Steven Spielberg

Published June 28, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"the Lost World" is for everyone who's been longing for the return of movies in which somebody says, "We're not alone on this island." A picture that allows the audience to anticipate and relish every hoary clichi can make for a good time if it mocks itself, if the director is willing to say, "I know this is ridiculous hokum, but let's just have fun with it." It's tempting to think that's what Steven Spielberg is doing in the opening scenes of his sequel to "Jurassic Park," the highest-grossing movie of all time. Responding to his expedition colleagues, who are oohing and aahing over their first glimpse of genetically engineered dinosaurs, Jeff Goldblum (returning as Dr. Ian Malcolm) cautions, "Sure, it begins with 'ooh' and 'aah,' but it turns into running and screaming." That's a good line (one of the few in David Koepp's adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel), and Goldblum delivers it with the air of cynical self-parody -- wide-eyed and laid back at the same time -- that made him the best thing in "Jurassic Park."

But Spielberg isn't trying to be funny here. "The Lost World" is grindingly serious about wanting to out-whammy "Jurassic Park," itself a piece of clunky, undistinguished "event" moviemaking. And in Hollywood blockbuster terms, topping yourself means making a picture that's bigger, louder (the couple next to me talked through the whole movie and didn't keep me from hearing a word) and, in this case, nastier. If movies like "Hook" or "Always" made it seem as if Steven Spielberg were wasting his talent, "The Lost World" is the first time he's flat-out betrayed it.

the premise of "The Lost World" is that the "Jurassic Park" dinosaur cloning fiasco has been hushed up, and Richard Attenborough's crackpot industrialist has been developing those made-to-order dinos on another island. Sir Dickie tries to induce Goldblum to become part of an expedition, and Goldblum sensibly refuses, until he learns that his paleontologist girlfriend (Julianne Moore) has joined the expedition and is already there. Reaching the island, Goldblum finds that, in addition to the predictably agitated reptiles, he has to deal with his stowaway daughter (Vanessa Lee Chester, the talented young actress who played the servant girl in "A Little Princess") and another expedition that aims to capture the animals and transport them to a prehistoric theme park in San Diego.

Spielberg's decision to make a crowd-pleasing entertainment after "Schindler's List" is squarely in the Hollywood tradition of directors following an intensely personal picture with something that lets them fall back on pop craftsmanship. (Hitchcock followed his best film, "Vertigo," with "North By Northwest.") What's depressing about "The Lost World" isn't that Spielberg doesn't equal the emotional and moral complexity of "Schindler's List" (how could he match that every time out?), it's that the movie offers almost nothing in the way of craft. Substituting special effects for visual imagination, and with a slapdash, often nonsensical narrative, "The Lost World" isn't at all recognizable as the work of the director who's given us some of the loveliest, most emotionally genuine of all Hollywood entertainments. It's as if Walt Disney had set out to graft his mawkishness onto the worst exploitation aspects of "King Kong."

Spielberg has made mechanical movies before, movies where he coasted on his skills, content to simulate a sense of wonder rather than conjure one up. But "The Lost World" is the first time he's ever treated an audience contemptuously. The experience of watching it is no different from the battering you get at a crass summer blockbuster like "The Rock." There's a world of difference between the ruthless wit of "Jaws" and the sadism on display in "The Lost World." "Jaws" was a horror-comedy that teased the audience by visual sleight-of-hand; Spielberg always managed to make that shark pop up exactly where we didn't expect it. But you can't give an audience tantalizing glimpses of the monster in a movie that cost $75 million. All that money has to be on display. There's no wit or imagination to the stomping and chomping here, just a determination to give the audience the grisly goods.

For weeks now, "The Lost World" has been pitched to kids through all sorts of merchandising tie-ins at places like Burger King and with cereal like Jurassic Park Crunch. Kids are primed to see it, and no doubt many of them, accustomed to big-budget special effects, will have a good time. But there are going to be plenty who'll be scared out of their wits by what "The Lost World" shows them: A little girl is set upon by a pack of iguana-sized dinosaurs; two Tyrannosaurus Rexes play tug-of-war with a man until he's pulled apart; another man is squashed under the foot of a T. Rex (the man's crushed body, stuck to the bottom of the Rex's foot, is squashed a couple more times as the creature walks away); a man is plucked out of a cave by a dinosaur, after which the waterfall running over the cave opening turns blood red, all as a terrified little girl watches; a pack of tiny dinosaurs swarms over a man and rips off bits of his flesh; rampaging creatures knock over cars and trucks, crushing the bodies that hang out of the vehicles' windows; a T. Rex smashes a doghouse after gobbling the pet that was inside. In addition, there are scenes with hunters capturing and injuring baby dinos that call up the most manipulative moments of "Bambi" or "Dumbo," followed by scenes of adult dinosaurs going after the humans who try to help. It's appalling that the filmmaker who more than any other has shown sympathy for the fantasies of children should so ruthlessly exploit their nightmares.

Spielberg shovels this stuff at us as if to say, "This is what you came for, isn't it?" He's so cavalier -- almost arrogant -- about plausibility and motivation that he treats the movie like nothing more than an excuse to get from one bit of carnage to the next. Throughout, characters put themselves in danger in ways that make no sense in terms of their characters. We're asked to believe that Moore's smart paleontologist not only would fondle a young dino in full view of its parents, but that she'd take a baby T. Rex from its lair to fix its broken leg. (She's on an expedition, not visiting a petting zoo.) And we're asked to buy that the mighty white hunter played by Pete Postlethwaite (like Moore, an actor who's wasted in this film) would allow her to walk around wearing a jacket that's still coated with that baby's blood.

Of course, even if "The Lost World" had been the greatest entertainment of Spielberg's career, his detractors would probably try to use this as evidence that "Schindler's List" was a fluke. In his new biography of Spielberg, Joseph McBride does a good job of showing how some of those critics (like David Thomson and J. Hoberman) distorted both the historical record and the film itself to make a case against it. Worse were the critics who praised "Schindler's List" as if it had nothing to do with Spielberg's previous work. In some reviews, the movie was described as if it were a Biblical conversion, with Spielberg putting away childish things and stepping naked into a new artistic world. They want to believe that works of art are created in states of purity, which is ironic since the point of "Schindler's List" is that great deeds never are. Trying to explain how Spielberg pulled the movie off, his critics did their best to ignore what was most relevant: his position as a Hollywood power player.

Spielberg has often been written about as though he exists in a state of suspended childhood. But a director who has the responsibility of a studio's millions on his back doesn't make his childlike fantasies in blissful innocence. To become the most financially successful movie director in history, you have to be able to swim with the sharks. No wonder Spielberg found his way into the character of a dealmaker like Oskar Schindler: How could he not recognize something of himself in Schindler's noble hustler?

Will Spielberg ever show that side of himself again? It's possible we'll see it in "Armistad," his film about a slave revolt, due this Christmas. Right now, I'm more anxious about whether we'll ever again see the master entertainer of "Jaws," "Close Encounters" and "E.T." The success of those movies changed Hollywood -- not for the better -- paving the way for far less artful pictures. Watching "Jurassic Park," it was tempting to see Richard Attenborough's loony visionary as Spielberg's unconscious self-portrait, a man who wanted to give the world something extraordinary and produced monsters that mindlessly gobbled up everything in their path. "The Lost World" doesn't allow for such generosity. If Spielberg has any counterpart here, it's the dinosaurs.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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