Bad Example: The Lost World – Jurassic Park

by Jay Stringer

If you’ve not yet listened to episode 25 of Matinee Idles, you can check out the guys talking about Jurassic Park. I do not have anything to say that is not covered in the podcast, but I tend to hold the film up as the last time Spielberg really understood structure in a film. Unfortunately, he did not leave Jurassic Park. And so this week we bring the creature feature season to a close with THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, which is not a sequel so much as the first film’s idiot brother.

Sequels are rarely a good idea. Sure, they make money, and they provide another trip into a successful world, but creatively they are a huge trap. The old adage is true; there is no writing, there is only rewriting. The problem with being a writer is that your work is never finished. You will revisit a story constantly, tweaking and pulling, editing and deleting. At some point you have to give up on finishing the story, and just accept that it is done.

But if you come back to do a sequel, then the wound re-opens. You can find yourself rewriting the original story rather than crafting a new one. A great example was Michael Crichton’s novel, THE LOST WORLD, which was nothing more than a string of ideas and set pieces that he had not been able to fit into the first book. Rather than taking the story in its logical direction –seeing what happened once the creatures started to interact with the modern world- he created a second island. Both of the sequels fail to take the story in its natural direction, both retreading the first story to varying degrees. Both finding more strained ways to get people onto the island rather than seeing what would happen if the beasts emigrated.

Crichton took the rewriting one step further, and resurrected a character who clearly died at the end of the first book. He did not actually die, you see. He just closed his eyes for a while.

Spielberg, and screenwriter David Koep, seemed to recognize the limitations of the book because they ignored much of the plot in favor of taking their favorite bits from the first one. But in doing so, to paraphrase Ian Malcolm, they avoided old mistakes by making whole new ones.

With some films that I cover in this column, it is easy to see where they went wrong. There will be one or two elements that needed changing, such as a structural problem, or bad direction. Maybe the films just need a few more drafts of the screenplay or an extra week in the edit room. With THE LOST WORLD, I do not know where to start. There are so many problems.

The first, and perhaps biggest, is Dr. Ian Malcolm. In the first film, Malcolm was the voice of sarcastic sanity, pointing out the flaws in the plan. In the second film, he is the film critic, pointing out the flaws in the plot. Surely if you recognize the flaws in your script enough to turn them into dialogue, you can go the extra distance and actually fix those problems?

Somewhere between the first and second film he apparently became a decent action hero. Somewhere along the line everyone involved decoded that he should be the one to carry the film. Malcolm is the cool supporting character, the one with the one-liners and the kooky mannerisms. He is not Harrison Ford; he is not even Sam Neil. It would be like making Wolverine the leader of the X Men (oh, wait…)

This trait follows through with most of the main characters, they are each an interesting and quirky supporting character, but none of them can carry a story.

Another of the films problems is logic. Or rather, the total lack thereof. If you think about it, the first film is all pretty logical. It asks that you accept genetically engineered dinosaurs, but once you have swallowed that then everything else makes sense. Would such creatures be out in a theme park? Yes. Would people want to go and visit the park? Yes. If the park broke down, would people start to get hurt? Absolutely.  So the whole film is one improbability that is grounded by internal logic. The sequel, on the other hand, decided that logic is a silly thing.

First up, why would Ian Malcolm return to the island? Last time around he almost died. Last time around he made it very clear that the island was a stupid idea and man should not mingle with dinosaur. And yet, ten minutes into the sequel, he is doing just that. We are given a contrived motivation; John Hammond is putting together a team of four to go on an expedition, and one of the four is Malcolm’s girlfriend, Sarah Harding. Nice and easy, you would think.  All Malcolm needs to do is tell her what a stupid idea it is. Except, wait, she is already on the island, despite the fact that Hammond is still putting the expedition together. Why? Who cares.

And once he is there, since his girlfriend really can take care of herself, the film throws in another motivation: his daughter has stowed away on the expedition. Why? Who cares. Oh, and she is a super gymnast, which should be totally irrelevant, but becomes important for about ten seconds later in the film.

Once they are on the island, we waste some time repeating something that was already done in the same place in the first film: characters showing the audience how awe-inspiring it is to see a real dinosaur. That worked in the first film because the audience was awed too. You do not get to use that trick twice.

Then things start to get simply dumb. I fail to see a single logical reason to lock a wounded infant tyrannosaur in your trailer. And the film seems to realize this, because it does not offer up any reason at all. The fact that Harding feels the need to declare , “they’ve come for their infant!” makes a fool of either the characters or the audience, whichever one paid to see the film.

Saying that, the build up of the Tyrannosaurs’ appearance is well done, and the attack that follows is possibly the best set piece Spielberg has done this side of the first film. A reminder that, though he may have forgotten how to structure and end a story, he can still thrill us a bit along the way.

This kicks off the section of the film that is exciting and infuriating in equal measure. The Tyrannosaur attack on the camp is well done but avoidable. Harding had spent the entire day wandering around with the infant tyrannosaurs’ blood on her shirt and, wildlife expert that she was, did not think this might be a problem. In the same vein the appearance of the Raptors is a very effective visual scene, but would experienced game hunters be so stupid as to walk into that trap?  And why would an educated businessman, the CEO of a corporation, join in the expedition to the island? Furthermore, at the end of the film, why would he be so stupid as to not notice the obvious trap he was walking into? These are just some of the biggest problems in a film that is full of people doing stupid things for no reason.

And it gives us one final kick. The film closes with John Hammond pleading for the beasties to be left in peace, asking for a nature reserve to be set up. Didn’t he think to do that right at the start of the film, rather then send four people on a totally illogical expedition? If your plot relies on galactic levels of stupidity, it is time to rethink your plot. Accompanying Hammond’s interview is the image of the island as some prehistoric communist paradise, with the tyrannosaur family playing beside a flock of happy stegosaurs. Presumably the director’s cut would have involved the very next scene when the idyllic family outing turned into survival of the fittest?

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, why can’t we see how the world changes with the reintroduction of the dinosaurs? The whole world would feel the impact. There would be upheaval in social, political and financial circles. Ecosystems would change, the food chain would be shaken up, and science would be rewritten. That would seem like a lot for any storyteller to get their teeth into. Or, you know, you can throw some people onto an island for no reason and watch them die.

This is a rare film for me; one where I struggle to find a single redeeming feature. In the hands of any other director we could file this one under an acceptable off day, or the result of limited ability. But we are talking about the man who made JawsRaiders of the Lost Arkand Jurassic Park. This is not an acceptable loss from someone who has scaled such heights.

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