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What has brought him back into the fray in The Lost World is a summons from Richard Attenborough's John Hammond, ailing and vulnerable to a hostile takeover of his InGen Corporation by his mercenary nephew Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard). It seems that Isla Nubar -- the site of the destroyed Jurassic Park -- was not InGen's only dinosaur habitat. Nearby Isla Sorna was the real dinosaur breeding ground, and a hurricane there has set its species free.
Ludlow is en route with big-game hunters, headed by the piratical, bald-pated Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite), to deliver up a tyrannosaur as a stateside attraction in San Diego. Hammond -- a venture capitalist turned born-again naturalist in four short years -- wants to offer the dinosaurs for study in their free habitat and, to that end, has already brought Sarah onto the island alone. To rescue her, Ian agrees to head a convoy with Greenpeace environmentalist Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn) and techno whiz Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), both of them unprepared for anything larger than an iguana until they clap eyes on Sarah petting an ultrasaurus. (At least I think that's what it was.)
With Ludlow, Tembo, and company facing off against Ian and his entourage, The Lost World is set up to be one swinging safari. But Spielberg, working from a script by David Koepp very loosely adapted from Michael Crichton's novel, offers up crash-and-thud heroics with, at best, a slight twirl. He has dampened his own best instincts that tell him action is only as good as character is. The hunters and greedsters and Greenpeacers in The Lost World are more flavorful than the stalwarts and walking stiffs in Jurassic Park, but they're still pretty stolid. They aren't part of some larger funnier pageant the way Dreyfuss and Shaw were in Jaws. They aren't playing around with what it means to be a hero.
There's a perfect missed opportunity for such play when, in order to survive on Isla Sorna, the naturalists and the hunters have to band together. The collision of manias ought to bring out Spielberg's love of bughouse duels, but it could be that he's become too "responsible," too much the Greenpeacer himself, to balance the sides. One of the funny things about Robert Shaw's captain in Jaws was that, macho cartoon though he was, you could still relish his predator's leer. With Shaw around, you wanted the shark to win, but you wanted to see Shaw win too -- anybody that loony about his virility deserves some kind of commendation.
Postlethwaite's Tembo is Shaw-like -- he wants to take down the T. rex because it's the greatest killing machine of all time -- but with him we don't get into the slapstick of blood lust the way we did with Shaw. He's just a scary safari guy. (The Greenpeacer disparagingly refers to him as "Ahab," but that's giving him way too much credit.) Spielberg has called The Lost World a movie "about hunters versus gatherers," but he has lost sight, as he never did in Jaws, of how much more we enjoy the hunters than the goody-goody gatherers. He and his team of special-effects mavens -- including live-action dinosaur designer Stan Winston, full-motion designer Dennis Muren, and dinosaur effects chief Michael Lantieri -- have come up with the most startling and hideously detailed dinos ever seen in a movie; and yet the film doesn't have the wit to encourage the audience's predatory instincts.
It could be that since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Spielberg has been gun-shy about venting his comic heartlessness. And he does need to be careful; Temple of Doom, with its torchings and maulings, was a poisonously nasty thrill ride. But in the context of The Lost World, as in Jurassic Park, a little nastiness can be tonic. It helps put a lid on all the high-flown Crichtonesque blather about cloning and extinction and how "life will find a way."
The best tonic is at the beginning: The film opens with a little girl wandering off from her parents on Isla Sorna and being set upon by the compsognathuses -- little chickenlike, dagger-toothed green dinos. It raises one's hopes that Spielberg is going to ditch the amenities and get down and dirty.
That never really happens. We're treated to some marvelous set-pieces, including a scene in which Ian, Nick, and Sarah are dangling off a cliff in their 60-foot double trailer as a pair of tyrannosaurs tries to nudge them into oblivion. But throughout the mayhem runs a thick stream of sap. Those tyrannosaurs, for example, aren't such bad sorts; it's just that the people in the trailer tried to fix the broken leg of their baby and -- well, it's just a great big misunderstanding. Elsewhere we are told that humans are the only species that hunts when not hungry -- a factoid that doesn't jibe with what we're seeing but sounds politically correct. They should call this film One Million Years P.C. Its Lost World is an idyllic habitat turned shooting gallery, and the culprit is -- of course -- man.
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