Reeling it in: ‘Lost City’ worth exploring

“The Lost City of Z”

Amazon Studios

2 hours, 21 minutes

“The Lost City of Z” may be the best film I’ve seen this year so far.

“But wait,” you say. “‘The Lost City of Z’ isn’t showing at my theater, and I live in (insert your hometown here). My theater is showing ‘Transformers’ on six screens, or I could see ‘The Mummy’ again.”

That’s true. “Z” is probably not playing at a theater near you, though it is still in a few theaters around the country. This is because of the fundamental dichotomy of Hollywood. The studios are brave enough to make a movie like “Z,” one that hearkens back to the glory days of movie making, but they’re not brave enough to actually release it. If this film had opened wide, instead of on a few dozen screens back in April, I feel confident that it would be a huge hit, but as it is, it’s more of a hidden gem.

But if you, like me, couldn’t stomach another trip through Michael Bay’s violent machine fantasies, seek out a quieter, yet far bolder adventure.

“The Lost City of Z” is based upon a book by the same name which shot up the best seller lists a few years ago. Writer David Gann tells the story of Englishman Percy Fawcett who, at the turn of the 20th century, explored some of the most dangerous territory in South America, eventually becoming obsessed with finding a legendary ancient city in the jungle.

Writer/director James Gray, known mostly for dour Joaquin Phoenix movies up to this point, cast two unlikely leads for this tale of adventure and obsession — Charlie Hunnam, known mostly for “Sons of Anarchy” and “Pacific Rim,” as well as the ill-advised “King Arthur” this year, is Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame is Henry Costin, his aide-de-camp.

Both actors are excellent here. Fawcett, in the book and movie, becomes convinced that this lost city exists based on his own findings (shards of pottery in the jungle, as wells as elaborate decorations carved into the stones) and based on the writings of an earlier explorer who claims to have found the city some 150 years before.

Upon returning to England after his first expedition, one which met with violence from native tribes as well as the horrors of the jungle, including malaria and piranhas, Fawcett presented his findings to the Royal Geographic Society only to be met with jeers and laughter. His suggestion that an ancient civilization existed in the jungle, one that could even pre-date the British, went against the common perception of the native peoples as backward savages, physically and mentally inferior to the European interlopers.

Fawcett was determined to shatter this myth and returned to the jungle multiple times in his attempts.

“The Lost City of Z” feels like a throwback, an old-fashioned film calling back to the days when moviemakers would take the time to establish a character fully before rushing him through whatever death-defying adventure the plot called for.

However, it’s a hybrid. Sure, movies back in the 1940s and 50s had character development, but the level of authenticity wasn’t there. They simply couldn’t film a movie like this on location, and the nation’s racial sensitivities weren’t to a place where this film’s message would have been palatable.

In the 70s and early 80s, however, people like John Boorman, Roland Joffé and Peter Weir were making films like this, in the jungle, among the people who live there. “The Emerald Forest,” “The Mission,” and “The Mosquito Coast,” as well as Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” are all influential precursors to “Z,” riding a line between the days when films were a writer’s medium and today, where effects and pacing are the main concern.

Hollywood really took the wrong lesson from “Indiana Jones.” Spielberg’s films are brilliant, but are paced and styled deliberately to mimic old-time serial shorts. Not every story fits that mold, but today we are regularly offered adventure plots that are designed to propel the characters from one set piece to another with little regard to who those characters are. “Z,” has more in common with the aforementioned films, which may be why it received such a hesitant roll-out. Actors like Hunnam and Pattinson, as well as co-stars Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, and Angus Macfadyen have a real script to sink their teeth into, and it shows.

If I had a complaint, it’s possibly that the film, in an attempt to get through more than 20 years of exploration in 2 1/2 hours shortchanges itself just a bit. The jungle scenes are effective, but don’t achieve quite the feverishness that you find in this film’s forebears. “Z” has to make several trips back and forth from England to South America, as well as taking a sidetrip to the front in World War I.

On the other hand, it is just this wandering structure that inform’s Fawcett’s character, so it’s a necessary compromise, I suppose. I really enjoyed this film, both for the characters and for the fact that I didn’t know where it was going to end up. Much like a true journey to the dark heart of the Amazon, I imagine, this story doesn’t always go where you would like it to, but the journey is powerful nonetheless.

Grade: A

“The Lost City of Z” is rated PG-13 for violence, mature and sometimes frightening situations, and nudity involving native peoples.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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