with free-ranging dinosaurs, as well as a few action sequences, particularly the one with the tyrannosaurs pushing the RV trailer over the cliff. In the end, the film adaptation combined several concepts from the novel, along with a handful of new ideas of its own.
The Lost World reintroduces us to Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). He is recruited by Jurassic Park financier John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to go to Isla Sorna, a second island containing Jurassic Park’s production facility, to study the dinosaurs flourishing there. Malcolm initially refuses, but changes his mind when he finds out his girlfriend, behavioral paleontologist Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already there. Upon arrival, Malcolm’s team realizes they were sent to compete with another InGen team coming to harvest the dinosaurs for capital gain.
One of the biggest changes between the first and second film, mainly due to the novels, is a shift in main characters. The principal protagonist of Jurassic Park was Dr. Alan Grant, where the focus here is Dr. Ian Malcolm. The main reason for bringing Malcolm back is that Crichton relied on Malcolm’s character to serve as the mouthpiece for the novels’ scientific themes, but many readers and viewers were disappointed by the omission of Dr. Grant. In truth, Dr. Malcolm was the most dynamic character in both of the original works, and he really is the most essential.
After the trauma the two went through in the first film, there’s really no good reason for either of them to go back to Costa Rica. Even so, the sarcastic Jeff Goldblum is a welcome appearance, but Sam Neill’s absence is keenly felt. The change in stars accompanies an appropriate shift in tone, as the first film featured an upbeat first act marked by wonder and optimism before deteriorating into terror. This time around, the audience knows the inherent danger factor from the get-go, and the pessimistic Ian Malcom well-suits this darker and more ominous sequel.
To go along with that, Steven worked with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (Schindler’s List) this time around, to craft a much more moody and sinister visual setting for The Lost World. The effect is a much more foreboding atmosphere, and a more distinctive use of style than Jurassic Park offered. In the four years between Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the technology of CGI hadn’t progressed all that much, but the sophistication of the digital artists had improved, and the sequel presents an impressive display of dinosaurs to surpass that of the previous film.
As Jurassic Park did, The Lost World also combines practical effects with CGI, and using the experience of their work on the first film, the technicians and animators had a better idea of what was possible with this film. The CGI shows a bit of age in some sequences, but the animatronics remain just staggeringly realistic, demonstrating the long-term value of practical effects when possible. The Lost World offers new dinosaurs such as stegosauruses, the little compies, and pachycephalosaurs; as well as more raptors, and not one, but two T-Rexes.
The film also boasts some incredible action sequences, along with some of the best suspense of Spielberg’s career. The best of these is the one major scene taken from the novel in which the two tyrannosaurs attempt to push the two RV trailers over the cliff, with the characters stuck inside the half that is precariously dangling over the edge. One ingenious moment is where Dr. Sarah Harding is stuck on cracking glass, which is the only thing separating her from falling to her doom. The effect here aided by CGI is terrifying, and I have seen it imitated in films to follow.
However, Spielberg gives in a little too much to his boyhood enthusiasm here in a tacked-on portion at the end in which a tyrannosaur rampages through mainland San Diego. The scene has precedent in that the original film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World as well as King Kong featured similar endings, but the sequence here lacks justification within the wider narrative. The film was originally intended to be over when the characters get off the island, and you can tell. The scene is undeniably fun, but it ultimately leaves the overall storyline uneven.
Also, a major aspect to the first movie that the sequel inevitably can’t provide is the wide-eyed sense of adventure, as well as that dazzling amazement that comes with seeing the dinosaurs for the first time. The sequel tries to make up for this by making the dinosaurs meaner and scarier, but nothing can really replace that first reveal from the original film. Similar to its source material, The Lost World also lacks the scientific commentary that made its predecessor so thought-provoking, leaving in its wake simply a lizard-chases-man actioner, and all that entails.
It’s due to this that, despite its box office success, The Lost World left a rather negative reputation in its wake. No Jurassic Park sequel can really compete with what the original achieved, but this one, with Steven still at the helm, by far comes the closest. Jeff Goldblum’s cocky style is effortlessly entertaining, and Julianne Moore is first-rate playing a strong heroine in Dr. Harding, one of the more inspired characters from the novel. The Lost World is an inferior sequel with a flawed narrative, but it packs some of the most exciting dinosaur action of the series.
Next week, we’ll be looking at another drama film in which Spielberg delves into serious subject matter with Amistad. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming from Starz, and for rental from your various digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.