Even the greatest filmmakers reach a peak in their careers, and Steven Spielberg’s came when he released two very different but equally successful movies in 1993. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg delivered another crowd-pleaser full of wonder, suspense, and state-of-the-art effects. While Jurassic Park’s excellence wasn’t exactly surprising coming from the man behind Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Indiana Jones trilogy, the film cemented Spielberg’s standing as Hollywood’s blockbuster king for a third decade running. His second project, though, Schindler’s List, is held in an even higher esteem for giving Spielberg the chance to break out on the Oscars stage, where he won Best Picture and Best Director the following year.
After decades of wowing audiences, the Oscars coronation seemed like an inflection point when Spielberg could level up from a populist filmmaker to a prestigious one. Instead, he returned to the Jurassic Park franchise. And the resulting sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago, endures as one of the most mean-spirited, maligned, and misunderstood movies from his legendary body of work.
Despite racking up a not-insignificant body count, Jurassic Park is fondly remembered for treating its dinosaurs with awe and reverence. (The scene when Sam Neill’s paleontologist Alan Grant sees a brontosaurus for the first time has been immortalized in GIF form for a reason.) By contrast, The Lost World aims to generate one prevailing emotion from the viewer: terror. Look no further than the opening sequence, when a wealthy couple dock their yacht on Isla Sorna, unaware that it’s populated by dinosaurs. Their young daughter realizes this the hard way when, after spotting a little compsognathus and feeding it a piece of her sandwich, she’s suddenly swarmed by a bunch of them. (“Lunch is ready!” the girl’s mom obliviously shouts, underlining Spielberg’s mean streak.) It doesn’t matter that the girl survives the ordeal off-screen—the nightmare-inducing damage is done.
After the Isla Sorna incident, former InGen CEO John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough) asks Jurassic Park’s scene-stealing chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to visit the island with a small research team to document the dinosaurs in their natural habitat. Hammond wants to ensure that the island will be left alone after his power-hungry nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), takes over the family business. Ian originally declines Hammond’s invitation, but upon learning that his girlfriend and renowned behavioral paleontologist Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already on Isla Sorna, he joins the group to rescue her. Meanwhile, Ludlow leads a large team from InGen with the intent of capturing the dinosaurs for a Jurassic Park–like zoo in San Diego.
In true sequel fashion, The Lost World ups the ante: there are more humans, more dinosaurs, and more ambitious set pieces than its predecessor. (The film also marked an incredible moment in Hollywood when Jeff Goldblum—Jeff Goldblum!—was treated as a bona fide action star.) But having already focused on the beauty and splendor of extinct species miraculously being brought back to life in Jurassic Park, this time, Spielberg spares no expense punishing people who don’t learn their lessons about messing with Mother Nature. The Lost World isn’t just a movie in which greedy characters get their comeuppance—it’s unreservedly cruel across the board.
The very first death of the film is born out of a series of selfless acts: First, Sarah and environmentalist Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn) bring a baby tyrannosaurus back to an RV to treat its broken leg. As a result, the RV is attacked by the parents, flipped several times, and sent sliding off the edge of the cliff: a terrifying sequence that feels like an amusement park exhibit that was closed because of too many on-site accidents. The group’s field equipment technician, Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), attaches a rope to the rig to pull them to safety. And even as the T. rexes circle back to attack Eddie, he keeps his foot on the gas until they rip him in half, sacrificing his own life to save other members of his team. When Ludlow’s group arrives on the scene, their only acknowledgement of Eddie’s death comes when big-game hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) notes the T. rexes won’t return because they’ve just eaten.
