Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Everyone is pretty familiar with this common complaint when a book is adapted into a movie: "The book is so much better!"  That's usually a little unfair to the filmmakers, though; screenwriters are forced to essentially create a snapshot of the book to help it make sense in a film format.  Sometimes, though, the book and the movie are different enough to make you wonder just how much "adapting" is taking place and how much "we're stealing the title of your book" is going on.  The Lost World was the first time Michael Crichton wrote a sequel to any of his novels; he wasn't going to write it, but the massive success of Jurassic Park and pressures from his publishing company and Steven Spielberg convinced him to revisit Dinosaur Island.  The book occasionally took a liberal approach to the events in the first novel (Ian Malcom dies in the first book, but is the main character in the second, for starters), but that is nothing compared to the differences between The Lost World and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.  Like what, you ask?  Aside from changing almost every character in the book and splicing in scenes from the first novel, I don't know...maybe a Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaging through San Diego? 
You mean "car flips over to avoid T-Rex" wasn't in the book?
Personally, I don't care about the liberties filmmakers take with their source material, as long as it makes the movie work.  Film and prose are very different forms of entertainment and art, and if huge changes bother you, then stick to your book.  That said, I think adding a citywide dinosaur rampage is a pretty funny detail to add to any story.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park picks up four years after the events of the first film, which is nice, because four years actually took place between the releases of the two movies.  Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) is asked by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to join an expedition to his secret dinosaur island.  You see, Jurassic Park was located on Isla Nubar, but Hammond's company apparently kept a back-up supply of dinosaurs on the nearby Isla Sorna, just without any of the safeguards and fences that were so effective **cough, cough** in the first film.  Apparently, the dinosaurs were engineered on Isla Sorna and then brought to Isla Nubar when mature, which doesn't at all contradict the egg-hatching scenes in the first movie.  Like any person sane enough to not eat their own feces, Malcom refuses the kind offer to visit more killer lizards.  Well, he refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah (Julianne Moore), is already on the island, getting her research on.  This throws Malcom in a tizzy, since he's familiar with all the running and screaming that inevitably accompany 20th-century dinos, and he leaves for Isla Sorna with an engineer (Richard Schiff) and an environmentalist photographer (Vince Vaughn) and, because this is a family movie despite all the death, Malcom's daughter from a failed marriage, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), who stowed away on their boat.  When they arrive on the island, it becomes quickly apparent that this is not just a research mission.  John Hammond's nephew, Peter (Arliss Howard), has taken control of his uncle's company and wants to open a new Jurassic Park in San Diego.  He needs to capture some dinosaurs to make that happen, so he brought a few dozen big game hunters with to facilitate his wishes.  Soon enough, both groups find themselves on the wrong side of an island full of angry dinosaurs and it becomes a battle for survival.  Surprise, surprise.
Do not feed the dinosaurs, stupid.

One of my chief complaints with Spielberg movies is that his more special effects-based efforts skimp on the acting.  This time around, Jeff Goldblum is given the starring role, and this might be the most Goldblum-y part of his career; all the awkward poses and odd vocal cadences that you are familiar with are front and center in this film.  Surprisingly, that's pretty entertaining, when given a chance to shine, like he does in the first act of the movie.  Unfortunately, as the dinosaur attacks become more frequent, his dialogue becomes less frequent, and he just becomes another character running from CGI.  Julianne Moore is a capable actress, but I found her character a little annoying in this movie, and that's ignoring some of the colossally moronic things her character does.  It was nice to see a young Vince Vaughn, because I totally forgot that he used to be handsome, or at least less puffy and seemingly without the hangover scowl he's sported for the last decade.  I didn't particularly care for the eco-terrorist/animal rights aspect of his character, but at least he didn't come across as crazy.  As far as the "bad guys" went, I enjoyed Pete Postlethwaite's gruff safari hunter character.  He wasn't in it for the money, but the challenge, and that makes all the difference in a series that points out the dangers of mixing capitalism and extinct species.

