16 April 2013

VIOLENCE AND TECHNOLOGY - NOT GOOD BEDFELLOWS

At one point, I suggested on this very blog that 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park was "readily the worst thing [Steven Spielberg] has ever made". I will now freely admit that I was speaking those words from a position of fearless intellectual dishonesty: until re-watching it for this review, I had not actually seen The Lost World since the Saturday of its opening weekend in the United States, which would have been 24 May, 1997. That's obviously too big a gap to go around making claims that grandiose, and I shouldn't have done it, and I am very sorry about being that sneaky to my readers. Anyway, I've re-watched the movie now, almost 16 whole years later - more than half of my lifetime - and I am now equipped to make a more considered, fairer, and equitable judgment.

The Lost World is readily the worst thing Steven Spielberg has ever made.

This has a whole lot to do with its sinfully awful screenplay, and we'll get there, but I cannot and will not let Spielberg off the hook by dumping all of the shit in David Koepp's backyard. Four years after using his godlike talents for keeping the pacing high and the thrills electrifying to make Jurassic Park one of the best, if not the best popcorn movie of the 1990s, Spielberg certainly should have known a thing or two about how to spice up a sometimes dodgy script; Jurassic Park is one of the all-time best case studies in how really confident, breezy filmmaking can compensate for continuity errors, plot holes, and thin-to-nonexistent characters, and while I'm certain that The Lost World wasn't ever going to match that film, it probably didn't have to be quite this bad. What happened, of course, was that the only movie Spielberg directed in between the two Jurassic Parks (the gap preceding The Lost World was, though not by a huge margin, the longest break in the director's career) was Schindler's List, and even the most cursory, sidelong glance at his filmography proves that film was the great dividing line, after which Spielberg just plain lost interest in making glitzy, untroubled populist adventure movies like he did so well.

I'll put it plainly: The Lost World was directed by a man who didn't want to direct it. According to some versions of the story I've heard, he only did it because he felt bad about denying audiences the sequel to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that they apparently wanted, and felt much less conflicted about making his own follow-up to his other highest-grossing film of all time. According to the other version, he was so aghast at the Jaws sequels, he didn't want to give anybody else the chance to ruin one of his franchises. The "If somebody has to fuck it up, it might as well be me" line of reasoning.

Either way, we end up at the same point: a movie entirely devoid of the inspiration that led to the giddy matinee heights of Jurassic Park, to say nothing at all of the virtually perfect cinematic energy of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. For many years, I was in the habit of claiming that there were only two shots in The Lost World that reached the same level of prickly-hairs-on-the-neck genre film excellence of the first movie: the camera pointing down through a trailer hanging off the edge of a cliff, and a high angle of velociraptors pressing through a field of tall grass in implacable straight lines, like sharks cutting through water and leaving a wake. I'm willing to upgrade that a bit: in fact, the entirety of the sequence where the trailer is hanging precariously over the void is pretty fantastic filmmaking, with some fairly unbearable tension in the editing and a particularly urgent John Williams cue driving it forward. But that's still only two moments in a fairly lengthy movie where the Spielberg capable of the raptors in the kitchen scene, or the T-rex attacking the jeep scene, or the jeep falling through the tree scene in the first movie appears to have shown up on set.

Everything else is utterly tepid, poorly-paced thrills that aren't in the least bit exciting due to shoddy management, and given the illusion of class by Janusz Kaminski's downright brilliant nighttime photography (this was the first color film he and Spielberg collaborated on). And even that hasn't aged well: there's not much in the lighting that Kaminski didn't repeat, better, in War of the Worlds.

