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Spielberg creates his biggest monster to date

"Something has survived" screams the promotional slogan from hamburger boxes and the sides of almost every bus in the land. It sure has. Four years after the United States surrendered itself to dinosaur fever with the release of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, it is doing him the same favour all over again.

Never mind that Mr Spielberg's vaunted sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, opened last week to mixed reviews. (It is the principle of having a story line that appears to be extinct here). The film, starring Jeff Goldblum, has just trampled the competition in most spectacular fashion.

Over the four-day Memorial Day weekend that has just passed here, Lost World, by initial estimates, grossed $90.1m (pounds 56.3m) at the box office - an amazing 59 per cent more than the previous four-day record. Thus the $75m production costs of the film are already covered.

The feat dwarfs the previous four-day record established over last year's Memorial Day weekend by Tom Cruise and his equally plot-deprived extravaganza, Mission Impossible, which sucked in $56.8m.

Audiences, clearly, have not tired of Spielberg. More remarkable, perhaps, is the longevity of their fascination with things prehistoric. And it is not just the new film that is drawing the crowds; the merchandising frenzy that followed the release of Jurassic Park appears to be in motion all over again. (Did it ever die?)

Toy shops across the US are buried in drifts of plastic dinosaurs and models of jeeps. In New York, even the Natural History Museum, with its dino-exhibits, has not been slow in cashing in on the wave. All weekend it was doing a brisk trade in action figures, jewellery, books and audio- casettes.

Loosely, the film is set on an island (again), overrun by anti-diluvian creatures - unbeatable special effects, of course - and follows two groups of scientists who drop by. The good-guys camp wants to protect the dinosaurs, the bad-guys camp is bent on exploitation.

"People love those dinosaurs," confessed David Koep, the screenwriter on the new film. "Dinosaurs have this almost mystical appeal to children and adults: they're thrilling and terrifying and safe".

Mr Goldblum himself made it to several cinemas in Los Angeles to watch audience reaction to Lost World. "It seems dinosaurs have some visceral appeal and powerful connection to people", he said. The rush to see the film seems to have been joined by almost every demographic group: old and young, men and women.

Other, more mundane, factors in its success should not be ignored, however. It was an unusually wet holiday weekend over much of the US, making cinemas the best places to be. Also, because other film studios were daunted by the dinosaurs' return, almost no serious competition was put up against it.

It was, in fact, something of a challenge to find any other film to watch. (This correspondent recommends the insanely purile Austin Powers as an alternative.) Lost World was shown in a record number of cinemas - 3,281 of them, which put the film on a total of about 6,000 screens.

For Universal Pictures, the studio that financed the film, the news could not be sweeter. There seems little doubt the worldwide takings will exceed even the $1bn earned by Jurassic Park. "I truly didn't believe any one film could do this level of business," commeted Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of distribution.

When Schindler's List (right) came out, the film about the wartime industrialist who saved Jews from the Nazis, the word was out: its director, Steven Spielberg, creator of such escapist gems as Jaws, ET and Indiana Jones, had at last turned personal and deeply serious.

Schindler earned Spielberg his first Oscar trophies, including for Best Director and Best Film. He went on to give $6m (pounds 3.6m) of his own money to create the Shoah Visual History Foundation, to preserve the experiences of Holocaust survivors on CD-Rom.

Schindler was three years ago. Suddenly, however, Spielberg has delivered adventure-fantasy again with Lost World, his sequel to his 1993 hit, Jurassic Park.

Even Spielberg himself has dropped hints that making the Jurassic sequel caused him some creative pain. He told this month's issue of Premiere magazine: "I found myself in the middle of the sequel to Jurassic Park growing more and more impatient with myself with respect to the kinds of films I really like to make... (I felt) I was just serving the audience a banquet."

His upcoming films suggest he has quickly returned to the earnest mode. The first, Amistad, which stars Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman, will be released at Christmas. The film is about a rebellion aboard a Spanish slave ship in 1839 and an ensuing trial in Connecticut. The episode is seen by some historians as the milestone from which emancipation of slaves eventually followed.

Next year will see the release of Saving Private Ryan, a Second World War drama starring Tom Hanks.