Monday, March 16, 2009

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

When Steven Spielberg returned to filmmaking after a nearly 4-year break, he laid an egg. I have to regard this movie as an opportunity for Spielberg to find his sea legs again before he attacked the intimidating subject matter of slavery and World War II in his upcoming work. Even so, The Lost World is a cringingly bad movie. No, not in terms of technique - though the CGI has dated badly, the late Stan Winston's animatronics still impress. And Spielberg, even in his most craven hackery, is still a great filmmaker, so we get interesting ideas for shots rather than lots of standard-issue close-ups which most Hollywood movies market these days. But the story is forced (every turn of events a mechanical effort to take us from A to B to C), the action is often ludicrous, and the dialogue consists of stale bon mots sprinkled among wooden, straightforwardly-delivered lectures on the mating habits of various dinosaurs. But as if that wasn't bad enough, the movie sinks itself even further into the miasma of its own terribleness by forcing an unbecoming - and morally loathsome - animal-rights agenda down its audience's throats.


Before it gets to that point, the film already stinks. Jeff Goldblum, shifted from the wisecracking jester cum moral conscience of the initial movie to the protagonist here, seems profoundly uncomfortable with his starring role. This version of Ian Malcolm bears little resemblance to the grinning postmod womanizer we saw in Jurassic Park: doesn't look the same, doesn't act the same, barely (and this is a surprise given Goldblum's trademark delivery) even talks the same. We get a brief scene with Richard Attenborough's John Hammond, and then Malcolm and an impatient Spielberg are off to the "new island" (oh, did we forget to mention that there was a second island last time around? Well, there is.) Malcolm, of course, is only going to rescue his girlfriend, the dinosaur expert and professional idiot Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore). Once we meet her, we wonder why he bothered.

Malcolm is saddled with a daughter (Vanessa Lee Chester) who, to be fair, gives more of an effort than most of the adult actors. Even she seems stunned into shame by the moment where she has to yell at a velociraptor, "Hey, you!" before doing a gymnastic flip around a light pole and kicking it in the face (it flies out the window and impales itself on a convenient spike below - this encourages Malcolm to lamely respond, "They, uh, they cut you from the team?" At which point she kicks him out the window, impaling him on the spike as well. I wish.). On the island, Malcolm meets a cocky photographer, Nick Van Owen, played by an embarrassed Vince Vaughn.

Vaughn's character is the most vile in the movie, though we are ostensibly supposed to sympathize with him - it turns out that he has been smuggled in by the crackpot Hammond in order to free the dinosaurs, once the evil corporate types led by Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), the designated baddie of the piece, arrive on the island and cage up the beasts. Eventually it will become clear that Van Owen's misplaced nobility, coupled of course with Harding's mind-boggling foolishness (leaving a bloody shirt hanging on a clothesline with territorial T. rexes on the loose, taking a baby Rex into her trailer - which is situated at the edge of a cliff!!!) will lead to the deaths of most of the people in this movie, though the screenplay never holds them accountable.

And that screenplay, written by David Koepp, is the primary reason for this movie's disaster. Aside from its lack of conviction where it matters (dialogue, motivation, structure), it pumps in an absurd amount of conviction into the wrong places: namely some bizarrely sentimentalized compassion for the dinos. What made Jurassic Park work was the awe and terror that these distinctly non-human characters inspired, but now we're forced to listen to the biological motivation behind every action they take. So that even as her trailer is hanging over the edge of a churning sea, with a T. Rex nudging it further and further towards the abyss, Dr. Harding is explaining to us how it is only natural that the Tyrannosauruses would want to protect their young. Then why the hell did you bring "their young" into your trailer, you fucking idiot?