All of which is enough to make the film a massive disappointment, though the worst part of the direction is that it thus permits Koepp's truly disastrous screenplay to flourish unabated. Michael Crichton's 1995 novel was a deeply ineffective sequel to his already overbaked 1990 Jurassic Park, and was far too consciously attempting to follow-up the 1993 movie; but it is better (and more cinematic!) in every regard than the extremely free adaptation that Koepp cranked out. Both spring from the same dubiously continuity-bending idea that Isla Nublar, home to Jurassic Park itself, was just the showroom for the armies of dinosaurs being bred at InGen's industrial facility "Site B" on Isla Sorna. For reasons that are frankly a bit foggy, it makes some kind of sense for cuddly capitalist-turned-activist John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to send Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the most outspoken survivor of the original incident, to Sorna as part of a recon team to document the dinosaur ecosystem now flourishing there, despite being a mathematician and not, y'know, a survivalist, or dino expert. But it's still something to be thankful for, because Malcolm's acerbic sarcasm is frequently the only thing that makes the bland, connect-the-dots storytelling of the first hour palatable. Anyway, what convinces Malcolm is the discovery that his girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore, who tries but can do nothing with her character) is already on the island, so he and Hammond's other hand-picked adventurers - documentary filmmaker Nick Van Own (Vince Vaughn) and equipment engineer Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) - head off with an unexpected stowaway in tow, Malcolm's daughter Kelly Curtis (Vanessa Lee Chester). Because it couldn't be a Spielberg film if there wasn't a daddy issue to be resolved in the very embrace of death.

Meanwhile, InGen's craven new CEO, Hammond's nephew Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), has taken his own mission to Sorna: a safari to capture as many animals as possible and bring them back to San Diego to establish a new park there. It's this horribly ill-advised plan that Hammond wants to forestall, and the good guys very quickly switch gears to prevent the removal of dinosaurs, matching wills with the formidable game hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) and ultimately destroying every last bit of equipment on the island that could save anybody; thus it's time for a trek into the very dangerous interior, where the old InGen facilities are still operational, to radio for help.

All these years later, it no longer counts as a cunning insight to point out that The Lost World has its sides mixed up: the assigned bad guys are certainly unpleasant, venal people (though Spielberg can't bring himself to frame Tembo as a villain, and Postlethwaite gives what is by far the most subtle and interesting performance in the movie), but the assigned good guys are far, far worse. There's not a single human death in the film that isn't ultimately their fault, either because of deliberate tampering, or straight-up, bone-headed stupidity.

The "heroes" in The Lost World are fucking idiots. There's no other way to put it. The biggest idiot of all, by a huge margin, is Harding, who proudly describes her years of experience as a survivalist and naturalist, seconds before putting her hands all over a juvenile stegosaurus whose multi-ton parents are literally just yards away. Or feebly objecting to Van Owen's attempts to bring an injured juvenile tyrannosaur back to their camp for treatment by saying "You're nuts" and helping him get it into the jeep. Because seasoned nature experts always make a point of getting their scent on an infant animal before abducting it from its parents, the largest carnivores in the local ecosystem. Van Own himself, ultimately revealed as a professional eco-terrorist, is almost as dumb, proudly stealing the bullets out of Tembo's rifle after things have gone to hell and the animals have become an immediate threat - and it's specifically because Tembo then tranquilises, rather than kills, a T-Rex, that InGen decides to bring the animal to San Diego, setting up the last run of human deaths.

Even the basic underpinning of the protagonists' motivation doesn't hold up. Hammond is turned naturalist now; Van Owen is an ecology lifer; Harding passionately explains how important it is to leave the animals and their environment unmolested. The clear implication is that the purposes of conservation demand that the animals be left in peace - the movie ends with a robust, hammy speech to that effect, with sun-dappled shots of dinosaurs romping - but it should be fairly obvious that any proper conservationist would be unspeakably horrified by the idea of genetic monsters (these aren't real dinosaurs, don't forget, but dino-frog hybrids) being dropped into an isolated Pacific ecosystem. The movie has the balls to put basically that argument (these aren't real animals, they're genetic experiments and InGen's property) in the mouth of its most dislikable character, perhaps trying to cut it off at the knees, but just because a nasty person acts out of venal motivations, it doesn't follow that people opposed to him will be any more in the right. Frankly, Malcolm is the only person in the whole cast with a lick of sense, and then only in the beginning, during his "nuke the site from orbit" phase.

If Koepp was a craftier writer, or Spielberg less of a populist, I'd almost think they were up to some satire here, poking fun of Hollywood blockbuster tropes by presenting inept, worthless heroes in all the glowing tones of any matinee idol, but no: I think Koepp was just being an idiot and Spielberg didn't give a shit, too busily daydreaming about his return to real grown-up storytelling with that fall's Amistad. There's no detectable irony anywhere in The Lost World, only a vague, lazy contempt.

