In Hollywood, if you can commandeer the audience's grand-scale pop fantasies -- originate, even, some of those fantasies -- you get labeled a high priest, a visionary. With Schindler's List, Spielberg's usual pop-cult following was supplanted by a new crowd of incense-burners. The film was hailed as the work of a when-you-wish-upon-a-star boychik who finally came of age. It brought him "respectability." Hollywood denied E.T. the Best Picture Oscar it deserved, but it had no problem showering awards on Schindler's List. What, after all, could be more redemptive than a Holocaust drama by Hollywood's reigning Merlin/Midas?
With Schindler's List, Spielberg was recast in the popular imagination as a kind of Stanley Kramer with genius. He took the Holocaust and worked his whizbang, popularizing magic until audiences were as caught up in its terrors as they once had been ducking sharks off Martha's Vineyard. The film didn't do justice to the psychological complexities in the Thomas Kenneally novel, but it was such a powerfully engineered experience that it achieved, if not greatness, then at least a reasonable facsimile.
But in 1993, Spielberg also came out with Jurassic Park, the film he agreed to make first in order to be allowed Schindler's List. The yin and yang of having these films back-to-back in the same year is a great sick Hollywood joke: It says you can get to the concentration camps only by first tramping through the playgrounds of dinosaur parks. Jurassic Park was a monumentally banal boo! movie made by a director who realized he didn't need to stretch himself in order to juice the audience. His fabled finesse never seemed so autopiloted.
Giving interviews about Jurassic Park prior to the release of Schindler's List, Spielberg seemed almost to be joining the film's denigrators. He noted the shrewdness in Universal's decision to green light Schindler's List only after he agreed to make Jurassic Park first. Both he and the studio recognized that producing these films in reverse order would have required for him an almost impossible dislocation of mood.
That was four years ago, during which time Spielberg has busied himself producing or co-producing other people's films (The Bridges of Madison County, Twister), helping to develop TV's ER, establishing the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and co-founding a ballyhooed new studio, DreamWorks SKG. He also readied two films he was to direct for 1997: The Lost World: Jurassic Park, opening on Memorial Day weekend, and a slave-ship epic, Amistad, which is scheduled for release in December.
Sounds like yin and yang all over again.
For now, all we have is the yin. The Lost World is a smoother, scarier ride than its predecessor, with twice as many dinosaurs twice as well designed and eating twice as many people. Spielberg is not about to screw up the Jurassic franchise by pretending it's Schindler's List.
But he's not particularly playful with his terrors here, and that's a disappointment coming from a filmmaker who can mix scares and laughs the way no one else ever has. One of the great things about Jaws, for example, was how funny its frights were. Spielberg was such a confident maniac in that film that the visual jolts he cooked up with his editor, Verna Fields, were in themselves a source of high amusement. He was a jester sadist who tickled us not with a feather, but with a shiv.
He secured his scares with a loony allegory aboard the shark-hunting boat. Between Richard Dreyfuss's game, gallant ichthyologist and Robert Shaw's bonkers macho captain, there was a kind of generational vaudeville being played out -- a vaudeville about two styles of heroism. Dreyfuss's style -- dedicated, yet not too proud to cringe -- felt as right to young audiences of that era as did Elliott Gould's shambling, valiant Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. In the context of a funny scare picture, what counterculture audiences were responding to was a new way to be heroic on-screen -- a way that did justice to our funky, unheroic selves. The film was like a warrior fantasy for pacifists -- the guy who gets sand kicked in his face saves the beach. Jaws would not have worked half as well as a great scare picture if that nutty little confab between Dreyfuss and Shaw weren't its centerpiece.
For The Lost World, Spielberg at least recognizes he needs to diddle its heroics Jaws-style by placing at its center Jeff Goldblum's facetious chaos-theory mathematician Ian Malcolm. Ian was also in Jurassic Park, but in a subordinate, wiseass role; he was the film's geek chorus. Here he's not so geeky, and the more standard his heroism becomes, the less special he and the film seem.