The Lost City of Z: Dullness on the Amazon

(out of 4)

Movies about adventures in the wild have a long and intimidating pedigree. Well before Leonardo DiCaprio got himself mauled by a bear in 2015’s The Revenant, after all, you had Peter O’Toole floating on the desert sand in Lawrence of Arabia, Klaus Kinski glaring at his wearied soldiers in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Marlon Brando whispering about “the horror” in Apocalypse Now. Despite their vast differences in setting and historical period, each of these films spoke in some way to the power of human obsession, the insatiable desire people can acquire for an object or ideal that may not even be attainable. In those stories, the wild became something simultaneously fascinating and deadly, a place where great ambitions and schemes ran up against nature’s unsparing limits.

Unfortunately, whatever wilderness you encounter in the new “adventure” movie The Lost City of Z turns out to be anything but fascinating or deadly. With its story of 20th-century explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his “lifelong obsession” with discovering a city in the Amazon, the film certainly shows a great interest in carrying on the aforementioned traditions of its genre – director James Gray himself pegged it as David Lean “with a slightly more hallucinogenic feel.” Yet contrary to how Gray and others have described it, what you get here pales in comparison to Freddie Young’s desert vistas and Vittorio Storario’s warped views of Vietnam; Darius Khondji’s camerawork occasionally offers up a memorable shot, but it largely sticks to showing layers of undergrowth with an insipidness that makes Fawcett’s rainforest trek feel like a walk on that extra-long nature trail at your local park. What sporadic encounters you ever have with rapids and Amazonians, moreover, are undercut by the way the story seamlessly cuts back and forth between the jungle and long sequences about Fawcett’s life in England: watching them together, you never get the sense that Fawcett’s endeavors require that much effort.

Of course, these issues are all surface-level when compared with the clumsy way the movie handles its supposed theme of obsession. The real-life Fawcett was a lifelong lover of exploration who only posited a theory about a “lost city” after several trips to the Amazon. In the film, however, he’s portrayed as a status-obsessed officer who accepts an initial offer to go to the jungle largely because it’ll boost his image in society. At the end of this trip, he finds a couple shards of pottery on the ground…and mere minutes later, we watch as he gives a thundering speech about “undiscovered civilizations” and starts eagerly preparing for another expedition, all concerns of his past life now largely reduced to irrelevance. Needless to say, the flimsy rapidity of this crucial plot point leaves you completely unconvinced that Fawcett ever “goes mad” (to quote Gray) over a desire to find a lost city. Afterwards, when the film begins to seriously drag, you even forget that such “obsession” is what the story is ostensibly all about in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, the movie’s 2.5-hour runtime isn’t all devoted to Fawcett’s meanderings in the jungle. Much of it, in fact, plays host to a hodgepodge of secondary storylines that, far from introducing complexity, only go to show just how embarrassingly bad Gray is at doing that. There’s some intrafamilial tension over how little time Fawcett spends at home, but this subplot is abruptly resolved after his son Jack (Tom Holland) sees him wounded in a hospital, suddenly stops being hateful, and decides he wants to go to the Amazon, too. There’s some stuff about woman’s limited role in society in the character of Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller), but this subplot is also miraculously resolved when she mysteriously drops the fierce criticism she once had for his male chauvinism. And there’s allegedly some stuff about all the “ridicule” (to quote the end title) Fawcett faced for his ideas. But the one or two people we ever see question Fawcett’s theories are easily outnumbered by all the crowds that eagerly applaud his speeches and line railways to cheer him on; in the end, the naysayers come off as Thersites-esque party poopers, not serious obstacles.

Here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to also highlight the gaping insufficiencies of the acting and script. Hunnam recites his lines with such painstaking heaviness that he consistently sounds over-rehearsed: far from providing nuance, his every confrontation carries an unshakeable aura of melodrama, as if he thought he was still filming for King Arthur. The dialogue he recites, moreover, is itself quite cringeworthy; lines where he inveighs against imperialism are designed and inserted with a clumsiness that makes the movie’s overall liberal viewpoint feel like a bout of political correctness. And lastly, the screenplay often hints at Fawcett’s dark side but never explores it in depth: as previously indicated, he proves blatantly sexist when he harangues Nina about how “man and woman were created for different roles,” and there’s more than a whiff of a patronizing, “Wow! These people are so advanced!” attitude in the way he talks about the Amazonians he encounters, but the film is usually too busy either wasting time or saluting Fawcett’s “courage” to bother fleshing these moments out.

With most movies, there’s usually something worth savoring about them; even bad ones often have at least some redeeming aspects. Unfortunately, The Lost City of Z is so long, so undeveloped, and so uninteresting that the rare signs of inspiration it shows – after a spear thrown by a hostile Amazonian barely misses Fawcett, for example, the movie flashes images of Fawcett at his child’s baptism – are too little, too late. In the grand scheme of adventure movies, you can thus be sure that Z won’t even be a footnote in the wake of giants like Lawrence and Aguirre; calling it derivative would be too generous a description for the way it alludes to older endeavors but utterly fails to build on them. More than any other movie I’ve seen in the past year, this is a film where you see the Rotten Tomatoes score (88%) and can’t help but wonder: what in the world were they smoking?


The Lost City of Z (2016)

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland

Running Time: 141 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity.”

Produced by: James Gray, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Anthony Katagas, Dale Armin Johnson

Directed & Written by: James Gray. Based on David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name.