Anyway, the story is absolutely nothing, just shuffling characters around to put them in the way of rampaging dinos, until the San Diego climax, where it becomes contemptibly stupid and broad, a clumsy King Kong homage that doesn't work. At least Spielberg wakes up; the San Diego scenes (which are, after all, the only ones that aren't basically copied from the first movie) have more of a puckish sense of humor and high spirit than anything else in the movie, and coming after endless scenes of chases, low-impact tension, and raptors being knocked out by the power of gymnastics, some humor and high spirits are greatly appreciated.

The one thing that might have possibly saved this: how about spectacle? Jurassic Park, after all, covered up a lot of its sins with the magic of ohmigod dinosaurs!!!!, and one could hope that The Lost World would follow suit. It doesn't, for at least a couple of reasons; the first is obviously that it's not novel any more. But with 20 years having done nothing to make Jurassic Park less fun to watch, it can't be solely that. It's perhaps the case that the dino CGI isn't quite as good here (the first scene of stegosauruses, plainly the movie's big "ooh, new dinos!" moment, looks appalling), but for the most part the filmmakers copy the same tricks of rain, murky interiors, and nighttime shooting, to mostly the same effect. And if the CGI isn't 100% up to par, the new film's animatronics are arguably better: the shot of a T-Rex poking its head into a tent looks far better than any Rex close-ups in the first movie.

The bigger reason I've already suggested: Spielberg didn't care. In the first movie, the soaring John Williams music, coupled with the director's careful positioning of the camera in a particularly worshipful position, makes the dinosaurs look just damn cool, as damn cool the hundredth time as the first. The dinosaurs in The Lost World don't look damn cool: they aren't being shown off until basically the last scene of the movie, when it's much too late to safe anything, and they're far too often being dragged along a just a plot point, especially the poor raptors, who no longer have the crafty menace of the first movie, instead being plugged in like any old slasher movie psycho.

End result: a boring movie, that goes on for much too long (it is, though by just a couple minutes, the longest Jurassic Park), and runs a collage of characters even blander than in the first movie through less distinctive and colorful environments where they are menaced by less compelling monsters. It is the most vacuously mercenary film in Spielberg's career, and his palapable desire not to be making it cripples it far worse than anything in his other prominent work-for-hire sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where his discomfort with the material gives it an edge, rather than flattens it into mud. There is nothing inspired nor inspiring here, just a color-by-numbers retread that doesn't even try to understand why the first movie worked so well, instead listlessly throwing dinosaurs and overqualified actors at the jungle, and turning away with disinterest before it even notices that magic has failed to spark.

Reviews in this series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)

13 comments:

Brian said...

I remember years ago Spielberg saying that he had the script re-wrote to have the San Diego scene, even though it didn't fit the story at all, just because he wanted to shoot a T-Rex in a city. Lo and behold, there's the one sequence he seems to come alive for in the director's chair.

DeeperUnderstanding said...

Yeah I rewatched this after the first one as well, and it was way shittier than I remembered... that terrible opening cut from the woman's scream to Malcolm's yawn pretty much sums up how the film feels about itself. Other issues:

No one is awestruck or even particularly impressed by the dinosaurs. (Malcolm's daughter apparently learns of their existence, processes it and moves on in the space of one cut.) Nor does Malcolm seem overly distraught that his girlfriend has traveled to the dangerous island alone. I mean, he goes after her but the emotional subtext seems to be "Welp. Yeah, time to go rescue her I guess."

The first T Rex scene pettily attempts to one-up the original (2 T Rexes! an RV instead of a Jeep!) but then is too lazy to actually show us most of the action (a lot of "watching people act alarmed as important action happens offscreen").

The cracking windshield scene works well, but the only things I really liked were the compys (effectively creepy) and the San Diego sequence.

Tim said...

Brian- I think I remember something similar. I also seem to recall stories about him overseeing the final cut over the phone on the set of Amistad, which speaks volumes about his investment.

DeeperUnderstanding- The compys worked much better than I recall, though mostly in the scene with Peter Stormare with the little girl (which was such a cheap gesture, I thought: "ooh, heightened stakes because we're will to kill a child!", already pretty damn tacky, and then later dialogue makes it clear that she's actually fine, making it tacky AND pointless).

Great point about Kelly's utter lack of enthusiasm for seeing dinosaurs. She's such a non-character for me that I hadn't even noticed.

