Having filled my viewing gaps in Spielberg's filmography, the status of The Lost World: Jurassic Park as one of the director's weakest films, if not his worst film, has never been less in doubt. Other low points in the director's career have at least shown promise or intriguing premises: Hook may rely far too much on its regrettably hip version of the Lost Boys' hideout, but it sports two great performances and a high concept floated it through many of its glaring flaws. 1941 showed the director's first major, explicit attempt to revive the films of his youth for the modern multiplex, an approach that would soon bear fruit with the Indiana Jones franchise. Even the forgotten Always, with its too-broad combination of haunting movies A Matter of Life and Death and Only Angels Have Wings, had moments of beauty worthy of those wrenching melodramas.
In comparison, The Lost World seems such a cynical cash-in for Spielberg's biggest hit that hardly any visible reason exists as to why he would do it. It's not like the world's richest and most powerful director needed to do this to get approval for another film. His previous two films, the first Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, eradicated whatever sliver of doubt remained that Spielberg was King of Hollywood. The knowledge of the uselessness of the sequel makes its wretched, slapstick construction all the more grating.
The first major transition—is it trying to be a wry match cut? Because to designate it so—sets the whole tone for this film. Awkwardly cutting from a scene so stiff it defeats its own horror to Ian Malcolm on a subway, this poor segue demonstrates the total absence of the director's usual skill; I can't even bring myself to bring his grace into the equation.
Instantly, we get a sense of how simplistic the film will be. The first film certainly didn't display a richness of character and theme, but Malcolm goes from being a collected, smarmy scientist who knows that everything will fall apart to a panicky buffoon, a collection of tics and frantic sarcasm with even less personality than he had in the first film. And once again, he's the most complicated person in the movie; imagine how awful the others are, then.
Malcolm finds himself back in the thick of it with dinosaurs thanks to a series of developments made up out of whole cloth: as it turns out, InGen had a whole other island where they made the dinosaurs, and after a storm they just vacated the place and let the animals run free. 'K. John Hammond, reduced from a showman blind to consequences to an environmentalist…blind to consequences. He casually sends a team of researchers to head off the new board of directors from finding a way to exploit the dinosaurs, ignoring the obvious danger. The only reason Malcolm agrees to go to Site B is because Hammond convinced his girlfriend, Sarah (Julianne Moore) to go, which she does despite hearing Malcolm's tales of his time on Isla Nubar. If this film has any real commentary to impart on the human condition, it is in our ceaseless inability to respond to the statement "Don't do that" with "What, this?" We are a race of scab-pickers.
The convolutions, inconsistencies and outright retconning of this film pile on so fast that no remote connection to the story can ever take hold. The team arrives on the island and promptly set up camp at the edge of a cliff for no reason, and we soon learn that Malcolm's petulant daughter Kelly stowed away in the trailer. Soon, InGen forces arrive with the intent of capturing specimens and bringing them to a park being erected in San Diego, truly one of the stupidest ideas to ever test one's cynicism. Misanthrope that I am, not even I can comprehend anyone approving of such an outrageous idea after the pure catastrophe of the events at Isla Nubar—an island designed from the ground up to contain these creatures.
And then, Spielberg and writer David Koepp actually succeed in making the team sent to stop this madness from occurring worse than the ostensible bad guys. When the director lays a particularly maudlin track over shots of these mercenaries subduing genetically engineered beasts that should be firebombed for the safety of mankind, you know you're in for a tedious bit of moralism. As it turns out, one of the researchers, photographer Nick (Vince Vaughn), is an environmentalist saboteur who promptly releases the captured animals to wreak havoc on the InGen camp, destroying all equipment and stranding dozens of people on a deadly island. Later, when Nick makes the stupefyingly dumb decision to take a wounded baby T-Rex back to their trailer and the parents naturally follow, the "baddies" arrive and lend a helping hand and allow the four remaining members of Hammond's party to accompany them.
But it doesn't stop there! Nick continues to mess with the hired guns, stealing the shells out of the shotgun of Roland (Pete Postlethwaite), the hunter leading the InGen operation for the company's head, Ludlow (Arliss Howard). (It is yet another sign of lazy writing that an experienced professional like Roland wouldn't check his weapon before firing.) This is after Ludlow gives Nick coordinates to a radio station to call for help and largely lets bygones be bygones for being indirectly responsible for the deaths of many people.
Nothing in this movie makes sense. Why does Malcolm deliberately go out into a wild habitat looking as if he's going to stand in front of the nearest brick wall and tell jokes? Why can't the "heroes" put aside their superiority to work together to get as many people off the island alive as possible? Is the well-being of creatures whose existence poses a direct threat to the stability of the natural ecosystem more important than the lives of a people paid to come to an island, some of whom surely must have had no idea what they were getting into? How does the captured adult T-Rex kill everyone on-board the boat as it heads to San Diego yet leave the ship itself unscathed? And, again, WHY would you bring that goddamn baby rex back to your trailer? Kelly's presence is a nuisance and nothing more than a laughable play for easy audience tension (which fails, since the girl is so selfish and unlikeable) and a means to shoehorn in the director's absent parent theme, but even she's smart enough to see what a horrible idea this is.
Suspense is founded on some basic sense of logic. Though I've cooled on it since my childhood, the first Jurassic Park creates genuine suspense because the characters find themselves in plausible situations within the film's suspension of disbelief; here, everything is so blatantly staged that you just keep waiting for the obvious thing to go wrong instead of searching any corner guessing at where the next scare is coming.
Not that scares seem to be high up on the director's list of priorities here, though. Replacing the already thin characterizations of this franchise is a load of broad comedy completely incongruous with the film's haughty moralism and its fleeting attempts to feel darker than the first with the open antipathy of humans to animals compared to the snowblind optimism of Hammond's original enterprise. Goldblum does everything but break out the jazz hands in his hammy performance, and awkward one-liners dot the film. A brief line about Kelly being a gymnast comes into play late in the film with a run-in with a velociraptor that borders on the offensive in its howlingly bad staging.
By far the biggest flaw, however, is the total absence of magic and wonder, especially because the film still attempts to trade on the awe of the first film. Instead of scientists like Grant and Sattler being overwhelmed by the sight of dinosaurs and framing their discussions in moral terms, we get eggheaded chatter that sounds as if some of the actors were reading from an encyclopedia. When we first meet Sarah, she runs through dinosaur theory so rapidly and flatly you can almost see the off-screen lines reflected in Moore's eyes. One of the InGen crew, Burke, speaks solely in expository jargon about the dinosaurs, as if he's less a scientist than a tour guide in a museum. There's no insight, no discussion, only the relaying of facts in a desperate bid to suggest some kind of research went into this slapstick farce that ends with a rampage in San Diego so tacked-on it seems someone threw it in on a whim.
I typically don't jive with the Nostalgia Critic's brand of loud, cloying humor, but his video on The Lost World actually serves as a solid summary not only of the incessant plot holes and disregard for continuity but the laziness of execution. The only memorable shot in this film is of the raptors closing in on panicked humans running into a field of long grass, tails raised like shark fins, but Spielberg ruins even this moment by picking off the runners by having them slip out of view. It's a completely nonsensical method of raptor attack considering how tall they are. This is but one small example of the rampant incompetence and lack of care put into the film, a monumental step backward for Steven Spielberg. The only film in his canon I can think of to match it is the fourth Indiana Jones film, and at least the director tried to find a fresh angle for that film. The Lost World exists to educate what handful of people out there might have thought Jaws 2 could have been good if Spielberg directed it. A cash-in is a cash-in, and not even the finest populist director of his time could find any spark in this overwhelming redundancy.