Profitability of Chaos: A Retrospective Look at “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”

[As spring ascends upon us, laziness endures as your defining trait. Where have you been and what have you been doing with your time, since you obviously have not been writing for this website?]

I think we covered this in our last conversation, which, I might remind you, was only seven days ago: I have felt such a paralysis in the midst of this sluggish culture, I don’t know how I can write about it effectively, or even how I can find something worth discussing.

[Well, you have plenty of options. There are all sorts of people running for the nomination of the Democratic Party—]

You know, I was considering a piece on that very subject, but again, this paralysis that has taken hold of me—

[Oh, do spare me the melodrama. “This paralysis.” Are you a religious martyr, or something? Are you really so laden by the awesome responsibility of writing about this foolishness that you find yourself bereft of the power to do so? What were you thinking of writing about instead?]

Well, yesterday I watched The Lost World

[Jurassic Park? Are you kidding me? You talk of your inability to overcome a “sluggish culture”, and your strategy is to watch a boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster that is all of twenty-two years old? What were you doing watching that film yesterday, anyway?]

I visited a pawn shop on Friday and picked up a number of movies, The Lost World included. It’s probably been about fifteen years since I last watched it, even though I know I watched Jurassic Park several times since then. I was perfectly aware that it was a lackluster film before I bought it for two dollars on Friday, but I wanted to revisit it, to find out just how bad it was.

[Did you really need to do so? You were already aware that it wasn’t good, so why did you require such an apparently unnecessary confirmation?]

I guess I wanted to find out how and why it was so bad, which is a very different matter from just saying, “It was bad.”

[True, but was this one really so puzzling? We’re not talking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s early, lesser work: we’re talking about a big-budget summertime sequel to a bid-budget studio picture. I described it as “a boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster” for a reason, because only such a boilerplate description can capture the tedium and the banality of a film like The Lost World.]

In other words, Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work, which I agree lack both the respectability and the ambition of his later projects, could lend themselves to detailed essays, whereas The Lost World is so simplistic in its failings that it simply does not merit an extensive, serious discussion.

[Exactly.]

Well, I disagree. I think the artistic shortcomings of Anderson’s first few films lend themselves to an abstract or theoretical discussion of art, but I think The Lost World offers more pertinent insight into some of the practical problems of the world today.

[But isn’t the theoretical more important than the practical?]

The theoretical is more enduring than the practical, but each has its own time and its own occasion. I agree that the aesthetic and artistic ineptitude of The Lost World fuels a very limited discussion, but its practical implications offer us an important, and perhaps even a necessary, look into some of the reasons why we have come to this impasse, to this sluggish culture’s moribund state.

[How do you figure?]

Let us begin with your original description of the film. You dismissed it, not without cause, as “a boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster”. What do you mean by such a designation?

[I mean that it lacks substance, that it lacks a compelling and thoughtful story, that it is superficial, that it is hollow, and so on and so forth.]

On every point, I am in agreement. What I don’t yet know is why someone would want to make an insubstantial, uncompelling, thoughtless, superficial, hollow movie.

[Well, I don’t know that anyone involved with the production of this film wanted it to be any of those things; presumably, no one would have rejected a superior alternative proposal because it was good. No one would have said, “I dislike this because it is good,” as that would be a strangely senseless thing to say.]

But someone involved with the making of the film, such as an executive producer of Universal Pictures, might have rejected a superior alternative proposal for other reasons?

[Yes. A superior film—meaning, a more substantive, compelling, and thoughtful film—may have been met with displeasure by an executive producer.]

Why?

[Well, because the executive producer is interested only in the commercial viability of the film. He would have much less interest, if he had any interest at all, in the artistic integrity of the movie. His sole concern is profit.]

Interestingly, there are several scenes in The Lost World that acknowledge a very similar problem. For those who are unfamiliar with this film or its franchise, the story concerns efforts to create a theme park wherein genetically modified dinosaurs roam the jungle and similar terrain. Alas, this leads to all kinds of violent chaos when unhappy dinosaurs begin to attack their human custodians. However, there are very wealthy people—most of them lawyers or upper-level corporate suits—who want to open such a park and damn the consequences. These people are resistant to all form of argument, as no rhetoric or reasoning can negate the power of the massive sums of money that they stand to claim.

[So, when Jeff Goldblum fails to convince the adult nephew of a multibillionaire why he shouldn’t risk more people’s lives to collect more money, one could easily imagine an ambitious screenwriter pleading futilely with a clammy-skinned executive producer to think of the value of the film, and not just of the box office revenue.]