Regular GeoX said...

No arguing with this review. When my family saw the first JP in the theater, my younger brothers had to leave midway through; it was too intense for them, and frankly it was almost too intense for me. Whereas when we saw TLW? Well, needless to say, no one had any problems whatsoever. The utter lack of tension is really just incredible. How can killer dinosaurs be boring? It is an abiding mystery. And as for the part with the velociraptors in the tall grass, I didn't find it effective at all; I thought it was unintentionally comical the way people were just sucked down like that.

At least JPIII is ridiculous enough to be amusing-ish.

Benjamin said...

The stupidest moment for me was when Sarah reaches out and touches the baby stegosaurus, and then one or two scenes later kicks out a fire because 'we can't interfere with their ecosystem.'

Do you think the fact that David Koepp gets eaten by the T-Rex in San Diego--complete with a goofy death rattle--is an admission of guilt on his and Spielberg's part?

Jonathan said...

Mind you, I don't like this movie anymore than you do. However, in the pantheon of Speilberg helmed films I will watch this over Hook and Always any day. But semantics and all that jazz.

Great review as always. Love the throw away mention of velocitaptors and gymnastics; it still amazes me that the scene ever existed. When people gripe about Harrison Ford jumping in a refrigerator as being ridiculous I gladly remind them of the Lost World sequence.

Ryan said...

I can't argue this is a good movie, but it genuinely baffles me that anyone would prefer JP3. I just rewatched these out of order (1, 3 then 2) and the unexpected awfulness of the 3rd (I hadn't seen any of them for ages, and just took everyone's word for it that JP3 was the second best) made this one look pretty good in comparison. At least there are a couple memorable set pieces here.

Tim said...

GeoX- I very specifically mean just the one aerial shot; on the whole the raptors come off the worst in the whole movie, not least because, as you've pointed out, they're basically evil clowns.

Benjamin- Yeah, Sarah is a goddamn airhead. If the movie cared about any kind of ironic justice, she'd be the one in that cargo hold at the end.

Did not know that Koepp made a cameo! I strongly doubt that anything half that clever was intended.

Jonathan- I'm badly due for a Hook rewatch, as I largely remember it with nostalgic fondness. But Always is right down there in the cluster, neck and neck for me with 1941 and just a hint better than The Terminal.

Ryan- I'll be turning to JP3 soon enough, but for me they're on about the same level; no good action in the third one, but it's not quite as dumb, and it's blessedly shorter.

Tim said...

Also, I completely forgot to make a point that I wanted to make in re: sloppy writing. At one point, it's said that 3 people died during the disaster at the park in the first movie; it was four (Gennaro, Nedry, Arnold, Muldoon). Also, Hammond mentions "dozens of species", not the 15 specified in the first film, but that can probably be fan-wanked.

Chris said...

You're absolutely right about the aerial shot of the Raptors closing in: far and away the best shot in the movie.

A perfect example of the difference between the TLC of the first movie and the detached filmmaking of the second is the way that the presence of the tyrannosaurs is hinted at. JP: The vibrations of T-Rex's thundering footsteps manifested in the "concentric circles" in the cup of water, concentric circle which Spielberg took great pains to get just right. Clever, ominous, frightening. TLW: JP: Swaying trees. Obvious, unoriginal, ineffective.

Vilsal said...

Maybe Nedry's body was never found?

I don't really know what to think of the story issues you mention. Spielberg clearly isn't doing a Verhoevian stealth satire and the script isn't quite that either. However, you'd think a relatively experienced writer like Koepp wouldn't accidentally create heroes like that. Maybe his script isn't so much satirical as intentionally bad.

Mark said...

Admittedly, I don't hate the film as much as I should--very much in my "guilty pleasure" zone somehow--and I am glad to see you noticed one of the reasons. Pete Postlethwaite is, like always, pretty super to watch here. I have such a soft spot for actors who know damn well they are in an unsalvageable film but refuse to bring anything less than their "A" game. Us working stiffs have to do it everyday, why can't we expect this from our actors? I certainly miss the man...

KingKubrick said...

As an eleven year old kid I remember hating the tall grass scene for the simple fact everyone who gets picked off has a goddamn assault rifle in their hands and none of these trained mercenaries decides to shoot the goddamn raptors. You have an assault rifle!