The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by David Koepp

With Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Lee Chester, Vince Vaughn, Arliss Howard, and Pete Postlethwaite.

By Bill Stamets

At the Chicago premiere of The Lost World, I overheard a Universal Studios publicist vainly cautioning some parents with toddlers that the PG-13 fare of man-eating dinos might be too much for underage stomachs. However, the tyke perched on her daddy’s lap kicking the back of my second-row seat was bored, not floored, by the gore. Yet responsible caretaking of children and other creatures is the movie’s single, hard-to-swallow morsel of a message.

Here director Steven Spielberg reprises the endearing preoccupation with good parenting he showed in Jaws, Poltergeist, The Color Purple, and Schindler’s List, which all revolve around endangered children. The heartbeat that animates The Lost World is family values, which are typically represented at mealtime. The film opens with an outlandishly wealthy English family enjoying a white-linen picnic on a jungle isle. As the parents are bickering over whether to allow their daughter to roam the beach, she scampers off and encounters a wilding gang of Procompsognathus triassicus, leaping birdlike critters with claws like Freddy Krueger. Screams ensue.

The movie ends with a popcorn-munching American “family” of couch potatoes–chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), his paleontologist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), and Malcolm’s black daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester)–watching Bernard Shaw on CNN wrap up the story they’ve just lived. But for a movie premised on prehistoric DNA, this family’s history is pretty sketchy: Malcolm may be Kelly’s father, stepfather, or adoptive father. There’s one line about someone (Kelly’s mom?) running off to Paris, and later Malcolm snaps at a corporate barracuda that genius skips a generation, so his kids stand a good chance of getting the brains he missed.

In another scene of family disarray, a mom and dad blame each other for their son’s delusional streak when he rousts them from their suburban slumber to report a dinosaur in the backyard. The towering Tyrannosaurus rex, the spawn of greedy biogenetic engineers, takes their swimming pool for a watering hole–and their pooch for a snack. No figment of the boy’s imagination, this wayward creature is rampaging across San Diego in search of its baby, of course, which was kidnapped for a theme park. When they’re reunited, big dino instructs baby dino in the carnivore’s art. And who better to hunt down than their nerdy kidnapper? Justice is juicy.

If you set aside the movie’s science bashing and corporate scolding, its agenda is child care. Dinos do it right; we don’t. “Find out what family values meant some 80 million years ago,” reads a Field Museum press release for its “Dinosaur Families” exhibit, which opened the day after The Lost World: Jurassic Park did. That same day, radio talk-show host Oliver North interviewed a Field Museum paleontologist on the issue of dinosaur family values.

Those escorting their kids to The Lost World may be negligent, but single dad Malcolm is arguably worse. Besides forgetting that Kelly was cut from her junior high gymnastics team, a big deal for her, he fails to notice she’s a stowaway on his hyperdangerous mission until it’s too late to send her back. Campfire smoke is the first clue that she’s on board, as she fixes a home-cooked meal for dad and his crew. Ultra-academic Sarah leaps into an internecine fray to prove her pet theory that dinos–long slandered as “vicious lizards”–are in fact “nurturing parents.” (Too bad Gillian Anderson from The X-Files didn’t coach Moore on how to unload gobs of techno mumbo jumbo at warp speed.)

Among the movie’s many flaws are lackluster cinematography and leaden sound design. The Lost World also includes irritating little missteps in the plot. How does a heavily sedated T-rex escape its cage on a freighter, for example, slaughter the ship’s crew, return to its cage, and press the button that shuts the door? An even bigger problem in this juggernaut of leaping, lumbering dinos is the patchwork of emotional fragments that constitutes the plot. There’s perfunctory romantic friction between Sarah and Malcolm, perfunctory parent-child friction between Malcolm and Kelly, and perfunctory corporate intrigue between a visionary billionaire and his nefarious nephew. An old-school big-game wizard takes a noble stand that’s delivered in two lines, and a hotshot news cameraman perpetrates an Earth First! mission that occupies about two minutes on-screen. Spielberg’s own summary of the film–that it’s about “hunters versus gatherers”–adds little insight since the operative dichotomy seems more between the hunters and the hunted.

The Lost World works well enough as a coming-attractions ad for its imminent real-world incarnation as a theme park. Press notes boast that one of Spielberg’s “largest sets…was left intact after filming to become a part of Universal Studios Hollywood theme park tour,” and “The actors…sometimes likened the experience [of working on the movie] to being on an amusement park ride.” But the thrill-a-minute structure of a trailer isn’t adequate for a 134-minute narrative. Yes, The Lost World includes deliciously morbid spectacles of man-eating dinos; there’s even a hunting scene lifted from Hatari, the John Wayne vehicle featuring high-speed safari chases over the African savanna.

And Spielberg’s dinos, manipulated by a small army of puppeteers, are watchable enough. But these artificial critters have little reason to be resurrected in our era, let alone on 3,300 screens over Memorial Day weekend. Seamless special effects can’t hide a story line as stitched together as Frankenstein’s monster. Screenwriter David Koepp admits as much in a self-sacrificing cameo (he’s identified in the credits as “Unlucky Bastard”): a pissed-off T-rex tosses him face-first through a San Diego store window.

Ultimately The Lost World puts a cynical spin on its own profamily message: our species can’t seem to handle its own offspring, let alone dinosaurs. In the final scene, featuring the cozy ad hoc family, Sarah and Malcolm have dozed off but Kelly takes in CNN’s concluding soundbite: “These creatures need our absence.” Earlier Malcolm had signaled the same pessimism, wisecracking to Kelly: “Hey, you want some good parental advice? Don’t listen to me.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.