The Lost World (review)

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When Dinosaur Movies Roamed the Earth

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote pulp fiction before the phrase was even coined: the Sherlock Holmes tales, of course, but also his 1912 novel The Lost World, an early science fantasy that surely inspired, at least in part, many of the B movies we’ve all come to love, from King Kong to every dinosaur-versus-fur-bikini-clad-pinups flick of the 1950s and 60s. I bet Pierre Boulle and Michael Crichton read Conan Doyle as impressionable young boys, getting psyches stuffed full of modern-day dinosaurs and half-evolved ape-men and remote jungles and exotic natives and adventuring gentlemen scientists… and years later, after it had stewed for a good long while, pouring out their novels that inspired the pulpy movies we love.
There have been several previous screen adaptations of The Lost World, one as early as 1925, but now the cycle of inspiration has come full circle, as A&E and the BBC bring us a new TV miniseries (soon to be released on DVD and VHS) with special effects from the BBC computer nerds who gave us the amazingly realistic documentary Walking with Dinosaurs, who were of course inspired by Jurassic Park, which was perhaps inspired by Conan Doyle’s novel itself.

Makes your pop-culture compass spin, don’t it?

It all comes down to dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are so damn cool that we keep feeding off the last iteration of their coolness to bring them to new levels of cool. They’re very cool here, extremely realistic, extremely vicious and cute along the standard meat-eater/plant-eater line. It takes a while to get to the dinosaurs — the whole affair is rather Masterpiece Theater meets Saturday morning serials for a good stretch, all fine and droll as dueling professors and roguish adventurers, etcetera, debate matters of science and philosophy in between attacks by snakes and giant bugs. Weird snakes and icky bugs are cool, too, but anyone who’s lived in New York City can tell you a story or two about giant cockroaches, so the exoticness quotient is somewhat limited there. But then we get to the dinosaurs and you can settle in, because you know someone is going to get eaten.

Professor George Challenger (Bob Hoskins: Enemy at the Gates, Don Quixote) is a bit of an embarrassment to the London scientific circle, what with his tales of dinosaurs living in the Amazonian rainforest and his ratty wardrobe, which looks like it smells like the Amazonian rainforest. But he mounts an expedition anyway, to a fabled high plateau in the Amazon on which all manner of legendary and extinct beasts are rumored to live. The rahtha dashing Lord John Phillip Roxton (Tom Ward: Quills, Warriors) invites himself along, with a promise to underwrite the expedition, since his recent African safari neither fulfilled his need for adventure and danger nor depleted his bank account. Young, naive journalist Edward Malone (Matthew Rhys: Very Annie Mary) invites himself along to impress his fiancée, with a promise to send back regular reports to his newspaper. And snooty Professor Leo Summerlee (James Fox: The Mystic Masseur, Up at the Villa) reluctantly invites himself along, with a promise to maintain some sort of scientific discipline along the way.

No girls allowed in this boys’ club. At least not until they reach the last outpost of civilization and decent society, a Christian mission along the Amazon, where Agnes Clooney (Elaine Cassidy: The Others), niece of the somewhat nutty Reverend Theo Kerr (Peter Falk: Undisputed, Made) invites herself along. She’s a contemporary addition by screenwriters Tony Mulholland and Adrian Hodges, to throw some discreet sexual tension into the works — Agnes, Edward, and Lord Roxton form a nervous little triangle — but at least they attempted to honor the spirit of the Edwardian era by having Edward comment, in his dispatches home, that she’s shocking girl who “wears trousers at all times, even at dinner.” You go, girl!

Still, we can’t expect too much that would be considered un-P.C. these days to sneak its way in, and it doesn’t (the jungle natives, for example, are treated with the utmost respect, which I’m sure Conan Doyle would have found preposterous). But there’s a bit more substance than you’d expect, too, with undercurrents of culture clash and the battle between the religious and scientific views of the world running through.

Oh, and did I mention? People get eaten by dinosaurs.

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