"Be part of history." That slogan helped promote Steven Spielberg's new megamovie, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," and it points to a reason that moviegoers have flocked to it despite good reasons for showing some healthy skepticism.
It appears Spielberg himself was nervous about the picture's prospects, reportedly telling screenwriter David Koepp that no sequel should appear sooner than five years after the film it's based on, since it takes that long for audience appetites to reach tyrannosaurus-like proportions. This makes "The Lost World," following the 1993 smasheroo "Jurassic Park," at least a year ahead of schedule.
Many reviews for the movie were somewhat unenthusiastic, too. In its weekly tally of critics' opinions, the trade paper Variety reports only eight New York reviewers in the "pro" column, with an equal number "mixed" and two naysayers downright "con" toward the picture.
Big-budget adventure movies are generally considered critic-proof, though, with entertainment-hunters relying less on reviews than on recommendations from friends and their own instincts. Advertising is key in shaping those "instincts," especially on the all-important opening weekend, before word-of-mouth has a chance to spread.
"The Lost World" cleaned up on its first weekend, beginning with Thursday-night showings and continuing through the Memorial Day holiday. The reported gross of $92.7 million during those days is almost enough to repay the movie's total investment - somewhat less than $100 million, by all accounts, including promotion and marketing costs.
On top of this, TV profits have already started to kick in - with the Fox Broadcasting Network reportedly bidding a record $80 million for rights to the picture.
If reviews were lukewarm and Spielberg feared its timing might be off, what accounts for the film's unprecedented initial take, which knocked the previous champion - last year's "Independence Day," which grossed a paltry $84.9 million in its first five days - clear off the map?
Momentum from the first "Jurassic Park," for one thing. The most popular picture of all time, in dollars earned if not actual tickets sold, it was the sequel's best guarantee of sheer entertainment value. Dinosaurs on the screen, roars and rumbles on the soundtrack, Spielberg's name on the marquee - all the ingredients that made the original a hit were back for the sequel, and were hammered into public awareness by aggressive ads.
Rival studios also helped the movie by scurrying out of its path as quickly as a paleontologist who runs into a velociraptor. Hardly any competition opened on the Memorial Day weekend.
But the most important factor may have been an urge felt by moviegoers responding to the "Be part of history" slogan. To catch the tidal wave of a blockbuster's arrival is to participate in something larger than a mere movie. To miss this wave is to forfeit an experience that won't be available again - until the next blockbuster heaves into view, that is.
Now that the hoopla has faded a bit, is "The Lost World" worth the excitement it stirred up? It has little originality to boast of. The first 90 minutes are similar to the first "Jurassic Park," and to plenty of other man-versus-beast pictures set on tropical islands. The last half-hour, set in San Diego, fails to match the 1933 classic "King Kong" for either wit or emotion. And the flamboyant visual effects seem a bit tacky at times.
In all, then, "The Lost World" is less impressive than its fired-up fans might have wished. Some critics are also questioning Spielberg's changing attitude toward children. Once kids were the quick-witted heroes of pictures like his "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial," but now he's increasingly likely to set them up as helpless victims, as in the harrowing first sequence of "The Lost World," or toss them off as one-dimensional tokens, like the African-American girl who plays Jeff Goldblum's stowaway daughter.
Although the movie will surely set more records as it lumbers into international and ancillary (video, cable, etc.) markets, its greatest casualty may be the hope that Spielberg started on a fresh filmmaking path in 1993 - when he not only produced a new box-office champ with "Jurassic Park" but also the year's most acclaimed serious drama, "Schindler's List," an unexpectedly insightful look at the Holocaust and its horrors.
Deciding which path to follow in his next project, Spielberg chose the route to fantasy and frivolity over the road to real-world maturity. The entertainment history that "Lost World" viewers will be part of is very different from the actual history their favorite director explored so thoughtfully in what seemed to be a career-changing drama just a few short seasons ago.