Precisely.

[But isn’t it strange how such a scene made it into the film? Isn’t it ironic?]

Well, we don’t know if any such conversation between a well-meaning writer and an uncultured producer ever occurred—during the production of this film, anyway. I would imagine that such an exchange probably would have taken place during the production of the previous film, Jurassic Park: surely there would have been little patience for cries of artistic integrity during Phase Two of this commercial enterprise?

[You may have a point, and I think I know why you asked me to explain what I meant by the term “boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster”. You wanted to illustrate that, if films are defined by their artistic ambitions, then The Lost World is not a film at all, but a commercial enterprise. It’s merely a commodity, one to be sold as often as possible, to as many as possible, to as high a dollar value as possible.]

If you go to the library and fire up the microfilm reader, you can actually look through newspapers printed in 1997 and check out the showtimes for The Lost World, many of them for movie theaters that have long since gone out of business and been demolished. You can see the film was playing on two, three, sometimes even four screens at the many multiplexes. Every showtime represented an opportunity to sell tickets, as many tickets as possible. This went on for twenty-one weeks. At the end of the twenty-first, the last projector ran through The Lost World’s reels for the final time.

[The Lost World: Jurassic Park concluded its cinematic run on October 16th, 1997, just a few days after Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first major film, began its own theatrical exhibition.]

The Lost World grossed $229 million in the United States and almost $400 million more overseas, neither of which came close to Jurassic Park’s receipts. Indeed, we might ask if the release of this film was a bit of a disappointment to Universal Pictures. It made plenty of money, sure, but it did not surpass its predecessor’s intake, which raises legitimate questions about what constitutes a success—in the mind of an executive producer, anyway.

[So, just as the scene wherein Jeff Goldblum failed to change the mind of the sociopathic lawyer illustrates the problem of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy, the chaotic downfall of the theme park may find a complementary spirit in the film’s underwhelming commercial performance?]

Unfortunately, The Lost World was still a success, whereas the theme parks in this franchise always bring about personal devastation for the sociopathic lawyers. It’s interesting how The Lost World offers so much commentary—albeit very shallow commentary—about the impenetrable greed of the obscenely wealthy, yet the film is itself a perpetuation of that very problem.

[That’s very true: if the “boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster” has a spirit, then The Lost World may be its representative ideal. Did you notice that we didn’t really explain why the film was bad, why it failed artistically, and that we didn’t really have to, because the term “boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster” is, or ought to be, understood by anyone who reads it?]

Socrates wouldn’t approve of our conceptual presumption, but I’m afraid you have a point: when we speak of a boilerplate Hollywood blockbuster, it is understood that we are speaking of generic characters and negligible storytelling, for which an excess of action sequences serves as a substitute.

[But why are these the giveaways, the defining characteristics, of a Hollywood blockbuster? Are quality screenplays more expensive than disposable scripts?]

Not necessarily, but remember that we are speaking of a commodity, not a film. When these people came together to make The Lost World, their priority was to create something that would make a lot of money. Quality filmmaking in a higher, theoretical sense, was the last thing on anybody’s mind. They couldn’t accept something that was completely incompetent, because incompetence in the truest sense does not bode well with the public, but they weren’t any pickier than that: all they wanted was a film that would pass muster and would make as much money as possible.

[Should we infer, then, that an exceptional film is unlikely to make as much money as a mediocre film?]

Well, Jurassic Park was not exactly The Godfather, but it was certainly better than The Lost World, and it made more money, too. So, no, it is wrong to say that quality is inherently inimical to profit. I agree with Nietzsche that substances of strength can be toxic to those with weaker constitutions, but I don’t think we need to be so pessimistic as to state that “the people” will invariably scorn a film of value.

[True, but as you said, Jurassic Park was not the most thoughtful movie ever made. Clearly, there is the factor of mass appeal, which translates to commercial viability, which, again, is the first interest of the executive producers who put The Lost World together. They came into this project with little on their minds beyond profit, and their misguided priorities sank the production before it even started. It’s not a film, but a commodity. It was made, not to fulfill aesthetic principles, but to justify video games and toys and all sorts of other consumer products.]

In other words, the purpose of making the film was not to make a film, but to make other things?

[It’s an absurdity, but then again, when people who are not filmmakers decide to make a film, what hope can you hold for rationality?]

None whatsoever. And that is the lesson of The Lost World: when you negate the antecedent, there is only chaos. And sometimes, lots of money.

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