Not-So-Classic Review: The Lost World

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review:  Steven Spielberg is best when he mixes the fun and the profound effortlessly. His most classic works take the popcorn themes of B-movies and blend them with a depth and wonder typical of only the A-list elite.  By doing so he has made classic after classic: ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of Third Kind’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘, ‘E.T.’, and ‘Jurassic Park’ among them. This is also why ‘Jurassic Park’s ill-executed sequel, ‘The Lost World‘, fails.  There’s plenty of B-movie, but no sense of weight and drama.  It’s a piece of eye candy that turns out bittersweet.

The problems become clear right from the beginning of the film. Only two of the main characters from the original return in the sequel, neither of them are Sam Neil or Laura Dern, who were the leads.  Instead, Jeff Goldblum, who plays the sarcastic mathematician Ian Malcolm, is left to carry the film, while Richard Attenborough is resigned to an almost cameo status as the billionaire who funded the project to genetically clone dinosaurs, appearing only at the beginning and the end.

A good rule of thumb for Jeff Goldblum’s acting is that it is best relegated to supporting roles. With the exception of 1986’s ‘The Fly’, his style of dry and ironic humor fails to win him much sympathy from the audience.  He seems out-of-place in this movie.  He isn’t helped by the rest of the cast either, all of whom are either underwritten or completely stereotypical and uninteresting.

The film’s plot centers around Site B, another island that happens to have dinosaurs on it (for reasons too lengthy to delve into, this island’s existence contradicts half a dozen plot points from the original Jurassic Park) and the “evil corporation” trying to capture these creatures to bring them home to the mainland.  Ian Malcolm leads a team trying to stop them, though it is never really justified why he, a mathematician who knows next to nothing about dinosaurs, is qualified to do this.

The entire plot is very forced and superficial.  It ignores much of the established story from the original just to show off the film’s computer generated dinosaurs.  Yes, these creatures are well designed and a marvel of special effects, but the rest of the film feels so dreary and shallow by comparison.  The all-important depth and wonder isn’t present here in the least.  There is no strong theme running through this film, no moral lesson about the dangers of science (something the original film at least touched on before showing off its creatures) or mankind’s arrogance.  Characters don’t seem bedazzled in the least that they are looking at creatures not seen on the planet in eons.  And if they aren’t impressed, why should the audience be?  In short, this is just monster movie and nothing else; a B-movie that is watched once and quickly forgotten.

This is the failure of ‘The Lost World’, a fact made worse by the otherwise outstanding resume of Steven Spielberg.  The man clearly understands how to make good films out of traditionally corny subject matter, so why he failed here is something of a mystery.  It is possible that he simply wanted to make a movie that was fun; not wanting to go anywhere serious with it.  For Spielberg, though, if his goal is to make good movies, then he’s better off-putting real weight into the story and leaving the true B-movies to the likes of Roger Corman and Michael Bay.

In short, not even dinosaurs can save this poorly casted, thinly plotted ship from sinking.  Spielberg could’ve made something brilliant, insightful and jaw dropping. Instead, he made ‘The Lost World’.

Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.

Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore.  They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures.  Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen.  Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video.  ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’.  It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.

To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film.  It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle.  That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades.  But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger.  This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.

Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect.  He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary.  The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win.  That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale.  We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time.  It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass.  The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.

The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle.  The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory.  The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing.  Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution.  What undoes it is the lack of impact.  The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops.  The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats.  For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging.  It’s not for a lack of running time.  It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits.  It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.

Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works.  The story brings a smile to my face.  The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures.  What this film needs is guts.  I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake.  ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection.  If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.

Super 8

Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.

The Return of the Great Adventure

Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.

For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen.  It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement.  With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.

Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone.  The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective.  At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”.  As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism.  Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix.  Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh.  Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public.  Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.

When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories.  ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure.  It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind.  It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us.  I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’.  When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies.  The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased.  It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them.  He’s taken what was old and made it new again.  So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why.  More power to those who do.

I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.

Hanna

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  With organic, character-based storytelling and artful technique, ‘Hanna’ is the way genre thrillers should be made.

