When Steven Spielberg returned to the director’s chair in 1997 after a four year hiatus, he was coming off perhaps one of the greatest double punches in film history. Schindler’s List had produced his long sought after Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director, and he preceded that film with one of the biggest box office smashes ever. Jurassic Park was an evolutionary landmark in the world of CGI, and Spielberg’s bravado craftsmanship made a blockbuster with few peers. Both films were released in 1993, and thus expectations for his cinematic return were no doubt astronomical. Compiling on to the anticipation was the fact that Spielberg chose to return to his world of dinosaurs. Given the hype and pressure that Spielberg faced, perhaps it’s not a surprise that The Lost World: Jurassic Park was ultimately met with disappointment, and frankly, how could it have exceeded expectations? Jurassic Park was an unprecedented achievement, and any sequel would be hard pressed to escape its shadow. Twenty years on, the reputation of The Lost World hasn’t improved much, especially given Universal’s soft reboot of the Jurassic series. However, a closer look at the film now yields new appreciation for how Spielberg’s direction envisioned it differently from its predecessor.
As with the first film, The Lost World was adapted from a novel by Michael Crichton. Even moreso than Jurassic Park, the film diverges from the literary source material. Certain sequences and situations were carried over, but the overall arc of the narrative is different, as are the thematic concerns. Where Jurassic Park dealt with both the scientific means and ethics of resurrecting dinosaurs, The Lost World explores how these animals interact socially, and mankind’s interference with nature. Crichton’s book delves deeply into how animal behavior contributes to evolution beyond the basics of natural selection. Spielberg’s film clearly can’t devote the same time to the subject, but Malcolm mentions Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, in which the act of observation also inherently changes that which is being observed. In this sense, the film does produce several key examples, such as the Tyrannosaurus rexes’ territorial violence on the Malcolm team. While Crichton has the luxury of following through on these theories, it’s actually Spielberg’s film that has a stronger narrative through line, even if it’s dependent upon revisiting familiar themes.
The concept of another island with dinosaurs is an easy way to conjure the possibilities for endless sequels, but The Lost World exploits it perfectly, and frankly, eliminates the necessity for any further narrative avenues. After the disaster at the original Jurassic Park, it makes sense that the board members on InGen would want to exploit a goldmine like “Site B” on a more affordable scale, thus mounting an expedition to capture the animals and profit on them stateside. Indeed, the idea is even more foolish than building a theme park on a remote island, but therein lies the film’s theme of repeating the mistakes of the past. Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), nephew to John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), is less ambitious than his uncle, but further more foolhardy in his capitalistic risks. Thankfully, the film is self aware of this flawed way of thinking, bringing back the chief skeptic from the first film. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is a changed man in the four years since his visit to Jurassic Park, no longer swaggering his way through the story with comedic relief. His sense of humor is still present, but it’s much more dry, cognizant of the dangers coming back to land of dinosaurs.
The supporting cast of The Lost World is nearly as impressive as that of Jurassic Park, even if the characters are less well realized. Spielberg has a knack for casting actors who look like the professionals they portray. Sarah Harding is boundlessly enthusiastic about paleontology, and while there isn’t much depth to the character, Julianne Moore completely sells the dialogue about lysine deficiency and the nurturing habits of the animals. Richard Schiff’s Eddie Carr is also something of a sketch at best, yet there’s no doubting his expertise in field equipment and weapons. Today, it’s still a little bizarre to see Vince Vaughn caught amidst all of the dino mayhem, but his reliable charm fits Nick Van Owen’s brash documentarian. Best of all is Pete Postlethwaite as mercenary hunter Roland Tembo, stealing every scene he’s in and primed to kill the island’s male Tyrannosaur. The inclusion of another kid in peril is one of the film’s more questionable choices, and Spielberg does his best to inject some parent/child conflict between Vanessa Lee Chester’s Kelly and her often absent father Malcolm. The film may not have much use for her, but the later ludicrous payoff of Kelly’s gymnastics killing a veliociraptor provides one of the film’s best one liners as a baffled Malcolm asks, “The school cut you from the team?”
Even if it treads some familiar ground, it’s clear that Steven Spielberg intended for his sequel to differ significantly from Jurassic Park. This begins visually, as he partnered with Janusz Kaminski, his director of photography on Schindler’s List. The look of The Lost World is much earthier than the tropical brightness of Jurassic Park, reflecting the difference between Isla Nublar’s theme park, and Isla Sorna’s untamed wild. The dinosaurs themselves are not glorified in the same way either. Spielberg affords the film a single scene of wonder as Malcolm’s crew witnesses a passing herd of stegosauruses, but the animals are also visualized in harsher environments and backlit. Where in Jurassic Park the dinosaurs had to adapt to human constructs, in The Lost World, the humans must fend for themselves in dino territory. It’s also worth pointing out how just as in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are brilliantly brought to life here, thanks to both digital and practical technology. The film still largely relies on similar techniques as its predecessor, such as keeping the animals in shadow to hide digital imperfections, but, as most sequels are wont to do, it does everything on a larger scale. John Williams’ score is also a departure from the wonder and discovery of Jurassic Park, emphasizing the danger and unpredictability of this hostile island.
