I wrote this for an essay I did on genre in my writing and rhetoric class. Tell me what you think!
"Where is the awe?" These are the first words to acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert's review of the 1997 Steven Spielberg film: "The Lost World: Jurassic Park". This is the first clue to the reader that for once in a very blue moon, Roger Ebert, the man who single-handedly saved John Carpenters career by giving the first "Halloween" film a great review back in 1978 - and inadvertently setting off the slasher sub-genre that would haunt the 1980s for the next ten years - just does not get it. Look, I like Ebert. He is one of my influences in my writing, especially when I write film reviews. What made Ebert great was that he took genre into account. He knew how to judge a film not within the field of film itself, but as its own genre; for example: as a horror film, as a techno-thriller, or as a science-fiction action thriller. He judged a movie against other movies in its genre, deciding whether a movie made a good horror film, a good techno-thriller, or a good science-fiction action thriller. That is admirable. To judge a film against its kin, and not just as a film, makes for a better and fairer review. As I was told by a music critic once, "Nobody cares what you think." They care whether or not it was good, not whether or not you think it was good. I am here to say, I believe Ebert made a lapse in that critical thinking process when reviewing this movie. Let me explain.
His first mistake: comparing it to the previous movie. "Jurassic Park" (1993) is a great movie, a classic, and once held the spot of highest grossing film ever, unadjusted for inflation. However, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" is not the original, and Spielberg knows this. In fact Spielberg, and cinematographer (and Columbia College alum) Janusz Kaminski both agreed to take "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" to a more raw and primal place than Dean Cundey did with the original. "In 'Jurassic Park'," Spielberg says, "we had to prove we could create dinosaurs. Now, in 'The Lost World', we have to show what we can do with them." And show, he does.
There is much usage of backlighting, and silhouetting of the dinosaurs in "The Lost World". It takes on more of a horror story quality than the first, using much more expressive shadows and a deeper sense of isolation. One of the most amazing things in "The Lost World" is the theme of containment. The whole point of the movie is almost exactly the opposite of the last: instead the animals breaking free of containment, they need to be contained on this tropical island.
The island does not really feel like a tropical island at all. The only time you realize that it is a tropical island is when looking at it from the beach or from the sea. It kind of reminds me of Chief Martin Brody's (Roy Scheider) line from "Jaws" (1975) - of course, another Spielberg film - "It's only an island if you look at it from the water". Indeed, the entire island as it is represented in the film and in the concept stage looks more like a mainland than anything else. The mountains go off into the distance, with misty clouds and other landscapes following. The first thing we are described when Dr. Ian Malcolm's (Jeff Goldblum) team arrives on Isla Sorna in Dr. Michael Crichtons (writer of the "Jurassic Park" (1989) and "The Lost World" (1995)) book is the volcanic lip surrounding the island. In the book, we are given set locations, and constant reminders that this entire experience is contained. We are consistently being reminded that we are on an island. Not so much with the film. The film works completely on the theme of lack of containment. Catch a T. rex and put him in a cage? He breaks out! This whole constant theme of containment and breaking free, then attempting to contain again, only to once again break free is done, dare I say, even better in the movies than it is in the books! No doubt, Crichton makes a masterful case for Complexity Theory and other mathematical theorems that intricately explain the reason Jurassic Park fails in the first book, but where the theme of control and containment comes in, that is all Spielberg. Spielberg masterfully crafts an entire literal world from "The Lost World", and it is so creepy, yet so adventurous.
No other director alive could have done this. Yet, Roger Ebert fails to see this vision. He fails to understand what Spielberg wanted with this movie. Spielberg wanted the shadow, he wanted the twists, he wanted the macabre. Ebert calls it "perfunctory", and believes the shadows serve no more purpose than to hide the early digital effects of the 1990s. The points behind the shadows, the darkness, and the grit are all lost to him. What we don't see is just as important as what we do. The shadows and the darkness that takes away finer details also adds a sense of mysteriousness into the mix and that mysteriousness is one of the things I love about the movie. How you don't know what danger may be stalking through that shadowy forest, or what horrors may be lurking in that dirty, derelict building somewhere in the Pacific. It extends the dangerous feel from more than the "local" fauna itself; it is that feeling that the very setting is not your home. That you, as a human, are very out of place here. This is easily expressed from the moment that John Hammond's (played by the late, great Lord Richard Attenborough) team sets foot on the island. They are trudging along a shallow creek, so very far from civilization, and suddenly they hear thundering footfalls, and groaning. They have no idea what it is, only that it is "something big". The audience is made to think that it could be a Tyrannosaurus rex coming at them, but what a wonderful surprise it is for both audience and the characters to see a beautiful herd of gigantic Stegosaurus to pass before you. It tells you that not only is there deadly beauty here, there is also mysterious beauty here as well. And when things do go to Hell, you find that the forest, which has already set itself up to be dangerous, can become an antagonist itself as one of the characters finding himself lost inside it, resulting in his death.
"The Lost World" is supposed to be darker and more serious. If you watch any of the interviews regarding the film, Spielberg explicitly says his intent for "The Lost World" was to make it a more foreboding environment, and a call back to the grimy, dingy jungles found in Spielberg's childhood dinosaur and creature features like "King Kong" (1933) and early takes on Arthur C. Doyle's "The Lost World" (1926). "The Lost World", in every way, was meant to be a darker experience. From the very beginning, the concept itself portrayed Isla Sorna as a very dank, dark, and dangerous place.
When other critics say a movie has depth, I don't usually get it, but with "The Lost World" I can practically feel it. There is just so much there and watching it you feel like what's there and what you feel the first time is barely any of it. There is just so much of the movie I could swim in it. It has no clear cut antagonists, nor clear cut protagonists, the sets are amazing in that what you see on film feels like it's not even half of what's actually there. While watching the movie, it is the little things that make the biggest impact, and it makes you think "Wow, they actually included that!" The locations are so mysterious and the whole of Isla Sorna just screams "You have left the Earth you know behind and have entered the world of dinosaurs". It reminds me of those old dinosaur documentaries I used to watch as a young child, the ones that featured the old, mossy, coniferous, fern ridden world. A world that looks like it was standing in time. A lost world.
Roger Ebert did not understand that part of it. He went into the theater, not recognizing that this film was far closer to a suspense thriller than the science fiction thriller that was the first film. Thus, he reviewed the movie as a science fiction thriller, and not as the suspense thriller the film is. Replacing much of the Chaos Theory discussions in the film is instead a heavy handed environmental message, one that is a tad over done than necessary. Yes, the film has its problems. Much of the best character developing scenes were left cut from the film (although are reintroduced during television airings), and the climax is somewhat over the top, but Spielberg's main focus here was not on creating dinosaurs. It was finding out what he could do with them.