Meanwhile, Van Owen goes to work letting all the dinosaurs out of their cages, which destroys the camp but doesn't kill anyone (since this time the dinos are all - luckily - herbivores). Later he goes further, removing the bullets from the gun of white hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postelthwaite, in the only interesting performance of the entire movie). Thanks to this bit of mind-bogglingly misdirected compassion, the T-Rex continues its rampage and crushes a few Hispanic grunts under its foot (we get to see one of them flapping his arms and legs in postmortem spasms as the dinosaur continues to stomp along). We can shoot dogs and chimpanzees when they threaten people - but God forbid we hurt the earth's largest carnivore!

Of course, this absurd standard doesn't apply to the raptors, who are allowed to be the only animal villains in this piece - albeit for a poorly staged, tired chase sequence in which an idiotic scientist and a schoolgirl somehow narrowly escape the deadly predators over and over again. Meanwhile, after finally making it off the bloody island, Van Owen reveals - without an ounce of shame - the bullets he palmed. His buddies in the helicopter - nearly killed as a result of his actions - regard the bullets with a kind of dumb incomprehension. You can sense the actors' desire to break out of character (or perhaps break into character for the first time) by throttling the smug nincompoop and throwing his body into the sea.

But no, that sort of violence could never be visited upon our stars. It's reserved for the lesser folk, the fat guys, or Hispanics, or otherwise non-glamorous people who make up the dinosaurs' menu this time around. The film's unmitigated cruelty towards these victims lends an especially bitter taste to its crusading People for the Ethical Treatment of Dinosaurs mentality - an anti-humanism to wash down the dino-love. Besides the stomped-upon workhand, we see a nice bald fat middle-aged guy (Richard Schiff, later of "The West Wing") mercilessly ripped in two after saving Malcolm, Van Owen, and Harding from a certain death they more than asked for.

Later, vaguely Eastern European baddie (played by Swede and requisite scumbag Peter Stormare) gives one little dino a minor electrical jolt, and for this dastardly crime we get to see him ripped apart in a ten-minute orgy of sadistic brutality (one of the creatures even tears off part of his lip - surprisingly graphic for a PG-13, but he's a bad guy, see?). Even Ludlow, who we've been meant to despise throughout the picture, does not - upon reflection - deserve his gruesome demise, wounded by the parent Rex so that the baby can gorge on him. What was his crime after all? Trying to make a buck, interfering with the forces of nature, etc. Yet he's caused less mayhem and destruction than the movie's supposed heroes.

Indeed, it can be little surprise that when asked if he'd like to come back to San Diego with the captured T. Rex, Roland Tembo dons his hat and announces, with mock solemnity that even the stoical Postelthwaite can't pull off, "I've been around death long enough," before walking off into the Spielbergesque blue light while Howard's character peers after him with a quizzical look on his face. Perhaps Postelthwaite, who provides the movie its only conviction and life-force, should have said, "I've been around mediocrity and incompetence long enough."

And he exited at the right time, because the movie soon descends into Godzilla cliches, as a T. Rex rampages around San Diego, which by comparison makes the preceding two hours (this is a long movie) look like an intelligent thriller - say, something like the first movie. Throughout this rampage, Harding and Malcolm go out of the way to make sure the rampaging beast is properly lured back to the ship it escaped from (a ship on which the predator - somehow - was able to munch on crew members tucked away in narrow corners and rooms of the vessel, all while locked away in his chamber which is still closed when the boat crashes into the pier...but I digress). They reunite the dinosaur with its baby, and then shoot it with a tranquilizer dart before it can be shot down by the merciless government folks in their black helicopters.

Then, for some unknown reason, CNN informs us that a huge naval contingent is escorting the ship back to its island (they were ready to shoot it, but now military resources have to be diverted to make sure the T. Rex gets back ok? Huh?). This news flash is followed by a public service announcement by John Hammond, in which the old fart scolds and lectures his audience (that would be us), telling us that dinosaurs and humans can co-exist, as if this message had relevance in the real world, and that all we need to do is leave them alone, and Nature will find its way. Cue shot of, I kid you not, T. Rexes and stegosauruses existing peacefully side-by-side on their new tropical Eden, free from evil human contact.