The rest of the supporting cast had substantially less screen time, but should be mentioned anyway.  Richard Attenborough, Richard Schiff, and Arliss Howard are all decent enough.  Nobody does a particularly good job, but they propel the plot forward without offending.  Similarly, the brief cameos from the Jurassic Park kids, Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards are surprisingly not annoying.  The ever unlovable Peter Stormare once again plays a bad man in this movie, and he's definitely the most entertaining "villain."  Yes, he's a jerk and deserves whatever he gets, but Stormare is a lot of fun to root against.  Vanessa Lee Chester was far less enjoyable as Malcom's daughter, who is only in the damn movie because she is painfully stupid.  Chester isn't convincing as a daughter in this movie or anything more than a recurring victim.  It doesn't help that her idiotic gymnastic routine is the low point of the movie for me.

As for Spielberg's direction...I've been more impressed.  The man still knows how to frame a shot and build suspense in an action sequence, but this is far from his best effort.  He doesn't get much from his actors this time out and the focus is even more squarely on the dinosaurs than in the previous film.  The special effects look great, that's a hollow accomplishment when there's no depth in your family film.  And, for a "family film," this is a bit gory.  There are a lot of humans dying in this movie, either on screen or implied just off screen.  I get that watching people die by dinosaur is both awesome and inevitable in this movie, but this cast was mostly cannon fodder.  The oddest choice that Spielberg made with The Lost World was the addition of the T-Rex rampaging in San Diego.  It's fun eye candy, sure, but it's also very, very dumb.  And it looks and feels like a completely different (although similarly-themed) film; the cast is narrowed down to three characters, without any explanation, and Malcom has time to shave and shower while he waits for Rexie to arrive?  That just seems unlikely.

Of course, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was never going to be a thinking man's movie.  This is a movie that is supposed to deliver dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and more dinosaurs.  In that aspect, it definitely delivers.  There is a lot more T-Rex action this time around and seeing the little compys and the stegosauruses was pretty cool.  The velociraptors weren't nearly as smart or dangerous in this movie, which was a bit of a let down --- being defeated by a mediocre gymnastics routine will do that --- but that was the only dinosaur-related bummer in the film.  The T-Rex trampling San Diego, while very stupid in terms of plot, is still a fun sequence to watch, if only because it's always fun to see monsters destroying cities.
The T-Rex symbolizes Ken Caminiti's 'roid rage.  Don't do drugs, kids.

While this is most definitely a special effects extravaganza, it still needs to tell a decent story, and that's where The Lost World fails.  It almost feels as if, because the first movie got all the pseudo-science and wonder out of the way, this film was given carte blanche to just have dinosaurs chasing people for two hours.  Instead of a plot with characters that develop, we get Jeff Goldblum delivering Yakov Smirnoff-ish lines, like "Wild goose chase?  This is the only place where the geese chase you!"  On the whole, the dialogue in this movie is terrible, especially when Malcom is talking to his girlfriend or daughter.  Does any teenage girl ever ask her absentee dad to ground her?  I won't say "never," but it's damned unlikely.  And as amusing as I find Goldblum's peculiar vocal tics, the script sometimes has him hamming it up as a lesser Jerry Seinfeld, asking "what is with...?"

Worse than the dialogue is the ridiculously convoluted plot.  Here is a scene where an experienced wildlife photographer and an experienced behavioral paleontologist take a wounded baby Tyrannosaur to fix its leg:
You would think that anyone experienced with wildlife in general and with predators specifically would be a little more careful about kidnapping a baby predator without accounting for mommy and daddy predator.  Of course, the parents come looking for the baby, smelling it with their sensitive noses, and they react violently to protect the child.  Oddly enough, those behaviors are exactly how Julianne Moore's character predicted they would react --- and she still took the baby!  Well, maybe she just couldn't leave an animal in pain, even if it is a genetically engineered abomination of nature that should be extinct, anyway.  That doesn't explain how she and Pete Postlethwaite's hunter character both ignore the fact that her shirt was covered in baby T-Rex blood that wouldn't dry in the humid weather.  This is just after she gets done explaining that the Rex has fantastic olfactory senses, is obsessed with protecting its young, and has increased its patrolling area to wherever its baby has been.  And then everyone acts surprised when the T-Rex comes looking for the bloody shirt.

As much as I enjoy Spielberg as a director, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is too big of a mess to just turn off my brain and enjoy.  I didn't care about any characters, the plot was frequently insultingly stupid, and the dinosaurs didn't bring anything new to the movie this time.  It might have three times the action of the original, but it has an eighth of the story.

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