Spielberg's Lost

Director digs up more dinos to prove--maybe--he's still a little playful

In Jurassic Park the sap ran even thicker. The cranky, child-hating paleontologist played by Sam Neill shows up in his first scene describing to a chubby kid in gruesome detail what an attacking velociraptor can do to a human. So far so good. But then he bonds with John Hammond's grandkids as he rescues them from the raptors and the rexes, and soon it begins to look like the only reason this whole dinosaur stampede got going in the first place was so he could demonstrate to his paleontologist girlfriend (Laura Dern) what a great father he'd make. If Spielberg had made a movie with W. C. Fields, he would have had him bonding with Baby LeRoy.

In The Lost World, we have a variation on this errant-father theme--a Spielberg perennial--involving Ian and his daughter Kelly, who stows away on Isla Sorna and wins her dad's boggle-eyed appreciation by saving him from a tyrannosaur with a high-flying acrobatic kick. Kelly, whose mother dumped her and moved to Paris, opens the film complaining to Ian that he's a bad dad. It takes the dinosaurs to bring them together. (Kelly, incidentally, is black, which signals either a welcome bit of color-blindness on the part of the filmmakers or a blatant attempt to woo African-Americans to a movie otherwise almost entirely devoid of them.)

Goldblum and Moore are fun to watch together, but they should have been a great team. He's spindly and dark and a little ostrichy, and she's smudged-elegant and carrot-topped. As bickering on-and-off lovebirds, they're set up to be Tracy and Hepburn in the wilds. It's not often an actress as extraordinary as Moore gets entangled in one of these special-effects extravaganzas, but after a promising start acting headstrong and petting dinos, her character turns drab and heartfelt. She's on Isla Sorna to prove that tyrannosaurs are really nurturers or some such. It's as if Calamity Jane turned into Dian Fossey.

It may seem monumentally ungracious to expect more from a film such as The Lost World than just a thrill ride. Especially when it delivers the thrills--a rarity in these Anaconda days. Certainly if you're looking for state-of-the-art dinosaurs, this is the place to be. But state-of-the-art isn't necessarily the highest station for a filmmaker. The shark in Jaws wasn't exactly state-of-the-art. Many of the special-effects monster movies we remember most fondly from childhood were far from seamless--from King Kong on up. It didn't matter, because they had something else going for them besides technology: a sense a wonderment very close to a child's. Spielberg, when he's really flying high, can give it all--the satisfactions of a great and wicked thrill ride plus the eye-popping wonderment of a child's fantasia. In The Lost World, he's flying at mid-altitude.

Spielberg recently graced the cover of Time magazine--"At 50, he's the most successful moviemaker ever. An exclusive look at the man behind the mogul"--and is the subject of two new biographies, one by John Baxter, the other by Joseph McBride. He's so phenomenally successful that he has, in a sense, become his own most fabulous creation. The press has been going gaga in his glow. The Lost World is just a movie, but it's being talked about as yet another gold brick in Spielberg's castle in the sky. Whether it's any good is considered almost beside the point. What really matters is that castle.

And yet the castle, with some of its turrets prefabricated and its windows rose-tinted, remains a true dreamwork. Spielberg got where he is by creating not only the boffo escapades I didn't particularly care for--such as the Indiana Jones movies and Jurassic Park--but also such films as E.T and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which will give deep pleasure forever. Spielberg is probably the greatest entertainer in the history of film. He has said that his success is due to the fact that he thinks like his audience, but it would be closer to the truth to say that at his best he is able to be his own ideal audience and continually astonish himself.

It was perhaps easier for him to astonish himself in the beginning--before he became Midas Inc. The TV movie Duel and Sugarland Express and Jaws were kinetic jaunts directed by a prodigy almost deliriously high on his own prowess. It's as if Spielberg made these films by asking before each setup, "How can I direct this scene in the most exciting way possible?" When he later made his great science-fantasy movies, he was still trying to astonish himself--and us--but in a less kinetic frenzy. He was interested in wowing us more with the force of his wonder than with the play of his pyrotechnics. E.T. and Close Encounters were beautiful movies because his magic act was linked to something beyond technique--which came so easily that perhaps it no longer meant anything to him.

Later, when the wonderment started to look processed, in such films as Always and Hook, there was not even the phenomenal technique to fall back on. The films, which were not commercial hits, looked like they were made by a superannuated child-man. Suddenly it became OK for his true believers to talk up Spielberg as a "personal" filmmaker, as if the working out, however convoluted, of his themes of childhood regret and parental abandonment was valuable all by itself.

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