The Lost World*

Recently Buffalo News writers have discussed whether young children should be allowed to see the movie, The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park. They considered the effect on them of those inevitable thriller scenes in which dinosaurs devour human prey in the same way that today's lizards scarf down insects. I have a different problem: whether to recommend this film to children or adults as good science fiction.

Quite simply I don't.

The word science in science fiction poses special problems for writers and directors. Their stories cannot be fairy tales with the rules made up as they go along. Instead they must build upon a rational base. The Star Wars and 2000-whatever films, for example, posit technological advances that give us access to our Solar System and beyond. We suspend our reality requirements when we see such films because we witness contemporary engineering and space activities that make these extensions beyond contemporary science acceptable.

The original Jurassic Park meets this science fiction test and, despite its long didactic sequences, it is a great movie. Its depictions of dinosaurs are almost all incredibly accurate -- the brontosauruses the sole exception -- and are based on recent advances in paleontology and archeology. Only the DNA cloning from amber-imbedded prehistoric insects was suspect when the film was made -- and indeed, tests undertaken since the film appeared show that this won't work. But that is certainly not a bad record for a science fiction film.

There are scary moments and children in the film are certainly threatened, but I would still recommend Jurassic Park for any school age youngster. Some of them would indeed be frightened, but surely no more than they would be scared (as were most of us) by the evil characters in the story Little Red Riding Hood and the film Snow White.

Which brings us to The Lost World, a rip-off not only of Jurassic Park but also of King Kong. How it could be such a failure following those models and with a budget that would feed a significant proportion of needy children world-wide is a kind of miracle. This film even has a technological advantage over the others. Its dinosaur models are still more lifelike than those of its immediate predecessor and far better than those of King Kong. But Steven Spielberg, the same director who made such superb pictures as Schindler's List, is careless here and fritters away the advantages these models give him.

In The Lost World these wonderful dinosaurs appear only briefly and the scenes in which they do appear are poorly conceived. Further, the thin and mismanaged story line compromises these great "character actors" -- what else can you call the imposing Tyrannosaurus rex whose gleaming eye alone briefly lights up one scene? -- and you find yourself constantly asking why this scene couldn't be either better staged or replaced. The result: bad fiction ruins good science.

Other problems further compromise our suspension of belief. Dinosaurs appear and disappear at the director's fancy. A ship's crew is killed by a dinosaur that never got out of its cage. The acting is below that of the Arnold Schwarzenegger school: Jeff Goldblum, assigned all the one-liners, mangles every one. A child actress is cast in a career destroying role: allowed to serve only as window dressing. And the screen is so strewn with name brand products that you begin to feel you are watching TV commercials.

Thrillers aren't supposed to be great art but this is a big budget film made by a respected director. I urge those few who have not yet seen it: don't reward this mediocre effort.

* This column first appeared in the June 30, 1997 Buffalo News.