Jurassic Park parlayed Steven Spielberg’s paternal hang-ups into Alan Grant, the crabby paleontologist made into a reluctant protector of the film’s two children. However ham-fisted the arc may be, it was logical and presented as a tidy character arc that suggested more to the character’s journey than just survival. But, of course anyone who saw the film gravitated more toward the magnetic charisma of Ian Malcolm, the “rock star mathematician” played with unrepentant sexual charm by Jeff Goldblum. Malcolm’s bad-boy intellectual provided a foil for Grant and the other characters in the film in his affable smugness, managing to revel in his correct predictions of disaster even as he bleeds out from a T-Rex attack.

The character completely stole the film from everyone who wasn’t a T. Rex or velociraptor, so it’s only natural that a sequel would focus on him. But what makes The Lost World one of the most misguided features in Spielberg’s oeuvre is the decision to shackle Malcolm, without warning or explanation, to the director’s pet themes of absentee fatherhood and accepted responsibility. This has the effect of neutering Malcolm’s best features and of completely reversing his character for the sake of a plot that can remotely justify sending him back into a thicket of dinosaurs. Prompted to go to the park’s back-up island when his paleontologist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) heads there to document dinosaurs surviving without human oversight, Ian takes a team to Isla Nublar to retrieve her, only to find that his semi-estranged teenage daughter, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), has stowed away to join him.

The setup is convoluted but perhaps necessary given that as much as Malcolm was the dominant human character in the first film, he also would be the least likely to ever get sucked into a suicide mission like this. But the fact that so much must be done to motivate the mathematician to do this job is a testament to how ill-suited he is for it, not in the usual hero’s quest sort of way but a manner that completely counteracts every aspect of his behavior and reasoning. It doesn’t help matters that, despite his demands for safety and preparation, he heads into the field with the most bizarre team ever assembled for a blockbuster squad of experts. There’s Nick (Vince Vaughn), a photographer-cum-environmentalist who looks like he’s never had a meal that didn’t include red meat, and Eddie, a gadget- and gun-freak who gives numerous speeches on the potency of his tranquilizers and the specs of his accessories but whose capacity to intimidate is severely lessened by the fact that he is played by Toby Ziegler himself, Richard Schiff.

Once the team makes it to the island and rendezvous with Sarah, the film takes its first, and only, intriguing twist when it forces them to contend not only with the dangers around them but a rival, much larger group of mercenaries hired by InGen, the genetic company founded by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) but snatched away from him following his humiliation with the original park. If the first film saw humans struggling to stay alive among killer giants, The Lost World shows well-armed men wreaking havoc upon an ad-hoc kind of nature preserve, subduing animals made by people but matured without them. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s skill that you even start to feel sorry for the unnatural beasts, the unending victims of a sick game played upon them by creatures who didn’t exist for more than 60 million years after the dinos kicked the can.

When the reason for the mercenaries’ presence is revealed, however, the film falls into a pit and never recovers. Despite the catastrophic failure of the park, InGen has decided to take dinosaurs even less conditioned to human presence and set them up in a more cramped, circus-like facility in San Diego. There’s corporate malfeasance and reckless greed in cinema and then there’s this outlandishly stupid plan, one that does not even reek of profit as no executive would be so eager as to invite the multi-billion-dollar lawsuit that is the only possible endgame of this idea. This also forces Malcolm, who is still driven to terror by the thought of his girlfriend and daughter on the island, to also become an environmentalist hero, undermining InGen’s efforts with sabotage.

This being a Spielberg film, there are still spellbinding moments of well-composed action. After circumstances force both teams together, they flee a T-Rex into long grass filled with raptors, who are seen stalking the group from all sides by an overhead shot of arced tails cutting through the reeds like shark fins in water. An early scene of a dual T-Rex attack is legitimately hair-raising in its triangulation of vehicles, dinosaurs and a looming cliff from which our heroes naturally dangle. It’s a fine showcase for the director’s talents, escalating a situation into ludicrous heights while ensuring that each action logically follows from the last, and the grim tragedy of Eddie’s heroic attempt to intervene marks one of the few human moments in the film. The film even boasts an unlikely highlight in the character of Roland (Pete Postlethwaite), a big-game hunter who wants a T-Rex trophy but is gradually sickened by the absurd display around him. Postlethwaite manages to convey the man’s disgust without lapsing into hypocrisy, lending pathos to an ostensible villain.

Elsewhere, scenes display a wearying blend of macabre humor, awkward pacing and dumb scenarios. One scene sets up a T-Rex rampage in a camp by having the colossal animal effectively sneak right into the middle of a group of highly trained mercenaries who inexplicably only posted one watch who promptly fell asleep. And a throwaway early line about Kelly’s gymnastics acumen comes to play in a groan-inducing confrontation with raptors in which the girl saves the day by dazzlingly using suspended pipes to kick one of the creatures out of a window. Spielberg has done cartoonish action before and since, but here it clashes horribly with the tone of the film, veering into perilously dark territory with the gruesome death of Peter Stormare’s belligerent merc and a random civilian in San Diego who receives an extended, horrible end when a T-Rex gets loose in the city.

That final act, in which the T-Rex tears through city streets filled with terrified pedestrians, is maybe the single worst stretch of Spielberg’s career, a sequence so absurd that it never elicits fright and is so filled with large-scale chaos that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth to see half of it played as clumsy satire. Some of this might have been mitigated by stronger character work, but Goldblum is too locked into the mannerisms that made Malcolm so successful to invest the character with any deeper interest in the loves of his life. The actor lets slip that this is nothing but a cash grab, and if there are clumsier and more ill-advised films in the director’s filmography, none feels quite so pointless as this.

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