The Lost World is the kind of movie that makes you want to throw your TV out the window, simultaneously sign up for the NRA and the GOP, buy a gun, and shoot every animal in sight.

13 comments:

hokahey said...

Besides the overblown action sequences that are all noise and no tension - I recall that, yes, this film is rife with Spielbergian disregard for logic. He is guilty of that in most of his movies - including the best - but in this one, as you noted, crew members are slain by a T-Rex that is too big to get into the bridge. This is a sad sequel to Jurassic Park.

MovieMan0283 said...

hokahey, out of curiosity, what would you cite as examples of Spielberg's disregard for logic? I can't recall too many from his films - probably a testament to his ability at sleight of hand, which is pretty much absent here. The image which probably best sums it up is Malcolm yawning in front of the advertisement for the palm trees. The "adventure" is faked, the actors are bored, and the attempts at cleverness (like that shot, which is a transition from a little girl screaming on a desert island) feel forced.

Daniel Getahun said...

You know I can't really remember half of the plot that you describe at the end. But I can remember much of the beginning.

In other words, every time this comes on TV I watch parts of it to see if it will be any better than I remember. Inevitably it's not and I give up halfway through.

And what makes all of this worse is that I enthusiastically loved the book when I read it as a teen.

hokahey said...

MovieMan -

Spielbergian logic:

Spielberg's largest most recent lapse in logic is in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Etc.. The Russkies use that huge lawnmower to cut a path through the jungle. Then it gets blown up. Then there is an endless chase along a nicely cleared road. How did that get there?

In the same movie, Indie is in a Mexican standoff with a bunch of Russians pointing guns at him. Then his friend points a Thompson at him and Indie gives in. Huh? He already had a dozen guns aimed at him.

In Jurassic Park (which I love) the T-rex steps over the fence from the level of the jungle onto the roadway. Later, when the yellow car is nudged over the edge, there's a huge drop-off there.

Same scene - the roadbed looks nice and gravelly in the rain. Then the capsized car starts sinking in very deep mud.

In War of the Worlds, which I also love, the tripods zap the humans and turn them into ashes. So why is the river filled with dead bodies?

Same film - the tripods make all electrical devices/ batteries inoperable - but the camcorder works.

Enough for now; more will occur to me soon. I admire many of Spielberg's films, but I wish he would be a more careful storyteller.

Daniel Getahun said...

Ha, great examples, hokahey!

MovieMan0283 said...

Daniel, it gets worse as it goes along (or at least, it gets worse in the final half-hour) so that's a good decision.

For whatever reason, I don't recall The Lost World with astringent bitterness, even days after my most recent viewing. As stupid as it is, it's got nice jungle scenary, Spielberg makes sure it looks good, Postelthwaite redeems the acting somewhat, and the VHS comes in a case with an appealing green and gold visual palette. In other words, the packaging is nice so I can't hate this film the way I hate more recent blockbusters.

hokahey,

Interesting examples. I did not see Indy 4, after a friend's mournful warning, so I can't comment there. But there's a huge lawnmower involved? Along with aliens? And Cate Blanchett with a black wig? Good grief.

Also, with Jurassic Park, isn't that huge drop-off on the OTHER side of the road, or is my memory deceiving me?

I never minded logic-bending as long as it's pulled off with the flair of a magician, which is what Spielberg usually does. Here, the material's subpar, his execution is half-hearted, and hence we see through it all.

Glad you liked War of the Worlds. It was probably the most satisfying blockbuster experience I had this decade (yes, even more satisfying than The Dark Knight). Too bad not everyone else saw it that way - especially those who brushed it off (often on the basis of who-the-hell-cares lapses in logic) yet celebrated the dreadful King Kong.