Review:  If you want to make a genre film, such as an action thriller with familiar espionage elements, there exists a principle that serves to prevent your story from being a stale retread: Character depth.  From characters and relationships should grow, organically, the plot and action you want to see.  ‘Hanna’ is a brilliant example of this principle in full effect.  Every scene in the excellent screenplay serves to flesh out the titular character, in an oblique way that subverts genre expectations as often as it fulfills them.  The filmmakers deliver a moving human story that works as a kickass action movie, too.  This is doing it right.

Director Joe Wright exploits the close relationship between film and music, which renders aid to the dramatic theme of music as a critical part of human life.  The action sequences play out perfectly with The Chemical Brothers’ genius score, a visual-for-sound beat synergy that locks the twain together in your mind.  It pleases me to no end that I can now imagine the action in ‘Hanna’ with just the score playing as well as I can ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  I hope The Chemical Brothers stay open to future collaborations with Joe Wright in particular, and film scoring in general.  They’ve got a knack for it.

Visually, the filmmakers work both old school and inventively, as they use Steadicam wisely and lend the frame clarity and focus, instead of, say, kinetic obscurity ala Greengrass.  Joe Wright notably executes a particularly badass tracking shot that lasts for about five minutes, the centerpiece of which is a brutal fight with Eric Bana.  The whole film is beautiful, even when it’s dwelling on violent subject matter.  When the composition and editing coalesce into something this gorgeous, there’s not much I can do but watch with a silly grin on my face.

What’s truly brilliant about the story is its subjectivity, as we experience the film from primarily Hanna’s perspective, and even when we divert to other characters it’s interpreted through her worldview.  She grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales, an encyclopedia and Finland’s unforgiving wilderness — the scope of her experience colors even mundane objects like tea kettles and fluorescent lights.  The villains morph, symbolically, into witches and wolves, teeth and claws and dark magic.  As she evolves, so does her world, and while her lingering childhood innocence vanishes, it’s replaced with powerful self-knowledge, the apotheosis of the film’s tagline: Adapt or die.  The fact that the filmmakers allow us to share her perspective so intimately makes this transformation powerful, regardless of whether the plot surprises us.  As Eric Bana’s character simply observes, “Kids grow up” — and it’s best when we can grow up with them.

Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Classic Review: Captain Blood (1935)

Now in video!

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  It’s heroic.  No, it’s epic!

He's a doctor, a pirate, an Englishman... and he's out to draw BLOOD!

He's a doctor, a pirate, an Irishman... and he's out to draw BLOOD!

Review: So yeah, ‘Captain Blood’.  Imagine swashbuckling pirates, battles at sea, escaping slaves, clever dialog, romanticized romance, and swashbuckling pirates.  Now put them into a blender.  Now pour the smooth, delicious mixture, which I’m sure you’re quite proud of, into a baking pan, set the oven for 425 degrees, and bake the sucker for an hour.  Now, do the toothpick test.  Is it ready?  Good.  Now cut, and serve to all your friends.  Top with popcorn butter, or if you’re daring, chocolate.  Is it good?  Probably.  But you see, there’s a problem with your latest experiment in the metaphysical culinary arts, as there is with all postmodern pirate movies.  You see, the problem with all new pirate movies is that they are not ‘Captain Blood’.  Only one movie is ‘Captain Blood’, and this is… well, you know.  ‘Captain Blood’.

So I won’t bother spoiling it for you.  Like a truly succulent dish, like great sushi, ‘Captain Blood’ can only be compared to tastes similar to it, which assumes that you have partaken of them.  This movie is so good, dear reader, that at the very moment that I was watching it, it had already climbed up my ladder of favorite films into the coveted realm set aside for ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’,  and ‘Casablanca’.  This film is a rollicking good time, a complete package for the whole family and the individual adventure enthusiast.  This is one of those landmark movies that makes us think of pirates in popular culture not as unwholesome murderers who spat in the face of the law, but as goodhearted sailors forced into a life of rulebreaking because the rules were not human enough.  Whatever moral and historical inaccuracies there are in our common perception, we can lay in large part on the shoulders of Errol Flynn and his cool, witty and moral Irishman Dr. Peter Blood, who charms and swordfights for love, revenge, and England.  But, faith! why wait and read about the film when you could be watching it right now?  Go on then!  Take a bite out of adventure!

What do you think of that, Orson?

That’s what I thought.