THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares
There have been some great movies made about people exploring the Amazon River. The one that’s left the most lasting impression might just be Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), starring Klaus Kinski as a mad conquistador leading an expedition down the river, in search of fabled “El Dorado,” the city of gold. It makes a good double feature with Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO (1982), again starring Kinski, this time as a man determined to build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, and famous for having the cast actually move a 340-ton steamship over a mountain, for real, without special effects. There’s also the John Boorman classic, THE EMERALD FOREST (1985), and the similarly themed MOSQUITO COAST (1986), starring Harrison Ford.
There have also been some exploitation films, obviously, that have used the subject as a jumping-off point for mucho violence, including Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), Umberto Lenzi’s CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), and, most recently, Eli Roth’s homage to Deodato, THE GREEN INFERNO (2015).
James Gray’s new film, THE LOST CITY OF Z, skews more to the art film depictions, and is one of the more toothless versions of the story, keeping the violence to a minimum, and sticking closely to its PG-13 rating. Which isn’t to say that it’s awful, but rather one of the blander entries in the genre.
Charlie Hunnam (“Jax” from the TV series SONS OF ANARCHY, 2008 – 2014, and also in Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM, 2013), plays Percy Fawcett, a soldier who hasn’t been allowed to rise in the ranks of the British army, due to his station in life (his father squandered his title and standing, and disgraced the family due to gambling). Where upper-class twists excel in the service and get medals and promotions, Percy is kept down, and is constantly reminded that he isn’t in their league. The fact that he is more skilled and capable than most of them doesn’t help. When he and his fellow soldiers take part in a stag hunt, Percy is the one to track the elk down and kill it with one shot. But he isn’t allowed to join in the subsequent feast of it due to his social standing. Only the high-born are allowed. Needless to say, this sticks in his craw.
His soldiering also gets in the way of his family. He is constantly on missions that separate him from his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and each time she gets pregnant over the years, Percy is always away when she gives birth. He returns home rarely, to a slowly growing family of strangers.
But he is given the chance to redeem his family name when the Royal Geographic Society offers him a job in South America, surveying the land and drawing up the borders between Brazil and Bolivia, who are in the middle of a land dispute, and have asked England to intervene. Despite the fact that it will take more than a year, Fawcett is offered his family’s title back, and redemption in the eyes of the aristocracy, and he will do anything for that. So, he readily agrees to their terms. Taking him away from his family yet again.
On the boat trip to South America, Fawcett meets up with a drunken Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, Edward Cullen from the TWILIGHT movies), who is to be his only companion on the mission. Costin knows the territory and will act as his guide. It is a dangerous expedition, exposing them to disease, predatory animals, and primitive (and violent) natives. While in the rainforest, Fawcett hears stories about a city of gold, hidden in the jungle. While he doesn’t find gold, he does find proof of ancient civilization in the shape of pottery and carvings.
Despite dangers and hardships, Fawcett and Costin get the job done, and return to Britain as heroes.
Speaking before the assembled Royal Geographic Society, Fawcett is ridiculed when he mentions the remains of the ancient city he found, and it is considered heresy when he says that there could have been civilizations there even older than their own. But one member of the Society believes Fawcett, a rich and respected biologist named James Murray, who was part of an expedition that went to Antarctica. Murray is intent on proving Fawcett right, and finances a return trip to the Amazon. So, before he’s able to get comfortable with his family again, it’s off to another adventure.
This second expedition proves ambitious, but ill-fated, as Murray proves himself to be totally inept. Fawcett comes close to fulfilling his dream, but then has to return home when his team runs out of supplies.
Before Fawcett can get comfortable at home again with his family, he is sent to fight in World War I, where he is subjected to chlorine gas. But once the war is over, Fawcett is determined to go back to South America one last time.
THE LOST CITY OF Z looks great, and has an epic scope, but there are parts of its 140 minute running time that drag. Hunnam does a fine job as the obsessed Fawcett, and Pattinson (who has proven himself to be a much more interesting actor than the TWILIGHT movies would suggest—the same goes for his co-star in those movies, Kristen Stewart—having since appeared in films for director David Cronenberg, as well as this one), is good as Costin; in fact all of the cast is good, including Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife, who is constantly being abandoned by her husband, and the actors who play her children. Fawcett’s adventures on the Amazon are interesting, but the dangers seem downplayed, as are run-ins with hostile natives, who are much too easily swayed. Somehow, Fawcett is able to get through it all fairly easily, for the most part, although members of his party aren’t always so lucky.
James Gray also made THE YARDS (2000) and WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), both starring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, and the critically acclaimed film THE IMMIGRANT (2013), starring Marion Cotillard. He is a good director, but his style is rather subdued here, where more passion would have made THE LOST CITY OF Z a more riveting film. The script is by Gray, based on the book by David Grann. And the exceptionally good cinematography is by Darius Khondji.
THE LOST CITY OF Z has a good story and could have been a much more powerful. It just seems rather watered-down, which is disappointing, and some of the slower parts could have been edited down. I give it two and a half knives.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives THE LOST CITY OF Z ~two and a half knives.