Even though he hadn’t made a film in several years, Spielberg’s return to cinema proved that he is unparalleled at constructing action and adventure films. Of course, Spielberg’s cinematic instincts are sublime even in subtle beats, as The Lost World contains one of his very best moments of misdirection. The opening prologue, in which a rich family stumbles upon Site B, climaxes as a young girl is attacked by tiny compsognathuses. Right as her mother screams in horror, editor Michael Kahn cuts to a yawning Ian Malcolm, seemingly on the island as well, but the palm trees behind him are merely an advertisement, giving away his actual location inside a metro station. That change on a dime from terror to humor exemplifies Spielberg’s mastery of the medium.
On a grander scale, there are simply very few filmmakers who can match Spielberg’s set pieces, and The Lost World showcases some of his very best. Perhaps the hunters chasing down the stampede of herbivores in the early stages of the film is too reminiscent of the gallimimus flock from Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniable display of visual showmanship, like the shot of the motorcyclist weaving his way through a diplodocus’s legs. More importantly, the sequence has an intended tinge of melancholy to it, as the hunters unapologetically capture the animals in forceful manner, punctuated by several men yanking a graceful parasaurolophus to the ground.
Starting with Nick and Sarah rescuing the injured baby rex, to the destruction of the research trailers, the central sequence of The Lost World may very well be one of the best exercises of tension in Spielberg’s career. Yes, it’s also a bigger version of the central T-rex set piece from Jurassic Park, but it’s no less a masterclass in structure, and even more visually dynamic. It builds slowly as Nick and Sarah try to set the baby rex’s broken leg and Ian and Kelly flee to Eddie’s high hide. Then, the arrival of the adult pair of rexes amps up the tension as the humans give up the baby rex. Just as it seems the worst is over, the rexes return and flip the trailers, pushing them over the cliff. Spielberg makes the most out of every second that Sarah lays on the slowly cracking glass, looking down to the ocean hundreds of feet beneath her. Then comes Eddie Carr’s heroism in holding down the trailers by tying them to his car, only to meet a cruel end as the hulking rexes return to feast. Spielberg then ends the sequence on a surreal yet exhilarating image as the trailers come plummeting down around Ian, Sarah, and Nick, exploding down into the ocean below. All told, the entire sequence is over fifteen minutes in length, and it’s thanks to Spielberg’s visual storytelling and his crew’s technical precision that the sequence is pulled off masterfully.
There’s no reason to do a film with dinosaurs if there isn’t at least one memorable death, and while The Lost World has its share of carnage, Peter Stormare’s grisly end is executed marvelously. Earlier in the film, his character Dieter Stark carelessly electrocutes a curious compsognathus, unaware that his eventual fate will be met at the jaws of these seemingly fragile creatures. As he leaves the crew to relieve himself, he gets lost in the forest and happens upon another of these tiny dinosaurs. As he keeps searching, he trips and tumbles into a stream, losing his rifle and suddenly under assault by dozens of these pesky animals pecking at his flesh. Try as he might to rip them away, they continue climbing on and eventually killing him. Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski do a tremendous job with the scene, from low angle point of view shots from the compsognathuses to high angle shots of the Dieter writhing in pain as they swarm all over his body. The final button on the scene is nicely reminiscent of Jaws, as Dieter stumbles over a log and the dinos hop after him, he yelps out in intense pain, and the stream behind slowly turns red with blood.
After arguably stealing the show in Jurassic Park, it’s hard to see how Spielberg and company could improve on the velociraptors. While well executed, the latter scenes in the abandoned InGen village don’t match the intensity of those in the first film, but a brief scene earlier on exemplifies these animals at their deadliest. After the return of the rexes drives the Malcolm and Ludlow crews into chaos, a fleeing group recklessly runs into a field of long grass. As the hunters rushes through, three raptor heads poke up, and then in an absolutely stunning aerial shot, Spielberg tracks seven raptors as they slowly close in on their prey. One by one, the men are brought down mercilessly, and as one man shrieks as he runs backward, a raptor leaps in the air and onto his defenseless body. The scene is barely over a minute in length, and yet, like the trailer sequence, it too is brilliant in its construction.
Finally we arrive at the most controversial element of The Lost World, the infamous T-rex rampage in San Diego. Claims that the entire sequence is an indulgence in excess have merit, but when under the direction a filmmaker of such caliber as Spielberg, it can be instructive to simply have some fun. Narratively, the sequence is also necessary to complete Peter Ludlow’s failure, and it represents the furthest extreme that the series’ narrative could go. So yes, it is utterly ridiculous, and yet it shows Spielberg at his most playful. So many children have envisioned a dinosaur in their backyards, and here, Spielberg brings it to life with consequences both humorous and horrifying. The Rex’s misadventures through San Diego can also be seen as the director’s homage to the older monster films that defined the genre, from King Kong to Godzilla.
Twenty years on, it’s worth reevaluating The Lost World: Jurassic Park, if not for it’s somewhat underwhelming narrative and repetitive themes, then certainly as affirmation of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking talents. Even in projects that lack his vintage spark, there are still moments of brilliance to be found, and The Lost World is a prime example. While it will never carry the same wonder or grace as its predecessor, it’s still worth appreciating for the craftsmanship that went into giving the film its own identity, and for marveling at the visual storytelling muscles of a master filmmaker that will never atrophy.