Following up on the highest-grossing film of all time was bound to be a daunting task. The good news about “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” is that the dinosaur creations are even better than those in the first film — credible, breathtaking and frightening. As for the rest, every department pales by comparison. Still, the film provides sufficient visceral thrills and visual delights to engage audiences and rack up bronto grosses. It remains the picture most likely to succeed this summer, even if Universal and Amblin may have to settle for somewhat diminished returns.
The premise is that 80 miles from the original “Jurassic Park,” there was Site B, the island locale where the prehistoric animals were engineered and shipped off to the failed theme park. And as the amusement attraction was being undone by man, the scientific base was destroyed by a hurricane.
Though it was presumed the dinos died for want of a life-giving chemical, they found the element in nature and have been thriving unmonitored ever since. In the words of mastermind John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), “life will find a way.”
The idea now is to send in a small expedition to chronicle the progress. The quartet is composed of documentarian Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), operations specialist Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), paleontologist Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) and reluctant returnee Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Malcolm agrees only because he recognizes the lurking danger and hopes to get girlfriend Harding off the island as quickly as possible.
The arrival at Site B is a reminder of what made “Jurassic Park” so memorable. The seamless interplay between modern man and extinct creatures is pure magic. But as with the first picture, any sense of serenity is short-lived. First, Malcolm’s daughter, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), is discovered having stowed away on the expedition. A short time later a second, much larger, team descends from the skies for less honorable pursuits. Led by Hammond nephew and corporate chief Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), this crew of mercenaries is on a mission to capture a selection of bygone species for display in a new San Diego park.
It doesn’t take long for the tables to turn. Soon, the hunters become the prey and both groups have to join forces and wiles to ensure their return to civilization. Along the way their ranks are seriously depleted by the likes of Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus Rexes.
David Koepp’s script, from the Michael Crichton novel, is schematic and largely predictable. There’s an obvious threat and not too many ways to quell it. Underneath the technical virtuosity is a standard chase film, and director Steven Spielberg does little to elevate it dramatically. His skill at making the audience jump at the appropriate moment is nonetheless intact, and in the absence of a strong story and well-delineated characters, that’s a mighty important asset.
The cast mostly founders with sketchily written parts. Goldblum, elevated from foil to leading man, is given double duty as hero and comic relief. He simply isn’t provided with the ammunition to anchor the film. Moore and Howard are also saddled with thankless, archetypal roles. Only Vaughn and Pete Postlethwaite — as a big-game hunter with a passion to go toe-to-toe with a T-Rex — rise above the material’s limitations. The most textured performance may indeed come from a matriarchal carnivore who’ll stop at nothing to protect her youngster.
While pic is slickly produced, Janusz Kaminski’s photography seems rather self-consciously arty for the genre. It’s rife with back-lighting to accentuate the eeriness of night and fog. Otherwise, the film moves at a breathless clip that almost makes one forget the thinness of the plot.
Few filmmakers have been able to replicate the success and artistry of an all-time popular hit in a sequel. There’s simply too much baggage and anticipation. What’s surprising about “The Lost World” is an almost slavish duplication of horror conventions of the past, including many from the Spielberg canon.
An unquestionably potent formula, it nonetheless evaporates quickly because of its reliance on manipulation. One gets a queasy feeling, for instance, about making Malcolm’s daughter a mulatto. Is it a sincere statement or demographically inspired?
In the rear-view mirror the picture is calculation at the expense of inspiration. There’s no question that all the right buttons are hit by a master craftsman. Like popcorn, it’s a tasty, fun ride without a great deal of nutritional value.