Midway through The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg attempts to answer the question, What could be scarier than a Tyrannosaurus rex? The answer: two Tyrannosaurus rexes. They arrive in the night, in the middle of a muddy rainstorm, to rescue the infant that’s been stolen from their nest by mercenary hunters. We’re on Isla Sorna, a mountainous tropical paradise in Costa Rica, where happy packs of dinosaurs roam the forests in ecological harmony. Our heroes, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and his paleontologist girlfriend, Sarah (Julianne Moore), have come to photograph and study the creatures but leave them otherwise undisturbed. They’ve freed the baby T. rex from captivity and taken it back to their techno-trailer, where they’re desperately trying to put a splint on its broken leg. (File that one under ”Easier said than done.”)
It’s then that Mommy and Daddy show up — two giant, scaly reptile heads, complete with epic yellow incisors, peering into the windows on either side of the trailer. This is the first time in the movie we’ve set eyes on the grandest of all reptiles, and we expect some good old-fashioned primitive mayhem. But the T. rexes, frankly, don’t seem all that upset. Rather than, say, making a hungry play for Dr. Malcolm’s thigh, they decide, after retrieving their baby, to knock the trailer halfway off a nearby cliff, an act that results in much hanging-in-the-air suspense but not much in the way of wrathful-dinosaur spectacle. I don’t know about you, but restraint is not something I expect — or particularly want — in a T. rex. Then again, perhaps these two specimens are just reflecting the caution of their creator.
In The Lost World, Steven Spielberg gives us many, many dinosaurs — T. rexes, velociraptors, stegosauruses, some nifty little green bronto-beasties that leap all over you like leeches — and he choreographs their movements with a magician’s sense of play. The movie, at its best, is good fun: deft, scary, engrossing. Yet it’s never great fun. In the original Jurassic Park, we had the thrill of seeing dinosaurs rendered, for the first time, with jaw-dropping realism on screen. Apart from the sheer novelty of the computer-generated effects, Spielberg seemed enraptured, right along with his audience, by the primal wonder and terror of dinosaurs, by these beasts so mammoth and ancient they seem less prehistoric than pre-earthly, animal gods of a mythical kingdom. As a movie, Jurassic Park was fairly clunky (when you’re Steven Spielberg, it may be hard to look at a theme park with irony), yet it had a wide-eyed supernatural zeal. The director brought off a variation on what he’d done in Jaws: He got us exhilarated by our own fear.
Now, working with a more supple version of the computer technology employed in the first film (as well as with animatronic models), Spielberg sends his dinosaurs scurrying through a fantasy island full of redwoods and vines and mist. This lost paradise, which, we’re told, is where John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) bred and kept his dinosaurs, is like an echo of the primeval fairy-tale jungle in the 1933 King Kong. When a herd of stegosauruses lope across a stream, you feel you could reach out and caress their stubby hides. The T. rexes eventually do get angry, clomping after people with the same comically fast horizontal waddle they had in the first film. (At one point, two of them bite into a man as if sharing a piece of taffy.) The raptors jump, gnash, and smash things with their iron-hard heads — their intelligence is there in the speed of those ominous directed leaps.
In almost every scene, Spielberg is working to give us more. Yet what he doesn’t give us is more imagination. The raptor scene is nicely done, with some vivid, funny moments (like one raptor’s slide down a Spanish-tile roof onto the head of another), yet it’s less ingenious than the first film’s choreographed kitchen showdown. The Lost World is like a busier, less joyful remake of Jurassic Park.
Spielberg sets up two packs of rival explorers: Dr. Malcolm and his team of eco-friendly ruffians, and the corporate raiders who want to take the dinosaurs back to civilization for profit. The movie, though, is too jittery to develop its characters. As a demonic big-game hunter, a kind of Ahab/John Huston figure who wants to look a male T. rex in the eye and shoot it dead, Pete Postlethwaite, with a shaved head and a lurid glower, is meant to be an update of Robert Shaw in Jaws, yet his obsessive quest isn’t allowed to reach a climax. All that’s really at stake in The Lost World is abstract action — i.e., whether Steven Spielberg can hold on to our attention for one more scene. When one of the mammoth T. rexes finally does make it to civilization (downtown San Diego, to be precise), we’re suddenly in the realm of Gorgo and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Except that Spielberg, offering a camp gloss on the giant-reptile-on-the-loose genre, doesn’t have his heart in it. He forgets that we come to a movie like The Lost World not to wink at our giddy childhood fantasies but to lose ourselves in them. B