Because that other “Jurassic” movie just went and had the biggest opening release weekend in film history…
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park was directed by an auteur who was a kid at heart and had it in his dreams to create a new pop-fable for the modern age. Having tackled sharks, nazis, and aliens, dinosaurs were really the only foreseeable future in his career, and the rampaging success of Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park was as good an excuse as any to pursue that dino-dreaming. The end result was not a healthy meal, but it was a particularly fizzy soda and buttery popcorn even in its worst moments, and we critics cannot argue with Spielberg when he is using his fullest talents to commandeer the screen and throw us into our worst nightmares.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released just four years later, was directed by a crusty old auteur who had better things to do than make pop fluff, and it shows. Spielberg, “the man with Oscars on the mind,” was in full swing in the late 1990s. It wasn’t his best mode, but it devoured both his serious films and his blockbusters in a layer of dreary somnambulism, suffocating whatever energy and zest he had for layering fun onto the screen. The Lost World is a tired motion picture, and even in its best moments, it has a slow-going, self-serious demeanor that coats the film in an unearned sense of importance. It is Spielberg trying to make a wacky puff piece out to be a heavingly serious drama.
Not that it is all Spielberg’s fault; the screenplay by David Koepp bears all the hallmarks of hackneyed rewrites and colossally belabored side-treks to excuse what is at heart a totally arbitrary production. The baseline? Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), survivor of the first film and now ruined mathematician, is coerced to return to one of the dino islands of Jurassic Park by venerable Dr. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), creator of the original park. It seems Hammond’s nephew Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard) has gained control of the dino-manufacturing company InGen and wishes to journey to the isle of Isla Sorna – where the dinos are manufactured and are now roaming free after the park was shut down years before – to do nasty business with the dinosaurs and abuse them for public support. When Malcolm finds that his girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already on the island as part of Hammond’s counter-expedition to document the dinos in their natural habitat and drum up public support for leaving them alone, Malcolm can’t refuse joining along to rescue her. He is joined by Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), Nick van Owen (Vince Vaughn), and, when she stows away, his own daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester).
Which is enough – probably more than enough – on its own for a movie that boils down to gratuitous shots of people running from dinosaurs over and over again. But the elephantine dinosaur in the room is the deeply misguided message movie subtext of the film about corporate environmentalism, a tone that finds Spielberg severely confused about his characters even as he insists over and over again about where their moralities align. It leaves the whole picture somewhat formless and searching for a central conflict it never arrives at.
Still, Spielberg, as he always does, has his moments. There is a sequence involving raptors that is abstracted to the level of piercing tails popping out of tall grass and forming angular lines coalescing in a pool of liquid death, the only moment where “Spielberg, you know, that guy who directed Jaws” comes alive in full force as a master of imagery.
Certainly, Spielberg’s resident cinematographer Janusz Kaminski – having come a long way from the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice six years earlier – does his best in this sequence to induce nightmares, but by and large he resorts to a pained form of darkness that does the “gee shucks” adventure of the film no favors. Still, in retrospect, the jump from “photographing Vanilla Ice at play in the suburbia of the lord” to “raptors at play in the grass of the lord” isn’t exactly that great a jump, so at least The Lost World benefits from some sort of abstract, theoretical place in Kaminski’s career. And, although the lighting of The Lost World is far too dark and serious for its own good and operates in a tone the screenplay can’t back up, Janusz’s darkness is mighty impressive photographic darkness all things considered. The Lost World certainly looks great, but it is sound and fury signifying nothing.
Outside of that, The Lost World is functionally a girthier, flabbier recreation of the original film with sufficiently less wonder and innocence and a great deal more cynical thrills thrown in for the sake of it. Outside the petty social critique – in light of the way this film can’t but derive hundreds of millions of dollars from the act of watching dinosaurs kill people on screen, a great deal of the moralism about abusing dinosaurs seems dishonest to say the least – The Lost World is soulless filmmaking that seems largely bored with itself.
Jurassic Park III
Whatever else one can say about Jurassic Park III, let it be said that it doesn’t give a care. While the earlier pair of films in the series were techno-thrillers and social-parables that happened to feature dinosaurs, JPIII is a grand ol’ adventure of the 1950s variety, somehow lost and unearthed fifty years too late. JPIII scorchingly refuses to be anything other than a parade of monsters attacking humans, and this is oddly refreshing; unlike so many blockbusters from the 2000s, it barely seems to be trying at all, and there’s an odd humbling quality to a story that essentially devolves into “there are dinosaurs, run from them” that requires no sub-plots, false-villains, or complication. JPIII feels like a throwback to a simpler time. If The Lost World was a bad movie that didn’t know it was a bad movie, JP III almost dances right up to the line of self-parody.
Which is altogether different from it being any good as a throwback, which JPIII, unfortunately, is not. Certainly, it fits into Joe Johnston’s unabashed mediocrity as a director, which occasionally, when the stars align, can drift into a sort of loving pastiche of the stilted-direction of the mid-’30s matinee serials that he loves so much. There’s a little of that here, but only a depressing little. There’s a bird-cage sequence that nearly matches some of the heights of the first two films, largely because it is given a husky, teasing quality by Johnston who refuses to show the beasts behind all the thick fog and suspicion. This is a sequence that recalls the hazy, otherworldly mystique of ’30s adventure serials most gamely.
The rest of the film, however, is a wash. Johnston’s direction is anonymous when it isn’t actively rejecting the suspense of the first film for a bizarre influx of childish comedy. The script, about a couple (played by resident WASP William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) convincing Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, the only returning character from either previous film, excepting a one scene cameo by Laura Dern) to help them look for their son who disappeared while vacationing on one of the dino islands, is arbitrary and soulless. There’s little room for any meaningful adventure, and the deeply episodic plot more closely recreates cartoon serial than fully equipped finished film. The sense of venerable awe accompanying the original feature is drowned out amidst Tom and Jerry antics and a relentless, cynical approach to pummeling thrills without the chills. I suppose someone felt it was witty that the center-piece sequence of the film focuses on a cell phone – an item that was, in the film’s release year of 2001, finally becoming ubiquitous – but it seems more like a sick joke than any variant of genuine comedy.
At the very least, it returns us to one of the long-lost intoxicants of early genre filmmaking, one of the central tenants of cinema that has been lost in the gluttonous modern age: get in, do what you have to do, and leave. JP III is bad, but it is only bad for a slim, efficient 80 minutes. That is, if not a reward, at least a consolation prize.