A kind-hearted character getting torn apart for doing the right thing adds a nasty tone to The Lost World, though that’s not exactly a mode that Spielberg is unfamiliar with. He might have built his reputation on family-friendly hits like Close Encounters and E.T., but this is the same director who announced himself to the mainstream via a great white shark pulling an innocent teenager down to her doom. And from Eddie’s death, the gnarly theatrics only get worse, whether it’s Peter Stormare’s hunter being devoured by a group of devilish compsognathus or InGen’s paleontologist getting plucked from the inside of a waterfall by a T. rex and turned into a chilling downpour of blood. If Jurassic Park was an action-adventure flick with the occasional scares, The Lost World gleefully embraces being a straight-up horror movie.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sequel’s darker tone didn’t sit well with critics or audiences—in hindsight, even Spielberg doesn’t think the film lived up to expectations. Jurassic Park “made a ka-zillion dollars, which justifies the sequel, so I come in like it’s going to be a slam dunk and I wind up making an inferior movie to the one before,” Spielberg told The New York Times in 2016. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone making the argument that The Lost World surpasses Jurassic Park, but it’s also not the first time Spielberg’s made a sequel whose reputation suffered because it never stood a chance of matching its predecessor.
If there’s any movie in Spielberg’s filmography that feels like a spiritual cousin to The Lost World, it’s the oft-maligned Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom abandons Nazis as the villains in favor of a Thuggee cult enslaving children from nearby Indian villages and committing gruesome human sacrifices to their deity. (I couldn’t forget you if I wanted to, guy who has his heart ripped out of his chest.) The bad vibes continue from there, with moments when Indy’s adorable sidekick Short Round is slashed with a whip and the famed archaeologist breaks bad after being forced to drink a brainwashing potion. Spielberg brought a nightmarish hellscape to life, and maybe the greatest endorsement of Temple of Doom is that it led to the Motion Picture Association creating the PG-13 rating.
There are more significant issues plaguing Temple of Doom—namely, that its depiction of India and the Thuggee was appallingly racist and has aged like sour milk. Temple of Doom’s cultural insensitivity was a low point for Spielberg. But on a level of pure craftsmanship, the film is still a spectacle that moves from action to horror and back to action without coming apart at the seams. It’s on those terms that The Lost World is best appreciated: not in its relation to Jurassic Park, but in Spielberg trying something different, flawed as it may be, and landing on the closest thing he’s ever made to his own King Kong. (What is Isla Sorna if not an even more unpleasant Skull Island?)
Indeed, The Lost World indulges that King Kong what-if by bringing the action to San Diego for its climax. Having successfully captured the male T. rex and its baby, Ludlow proudly announces plans for a dino attraction in the city. But when the ship carrying the supposedly sedated T. rex arrives at the dock, it crashes, because the crew has been slaughtered by the escaped dinosaur. It’s in the final act that Spielberg alludes to The Lost World, Harry O. Hoyt’s 1925 silent film that features a brontosaurus tearing through London after being brought to the city by explorers. But the staging of the action owes a debt to iconic monster flicks: In addition to King Kong, Spielberg winks to the shared Godzilla vibes by showing a group of businessmen running for their lives from the T. rex.
For viewers, the San Diego sequence seems to make or break The Lost World; it’s been derided by naysayers as the moment the sequel loses any momentum it had. (Personally, I’d say the movie hits rock bottom when a child defeats a velociraptor with the power of gymnastics.) But there’s something thrilling about Spielberg imagining, if only briefly, what would happen when mankind’s efforts at playing god come back to literally bite them in the real world. In fact, Spielberg was ahead of the curve: The forthcoming entry in the franchise, Jurassic World Dominion, is set to be a feature-length version of the San Diego incident with dinosaurs roaming freely across the globe.
Since Spielberg stepped away from directorial dino duties after The Lost World, the franchise has been in a tailspin, pushing itself further toward extravagant special effects at the expense of its increasingly flat characters. Yet for all the criticism The Lost World received upon release, it has the same capacity to entertain as its director’s more polished and family-friendly blockbusters—in spite of its surprising cruelty.
“Don’t worry, I’m not making the same mistakes again,” Hammond assures Ian at the beginning of the film. “No,” Ian responds, “you’re making all new ones.” As the Jurassic Park franchise approaches its third decade, The Lost World is a potent reminder that Steven Spielberg swinging for the fences remains a much more tantalizing prospect than any other filmmaker playing it safe.