The Lost World

“We Patented It. We Own It.” Why ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ is Spielberg’s ‘King Kong’

Jurassic Park is my earliest movie memory. I even have dim memories of the hype surrounding it coming out, even though I was four and hardly aware that movies were a thing that came out at any kind of specific time. It was 1993 and I had gone on a trip out west, to Wyoming, Colorado, you name it, with my parents. I remember some of the landmarks, I remember camping in teepees, but what I really remember is the dinosaur sights. After all, that’s dinosaur country, and I had been a dino kid from the earliest. Some of the best of the best museums were out there at the time, and I imagine they’re probably still great. I have such vivid memories of the Museum of the Rockies, which I have not returned to since that childhood vacation. We even drove by an actual dinosaur dig, and a famous one, all things considered, as Jack Horner’s crew was in the middle of unearthing a massive Maiasaura nest that helped lead to so much insight into dinosaur breeding habits. Then when we returned home to Maine, that summer the movie opened, and I absolutely lost my young mind. I can still hear my dad in the seat beside me saying “Whoa,” when that Brachiosaur first appeared. I remember being mesmerized by the T-Rex, which so many other kids were afraid of, and hiding under my seat when the Dilophosaurus popped its frill and ate Dennis Nedry. 

That movie was such a huge, fundamental part of my childhood. My eighth birthday was based around Jurassic Park. I read the book for the first time when I was probably nine. I had all the toys, several video games, you name it. So when I first caught wind that a sequel was coming out, I was obviously thrilled. As a kid, part of the excitement was just that it meant more stuff. More toys, more games, and I definitely did eat all of that up. But Jurassic Park was one of my favorite movies and remains so to this day. Even as a kid I couldn’t believe that I would get to see that story continue. Of course, I expected it to pick up with all my favorite characters from the first, and The Lost World did not do that. But I didn’t care, because there were more dinosaurs that hadn’t appeared in the original, more carnage, more T-Rex, absolutely everything that a kid would want out of a sequel. So I was thrilled, even if I did miss a huge T-Rex sequence when I got lost looking for the bathroom. 

Over time, my starry-eyed opinion of The Lost World quickly faded. When I was a teenager, and had spent some time on the Internet, all I could see was how tone-deaf it felt to make a supporting character like Ian Malcolm into the protagonist, not to mention the off-the-rails third act that abandons the island entirely to focus on a T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego. I’d only watch it if I were watching the first, to continue to ride that high. I even liked the third film more than the second because it included so many sequences from the original novel that hadn’t been included in the first film, like the pteranodons in the aviary and the attack on the riverboat. But then, once again, the years passed and something happened and I started to see The Lost World in a new light. And I’m very happy about that, because while it is still far from perfect, it’s pretty great. More importantly, the story isn’t as random or unplanned as it had always felt, and seeing it the way I do now, even the T-Rex rampage makes sense. Because as much as this is an adaptation of Crichton’s sequel novel (which was written knowing full well that there would be a second movie) it’s also something else. This is Steven Spielberg’s King Kong. 

And I mean that in both the sense that it is much more tonally similar to Kong and other classic dinosaur cinema than the original Jurassic Park had been… but also in the sense that it is, for all intents and purposes, a literal remake of King Kong. First let’s look at how it how it homages the early days of dinosaur movies, because I think that’s also important, and part of what paves the way for it to embrace its inner Kong in the first place. The first Jurassic Park was all about the present, about pushing boundaries, not only commenting on irresponsible science going unchecked, but corporate theme park culture as well. Things are different here, and you get that right from the title. The Lost World immediately (and intentionally) brings to mind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book of the same name and its film adaptations. 

Those early stories were about discovery, about going to an island or some uncharted location where dinosaurs roam freely, observing them in the wild for the very first time. That’s something that Spielberg’s Lost World absolutely recaptures. It’s an ode to those days of truly explorative dinosaur stories. At the same time, it’s mixed in with a very modern—and at times overwhelmingly heavy-handed—message. The humans setting foot on Isla Sorna, known to John Hammond’s dino crews as “Site B,” are largely split into two camps. Our heroes, Hammond’s crew unwittingly led by Ian Malcolm, are trying to preserve the lifestyle of the dinosaurs on Site B by observing them in their natural habitat. The other crew, led by InGen’s Peter Ludlow, are hunting and capturing the dinosaurs to be put on display in San Diego for the opening of a second park. As Spielberg often noted when it was coming out, it’s centered on an idea of “hunters vs. gatherers,” but I think it also comments on poaching, big game hunting and the exotic animal trade in largely more interesting ways. 

