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The Lost City of Z

It’s an old established rule that Oscar contenders are released near the end of the year, the better to stay fresh in the minds of Academy voters. Yet with the advent of online streaming, Netflix, and other home video services, this whole concept of strategic release dates has steadily been losing relevance. (Similar to television time slots, which have been growing obsolete for years.) This is especially true of smaller independent films, which often get such limited release that the vast majority of filmgoers may never get a chance to see them prior to home video. I know it’s not much, but it’s the best explanation I can think of as to why this some of this year’s blatant Oscar grabs are coming in before the earliest of summer blockbusters (see also: A United KingdomThe Zookeeper’s Wife, etc.).

So here we are with The Lost City of Z, which dramatizes the true-life story of Major Percy Fawcett, here played by Charlie Hunnam. It comes to us from writer/director James Gray, previously of The ImmigrantTwo Lovers, and We Own the Night. And like those other films, this one is probably destined to be a critically acclaimed cultural footnote. Though there are worse things and certainly worse films. Let’s take it from the top.

Our story begins right at the start of the 20th century. Brazil and Bolivia are on the brink of war over a bunch of rubber trees sitting right on top of their shared border. As rubber is such a hugely valuable commodity, the two countries can’t agree on how much of this natural resource belongs to each nation. So Britain is called upon to decide where the boundary line should be drawn, because it’s not like that’s ever gone wrong at any point in human history. Just look at the Middle East. Or Africa. But I digress.

Enter Fawcett, a military man who’s respected and well-liked, even if his lack of any noteworthy heritage means he can never move upward in society. Yet he’s given the chance to explore this area in South America, with its sweltering climate, fatal diseases, predatory animals, and hostile natives. Eager to finally prove himself and earn some shot at nobility, Fawcett eagerly accepts the job of scouting the borderlands in 1906. Incidentally, it’s Ian McDiarmid who first offers the expedition to Fawcett, and of course it’s going to sound like a horribly bad idea coming from Emperor Fucking Palpatine.

Anyway, Fawcett sets out with Henry Costin (an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), who acts as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp. And at the end of the expedition, Fawcett stumbles onto rogue fragments of pottery. In the middle of the jungle. Man-made artifacts in a place where humans shouldn’t even exist. This supports local legends of a hidden place where no white man has ever seen, and could possibly even predate European civilization. This doesn’t go down well with the Brits at home, who are somehow convinced that any person of color could only ever be an animal. Even so, Fawcett goes on a second expedition in 1914 to find the lost city he refers to as “Z” (that’s pronounced “zed”, because he’s British). To make a long story short (too late!) Fawcett returns from this expedition empty-handed just in time to get horribly wounded in the trenches of World War I.

(Side note: I only just now realized that the film takes place primarily in the Amazon, and it’s being distributed by Amazon Studios. Ha ha.)

Finally, in 1925, Fawcett returned to make one last attempt at finding Z. This time, he was accompanied by his own son (Jack Fawcett, played here by Peter Parker himself, Tom Holland). The two were never heard from again and their fate is unknown to this day.

Oh, and did I mention that the runtime for this one clocks in at 140 minutes? It’s a lot of ground to cover in two and a half hours, and you’re going to feel every second.

First of all, this is not the first movie we’ve seen this year in which white people venture into an untamed jungle that clearly doesn’t want them there. Hell, Kong: Skull Island only came out last month, and I think it might even still be in some theaters. And that one had giant monsters to keep things interesting

So what does this one have if it doesn’t have giant monsters? Well… not much. Somehow, the film never left me with the sense of wonder that was so central to the basic premise. I think a lot of that has to do with the lackluster dialogue, with every word delivered by every actor like it’s going to be their Oscar clip. It certainly doesn’t help that Charlie Hunnam is our leading man, and he’s yet to show the kind of screen presence that qualifies him to be anything other than a placeholder, much less an A-list talent.

The visuals are another problem. The camera stays so tightly focused on the characters that the scenery itself never really gets its due. Again, compare this to Kong: Skull Island, or even Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ previous work, The Kings of Summer. Both of those movies had dazzling shots of flora and fauna, paying homage to the spellbinding natural beauty of the setting. A little of that would’ve gone a long way here, and there wasn’t nearly enough.

But probably the biggest issue here is that the stakes aren’t sold particularly well. The unfolding global intrigue leading up to World War I has virtually no bearing on the search for Z, and the Bolivia/Brazil dispute that started this whole thing quickly becomes a nonissue. Easily the main driving force for our protagonist is his quest for social status, to be recognized as more than his family name. It’s kind of a silly and selfish thing to drive the plot forward, a concept that doesn’t really hold any relevance to the audience. Then again, that’s kind of the point.

On quite a few occasions, the movie does successfully point out the stupidity of social classes. There’s a strong humanitarian bent, with the statement that we’re all cut from the same cloth and no one color, creed, or socioeconomic placement makes anyone better than anyone else. Alas, this comes within a hair’s breadth of falling apart when Fawcett rails against womens’ equality when he was talking about enlightened brown people in the scene immediately previous. So racism is bad, but sexism is the natural order? What?

It also bears pointing out that while the runtime is terribly long and we do more or less make the same journey three different times, the fact remains that we’re seeing the same places at different times in a 25-year period. And we see how certain places and landmarks have changed over the years. It illustrates the passage of time, which dovetails nicely with the progress of civilization, humanity’s growing encroachment into nature, our need to uncover history without destroying it, and so on.

There are some good moments to be found here, particularly some trippy scenes in the third act and a truly inspired final shot. But we have to go through so much tedium to get to those moments, and that’s a problem. It seems a shame to spend two and a half hours on three expeditions when any one of them would’ve made for a perfectly thrilling two-hour film. Yet condensing the film in such a way would’ve sacrificed a huge part of the aforementioned statement on the passage of time. And while the various scenes of British society and World War I take away from what we really came to see, it helps the compare/contrast between the modern “civilized” society and the less advanced “primitive” society.

Ultimately, The Lost City of Z falls into the category of “boringly good”. Aside from a couple of noteworthy scenes, the vast majority of the film is predictable and merely functional. The performances, visuals, dialogue… really, everything about this film fits the description of “good, but not great.” It looks and feels like untapped potential, giving the impression that it should have been something far greater and more memorable than it is.

This film is a reminder that just because filmmakers are taking on an epic story, that doesn’t automatically make the film itself into something epic. It’s a classic Oscar-bait mistake, but simply being Oscar-bait isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. That said, this is still a two-and-a-half hour movie. For that kind of investment in time and money, there’s just not enough in here for me to recommend.

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