Spielberg's Lost

Director digs up more dinos to prove--maybe--he's still a little playful

Not only is The Lost World: Jurassic Park the sequel to the most popular movie ever made, but it is also the first film Steven Spielberg has directed since 1993's Schindler's List. He has finally won his Oscar and achieved Great Artist status in Hollywood's pantheon of the Righteous, but now, can he still put the screws to us?

In Hollywood, if you can commandeer the audience's grand-scale pop fantasies--originate, even, some of those fantasies--you get labeled a high priest, a visionary. With Schindler's List, Spielberg's usual pop cult following was supplanted by a new crowd of incense-burners. The film was hailed as the work of a when-you-wish-upon-a-star boychik who finally came of age. It brought him "respectability." Hollywood denied E.T. the Best Picture Oscar it deserved, but it had no problem showering awards on Schindler's List.

With Schindler's List, Spielberg was recast in the popular imagination as a kind of Stanley Kramer with genius. He took the Holocaust and worked his whizz-bang, popularizing magic until audiences were as caught up in its terrors as they once had been ducking sharks off Martha's Vineyard. The film didn't do justice to the psychological complexities in the Thomas Kenneally novel, but it was such a powerfully engineered experience that it achieved if not greatness, then at least a reasonable facsimile.

But in '93, Spielberg also had come out with Jurassic Park, the film he agreed to make first in order to be allowed Schindler's List. Jurassic Park was a monumentally banal boo! movie made by a director who realized he didn't need to stretch himself in order to juice the audience. His fabled finesse never seemed so autopiloted.

The Lost World is a smoother, scarier ride than its predecessor, with twice as many dinosaurs twice as well-designed and eating twice as many people. Spielberg is not about to screw up the Jurassic franchise by pretending it's Schindler's List.

But he's not particularly playful with his terrors here, and that's a disappointment coming from a filmmaker who can mix scares and laughs the way no one else ever has. One of the great things about Jaws, for example, was how funny its frights were. Spielberg was such a confident maniac in that film that the visual jolts he cooked up with his editor, Verna Fields, were in themselves a source of high amusement. He was a jester sadist who tickled us not with a feather, but with a shiv.

He secured his scares with a loony allegory aboard the shark-hunting boat. Between Richard Dreyfuss' game and gallant ichthyologist and Robert Shaw's bonkers macho captain, there was a kind of generational vaudeville being played out--a vaudeville about two styles of heroism. In the context of a funny scare picture, what counterculture audiences were responding to was a new way to be heroic onscreen--a way that did justice to our funky, unheroic selves. The film was like a warrior fantasy for pacifists--the guy who gets sand kicked in his face saves the beach. Jaws would not have worked half as well as a great scare picture if that nutty little confab between Dreyfuss and Shaw wasn't its centerpiece.

For The Lost World, Spielberg at least recognizes he needs to diddle its heroics Jaws-style by placing at its center Jeff Goldblum's facetious chaos-theory mathematician Ian Malcolm. Ian was also in Jurassic Park, but in a subordinate, wise-ass role; he was the film's geek chorus. Here he's not so geeky, and the more standard his heroism becomes, the less special he, and the film, seems.

Ian's experience with the dinosaurs from his previous tour of duty has made him something of an expert in jungle law. He doesn't want to end up dino chow, and he spends a fair amount of time making sure the people he cares about--especially his paleontologist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) and errant daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester)--don't also end up on the menu.

What has brought him back into the fray in The Lost World is a summons from Richard Attenborough's John Hammond, ailing and vulnerable to a hostile takeover of his InGen Corporation by his mercenary nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard). It seems that Isla Nubar--the site of the destroyed Jurassic Park--was not InGen's only dinosaur habitat. Nearby Isla Sorna was the real dinosaur-breeding ground, and a hurricane there has set its species free.

Ludlow is en route with big-game hunters, headed by the piratical, baldpated Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite), to deliver up a tyrannosaur as a stateside attraction in San Diego. Hammond--a venture capitalist turned born-again naturalist in four short years--wants to offer up for study the dinosaurs in their free habitat and, to that end, has already brought Sarah onto the island alone. To rescue her, Ian agrees to head a convoy with Greenpeace environmentalist Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn) and techno whiz Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), both of them unprepared for anything larger than an iguana until they clap eyes on Sarah petting an ultrasaurus. (At least I think that's what it was.)

With Ludlow, Tembo and company facing off against Ian and his entourage, The Lost World is set up to be one swinging safari. But Spielberg, working from a script very loosely adapted by David Koepp from Michael Crichton's novel, offers up crash-and-thud heroics with, at best, a slight twirl. He has dampened his own best instincts telling him action is only as good as character. The hunters and greedsters and Greenpeacers in The Lost World are more flavorful than the stalwarts and walking stiffs in Jurassic Park, but they're still pretty stolid. They aren't part of some larger, funnier pageant the way Dreyfuss and Shaw were in Jaws. They aren't playing around with what it means to be a hero.

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