I maintain that if The Lost World was not automatically pitted against Jurassic Park by virtue of being its sequel, people probably would have gotten a kick out of it.
That doesn’t change the fact that the movie couldn’t beat its predecessor without blindfolding it, hogtying it, and sending it into the raptor cage first, but come on—there’s nothing wrong with letting Dr. Ian Malcolm carry a film with a baby T-Rex in it. So why all the hostility?
Jurassic Park entranced us for many obvious reasons, but so much of it was bound up in structure, in its conceit. It was frightening because the protagonists were isolated, because they were forced to deal with a threat the likes of which no human being had ever encountered. At the end, everyone is safe but traumatized, and what’s worse, no one in the world knows what has happened to them. Even if we had not found out about the InGen gag order in The Lost World, it’s not exactly difficult to extrapolate that scenario as the helicopters are leaving the island. In that respect, Jurassic Park has all the qualities of a good horror film—no one can hear you scream and they will never know (or believe) what you saw.
The problem with The Lost World is that it eliminates that sense of isolation. It is a film that culminates in an homage to King Kong and Godzilla—an unstoppable force coming into hard contact with a modern world that it has no hope of joining. The idea of creating that homage is not terrible in and of itself, it’s just unfortunately handled too tongue-in-cheek to make the kind of impact it had the potential for. Between drinking from swimming pools and goofy shoutouts to Gojira made by a Japanese expat, we cannot take the chills seriously. It doesn’t help that bringing in the outside world automatically takes fear out of the equation; modern weaponry and military force might make it hard to sell the rampage.
On the other hand, if someone had tried to pitch you this screenplay with the words “Tyrannosaurus Rex charging through San Diego,” would you have been able to say no? Let’s be fair here.
But what about what works in this movie? Taking the funniest character from the first film and handing the reins over to him was a pretty brazen move that paid off in more ways than one. If The Lost World was always destined to be the campy cousin of Jurassic Park, then putting Ian Malcolm center stage guaranteed all the wit and sarcasm that the movie required to make up for every groan. Though arguably the only smart person (smart meaning intelligent and practical) from the first film, that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily a great guy. The Lost World does a good job of letting us know exactly why Dr. Malcolm is always, as he put it to Dr. Grant, “Looking for a future ex-Mrs. Malcolm.” Half of the enjoyment to be had from the film is all about watching the guy fail at handling every relationship he has, kid included.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that might irritate the Crichton fans out there—this movie succeeds where the Lost World novel failed utterly. It’s strange to realize that the book is actually more Hollywood than the film in this case, particularly in the manner with which it tries to reproduce its past success. The children in The Lost World novel are literally the movie versions of Lex and Tim flipped; this time the boy is a computer whiz and the girl, Kelly Curtis, loves dinosaurs. Instead, the film gives Kelly a real relationship to Malcolm (as his daughter), making her choice to stow away much easier to buy. And while she is similarly situated in the plot to save the day once or twice, she comes off as a wonderfully real teen, though one clearly related to Malcolm—you know the moment she uses words like “troglodyte” to describe a babysitter, and his instant response is, “Cruel, but good word use.” That’s family, right there.
The supporting cast of The Lost World frankly sell the film in every place where it falls down: we’ve got Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Richard Schiff, and Pete Postlethwaite, who are all more than capable of picking up narrative slack. It’s impossible for Postlethwaite to be bad at any part he plays, and his hubris is delicious in this film, his insistence that he understands the animals when he really is just another white guy in the jungle. What’s more, I’d argue that the edible members of the journey are actually more likable on this rodeo than in the previous film. (No one wants to defend a “bloodsucking lawyer,” after all.) Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding provides exactly what we didn’t get from Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler in Jurassic Park; they spent so much of the movie being understandably terrified that we got little chance to see them do what they do best—geek out about dinosaurs. Harding is fun to follow because curiosity outweighs her sense of self-preservation, and that’s what essentially moves the plot forward.
Again, I would like to point out: a woman, who is a scientist, cares so much about said science that she essentially guides us through the whole movie. That alone is reason enough for applause, no matter how much Ian Malcolm wants everyone to believe she’s crazy.
And at the heart of the film is a deconstruction of what Jurassic Park had worked so hard to build up in our minds. Rather than play the “scary beast” card, we spend The Lost World being made to understand that these big monsters are also protective parents. That what we often find inhuman is all-too-often the opposite if we take the time to look hard enough. It brings back the wonder of John Hammond’s initial concept where the park was concerned. It was meant to be a place that fueled your imagination, that renewed your sense of awe with creation. Sarah Harding’s research, her way of interacting with the dinosaurs is how we would all prefer to interact, not from behind the windows of a theme park-owned car on tracks.
For being such a lighthearted take on what Jurassic Park doled out, there are careful reexaminations of themes from the first film and beyond. Again we find Spielberg’s favorite conflict in fathers estranged from their children, but unlike Dr. Grant, who is learning how to be a father to someone else’s children, or Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who is abandoning his family over a calling and obsession, we see Ian Malcolm learn how to become a better father by being forced to spend this harrowing time with his daughter. Father-daughter relationships get far less screentime in general than fathers and sons, especially rocky ones, so it’s a fresh dynamic. We also see another example of man’s disregard for the power of nature, though this time it is not only John Hammond who refuses to give the proper respect. And the post traumatic stress that Malcolm still clearly struggles with as a result of his time in the park is addressed roundly, making his anger toward everyone who ignores his warnings easy to key into.
Not to mention that when you break it down, the trip to San Diego offers a very clever twist on that King Kong rehash. What The Lost World chose to do was take Kong, itself a romanticizing of classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera—the hideous, misunderstood man who is shunned by society and denied the woman he loves—and turn it into a story about protective familial love, a completely animal instinct that defines the lives of so many of us. In turn, The Lost World becomes a story that is utterly powered by the motivations of women; a scientist who wants to understand nature, a girl who wants to know her father, a mother—and father, as it is the male T-Rex stomping through California—who will do anything to get their child back.
You know what, all that stuff I said about how goofy this movie is? I take it back. The Lost World is awesome.
This article was originally published March 27, 2013 as part of Tor.com’s Dinosaur Week.