Long in the tooth

The Lost World: Jurassic Park Steven Spielberg (PG)
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The Independent Culture
In nature, repetition plus variation can turn a pterodactyl, over the millions of generations, into a pigeon. In Hollywood, it takes only a single step to turn a Tyrannosaurus rex, bellowing in triumph at the top of the food chain, into a turkey. This is not what has happened with The Lost World, Steven Spielberg's film of Michael Crichton's sequel to Jurassic Park, but there is something self-defeating about the world's most successful film-maker competing so tirelessly with himself. If he didn't direct Jaws 2, if he was happy for Poltergeist and Gremlins to be made by other hands, he hardly needs to be in the driver's seat for a sequel with more than its fair share of deja vu. If you're competing with yourself, in what sense are you evolving?

Once again, we get wobbling puddles to announce the arrival of big game - really big game. Once again we get some dinosaur pastoral - a family of stegosaurus grazing - though this time Dr Ian Malcolm, a hold-over from the earlier film (played by the same actor, Jeff Goldblum), cuts across the wonder with a sour and knowing comment: "Oooh! Ahhh! That's how it always starts - then later on there's running and screaming." Once again, there are set pieces of confrontation with tyrannosaurs and with velociraptors, though in this respect the earlier film knew better. The velociraptors are far more frightening, partly because they are closer to our size and share some of our self-perceived strengths (adaptability, teamwork), but they're absent from the climax of The Lost World, an episode in which a tyrannosaur runs amok in a US city. An episode like King Kong without the pathos.

A lot of effort has gone into creating box-fresh dinosaurs for 1997, with fluid movement and palpable weight, extinct saurians as different from 1993's as this year's trainers are different from last year's. (Which is to say, not very.) This year's velociraptors jump more casually, with a definite sadism in their pouncing. It must have been tempting to make the dinosaurs gaudier than the traditional greeny-grey (it's perfectly possible they were brightly coloured) but continuity with the earlier film rules that out. The Lost World has a fully paid-up dinosaur consultant, but of course the film-makers are only interested in speculation that humanises the lizards in ways that boost the plot - viz the possibility that the tyrannosaur was a nurturing parent, which gives plenty of scope for contrived climaxes (worried parents with knives for teeth searching frantically for Junior). The recent revelation that T. rex was prone to gout is unlikely to appear in any future sequel.

It's a paradox of the accelerated evolution of hi-tech that Spielberg gets more dinosaurs per special-effect dollar than he did four years ago. Breakthroughs in hydraulic systems have enabled Stan Winston to deliver twice as many live-action creatures for a smaller budget. But increased productivity on the shop floor of the illusion factory doesn't necessarily stave off the impression of diminishing returns.

In some respects, David Koepp's screenplay is better organised that its predecessor. Sardonic Ian Malcolm is a better central figure than the bland characters played in the original by Sam Neill and Laura Dern. It must by now be common knowledge that David Cronenberg introduced a little insect DNA into Jeff Goldblum's brain to prepare him for his role in The Fly, and the actor continues to reap the benefit of the transplant. There's something quirkily arthropodal about his timing, and the movements of his eyes and mouth.

In Jurassic Park, his character was a chaos theorist predicting catastrophe, while John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) imagined that nature could be controlled and exploited. In the new film, their philosophies are starting to converge, and by the end of it the two are in agreement that dinosaurs and humans should be kept apart. Such ideological tension as there is in The Lost World is between Hammond's effete capitalist nephew and Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), a wildlife photographer who is also an environmentalist.

It may be that the film-makers have a certain amount of sympathy for the idea of animal rights, or it may simply be convenient to use Van Owen and Malcolm's girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore) to start the necessary chaos by setting free the dinosaurs that have been captured by the commercial exploiters. It's certainly odd, in the self-righteous moral world of the Hollywood blockbuster, that a big-game hunter (Pete Postlethwaite), who wants a T. rex head to hang above the mantelpiece of some very large lounge, should survive the ensuing carnage, while an inoffensive bearded palaeontologist should end up as a dinosaur snack, as if his lack of aggression made him easy meat, while Ahab escapes. And it's clearly an awkward piece of construction that Goldblum's character never seems to notice that his girlfriend and her co-conspirator are responsible for the mayhem. He doesn't seem the sort of person who'd bite his lip and not say, "I do wish you'd ask me before opening Pandora's Box and drenching the island with blood, dear heart."

The great flaw of Jurassic Park was that a story demanding to be treated as horror material was intermittently neutralised and presented as the stuff of adventure, suitable for children. This tendency is milder in The Lost World, though it still seems strange that Spielberg should work to produce such an authentic traumatised expression on the face of Malcolm's 12-year-old daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) when, a few minutes later, she's going to be swinging from scaffolding poles and kicking velociraptors in the mouth. It's not that horror is a superior genre to adventure, but that the two can't easily be mixed. The lion does not lie down with the velociraptor. There is a certain coyness about violent death in The Lost World, but still plenty of isolated moments to upset the susceptible - an unfortunate man, for instance, covered by dozens of vicious pecking lizards, one of them feeding on his mouth.

There was no sentimentality about children in Jaws, and no glorification of a childish perspective. That came later. But with that film, Spielberg was concerned not to show that he was a nice guy, but that he could deliver implacable excitement. He was actually the film director as sadistic manipulator before he was the director as big kid, and it would have been better for the Jurassic Park films if he had reverted wholeheartedly to the earlier set of skills.

If the resistance to so doing is more external, less a matter of Spielberg's own psychology than what the marketplace will permit even the world's most powerful director, then that tells its own story about Hollywood's current ecosystem. Extraordinary if Spielberg is less free now than he was 20-odd years ago as the unproven director of Jaws, back in the Jurassic period of the cinema blockbuster On release from tomorrow