I remember after the screening, a friend (at the time I did not know her very well) seemed apathetic. I commented that it was the best blockbuster I'd seen since Jurassic Park and she - who is not a movie person at all - told me I must have terrible taste in movies. Believe it or not, we're still talking (in fact, to cross-reference reviews she was the one to whom I sent the LOL-retrieved picture of the poker buddy).

PIPER said...

hokahey's example of the Jeep/drop off in Jurassic Park is one that has always puzzled me. I have forgiven it all these years, thinking that I was missing something. Now I feel vindicated.

MovieMan,

This is not a great film, but I love this franchise and probably always will. As a great lover of Disney, I also have a fascination with the dark side - that being what if Disney turned on everyone. Of course this is at the heart of this franchise and as long as they continue to exploit this idea, I will still love it.

But the further they get away from the original, the further they are from exploring this idea. Although I do like the idea of Hammond's son setting up a dinosaur amusement park in the States.

All that said, there are certain scenes that stick out to me. One being the opening. I do very much like the island scene with the little girl. At one moment cute, the next out of control.

And I like the jeeps driving along all the dinosaurs. It's traditional Spielberg, filled with wonder.

But yeah, this one kind of sucks

hokahey said...

MovieMan - I would agree. War of the Worlds is my favorite blockbuster of the past ten years. It's intense and creepy and beautifully filmed. I love the novel, but I love what Spielberg did with the story. I love the focus on the father's determination to shield his daughter from the horror and save her. I feel it is one of Cruise's best performances. It's a stunning, gripping film. Yeah, I've had debates with people on this on too - and I don't care that the grandparents are clean and untouched at the end. Also, yeah, I find it much more memorable than The Dark Knight - mostly because I prefer H.G. Wells/sci-fi over the superheroes genre any day.

MovieMan0283 said...

Piper,

Your faint praise (but praise nonetheless) points to why I can't hate this film even as I despise it. It looks pretty good and has some interesting elements, despite being essentially garbage.

hokahey,

War on the Worlds was one of the few blockbusters of this decade to have a classical spine - in its thematic ideas, its shooting and editing style, its structure, its spare use of CGI within a well-crafted palette. As such, it was largely brushed aside and ignored in favor of blockbusters which were "newer" (read: over-saturated in CGI, uninterested in the satisfactions of classical narrative cinemas and implicitly unaware of the traditions it farted all over). Particularly by the older critics: I often get the sense that boomers are more likely than younger generations to embrace something just because it's "new" and "different". See Corliss' recent blockbuster apologia, which I haven't gotten around to attacking yet, but will eventually.

hokahey said...

MovieMan - Take a look at my response to your comment on my Watchmen post. We're on the same page. To me it's all about seeing something new. I know Star Trek fans are really really excited about the new movie coming up. But, to me, I wouldn't consider them big science-fiction fans. I am a big sci-fi fan - but I want new stories. That's why I loved last year's Sunshine. It wasn't a remake or sequel!!!! Also, Cameron's Avatar sounds a lot like Halo, but, halo, I mean, hell, at least it's something different!

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, I don't want to knock blockbusters altogether. But what was so satisfying about the 80s and 90s brand seems to have been lost.

Also, I sometimes wonder if our current cinematic age isn't worse than the 80s. But one thing about that decade - while critics like the carp about the "juvenilization" of American cinema in that period, at least those movies were original. Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (based on book, but not a very well-known one), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, E.T., The Terminator - these were all very ideas given the blockbuster treatment. Even in the 90s there was a healthy mix between high-profile adaptations (the Batman movies, Jurassic Park), genre pieces which were nontheless original screenplays (Independence Day, Twister) and high-concept originals (Men in Black). Today everything is recycled.

hokahey said...

Yes, recycled. That's how I felt about Monsters vs. Aliens today.

MovieMan0283 said...

Which is too bad because, in theory at least, it should be "original", right? (Unless there's a high-profile source I'm missing out on.) But when even the original material isn't original, we're in trouble...