With those two ideas together, the notion of the untouched island and the idea of putting these magnificent animals on display, let’s strip the plot of The Lost World down to its most basic elements: a bunch of people go to an island populated by dinosaurs, where they then decide to capture the apex predator, the “king” of the island, to bring home with them to put on display. Upon arrival, the creature breaks free and runs amok, causing chaos as it rampages through a city. At that point, it’s obvious. Boiled down to the basic essence, The Lost World and King Kong are practically the same movie. And it’s clearly intentional, as the boat that brings the T-Rex back to the mainland is named the Venture, same name as the boat in Kong. When the humans first arrive on the island, the first dinosaur they encounter is the Stegosaurus, same as in King Kong. I love those obvious, un-subtle allusions the 1933 classic. So much of this movie is about honoring the dinosaur cinema that came decades before Jurassic Park. In that regard, if this was going to be a remake of anything, why wouldn’t it be Kong? It set the standard for this entire genre. 

Peter Ludlow, Hammond’s sleazy nephew who has taken over the company with the plan to fill it with even worse ideas than the original park that should, realistically, have absolutely tanked the company, is the Carl Denham of this picture. He’s the one who wants to put these animals on display because he wants to make some money. Where Denham at least had a love of show business, though, Ludlow doesn’t even have that. His new park is far less attractive than Hammond’s, it’s literally just a boring amphitheater where he hopes that the dinosaurs will speak for themselves and be enough to attract unbelievable crowds. Hammond, for all the lives he ruined, did at the very least create Jurassic Park, conceptually, as a place where children could watch their ultimate dreams come true. Ludlow doesn’t give a crap how it looks, doesn’t care about the health or well-being of the animals, he just wants people to show up. Basically, he’s planning a park much more in the vein of Sea World. Much like Denham, his antics come back to bite him. Quite literally, too, as he becomes the baby T-Rex’s first kill. 

Then we’ve got Ian Malcolm and Sarah Harding both forced into the respective roles of Kong’s Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow. Malcolm is far from the stalwart, macho (and misogynist) hero of the original King Kong, and refreshingly so. At the same time, Sarah Harding is much less of a damsel in distress. She’s a far cry from the aspiring actress, lied to about the content of the film she’s making in order to get her on board. Sarah doesn’t have any kind of bond with either T-Rex like Ann develops with Kong. Although, we do get some of that with the baby T-Rex, but even then, Sarah’s kind of an unwilling participant. Instead, we get the same kind of unrequited fascination that we saw in the 1933 Kong, only we’re getting it from the other side. This time, Sarah’s the one fascinated with the T-Rex, who could not care less about her and only ever acknowledges her to see her as a threat or a snack. It makes sense, though, because Sarah is a paleontologist, this is her whole field. She’s studying parental patterns in predators, she has the opportunity to observe Tyrannosaurs up close, it only makes sense that she would take it, no matter the danger.

Honestly, one of the coolest things about the Lost World, one of the things that most impresses me about it as an adult, is that so much of the plot revolves around what was an actual, ongoing paleontological debate at the time, and that’s the notion of whether or not the Tyrannosaurus rex was a good parent. There were multiple points of view, and there’s a scene in which a few of them are addressed within the film. I wish dinosaur movies would still do that, even if it means dinosaurs that look very different than they did in this franchise. In the film, it’s made clear that T-Rex’s were nurturing parents who were very protective of their young. To the movie’s credit, that’s still one of the most supported theories. But just the very idea that the filmmakers, be it Spielberg, Crichton, David Koepp or whoever else was involved in the decision, would focus so hard on this kind of debate remains really, really impressive. 

Taking into account the fact that The Lost World uses King Kong as its structural backbone, the whole third acts works so much better and makes so much more sense. This is not just a T-Rex stomping around because it’s every kid’s favorite dinosaur. Spielberg’s doing much more with this extended finale than simply pandering to a demographic. When the T-Rex hits San Diego, the movie is arriving at the natural conclusion of the Kong story. The animal is plucked from its natural habitat to be paraded before a crowd, goes berserk in a totally unknown environment and causes chaos as any animal would. Granted, given its size and temperament, the chaos it causes is pretty extreme. It’s also a natural conclusion of the movie’s themes of poaching and exotic animal trading. What’s happening toward the end of this film is not a monster going on a rampage, it’s an animal lashing out in a totally alien environment that it does not want to be in. Thankfully, instead of being shot down like Kong at the end, the rampaging male T-Rex is led back to the boat, as the “gatherer” heroes find a humane solution to save the day. And that’s not something you normally see in a movie like this, either. It is so rare, even in animal attack flicks about non-prehistoric beasts, to actually see the creature survive to the end. 

The Lost World does not reinvent the wheel. In fact, it does the opposite, and intentionally so. That’s actually the key to its strength. It goes back to the classic themes of dinosaur fiction and films, Kong in particular, and updates those themes not only for the then-modern era, but for the current state of paleontology at that time. Because of that, it’s at least worth giving another shot.