May 9, 2017

The Lost City of Z Stands Up To Excavation

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Have you wondered what would happen if Indiana Jones didn’t have Spielberg’s team behind it? At least I think that’s how the conversation went at the pitch meeting. The Lost City of Z (pronounced Zed), by James Gray, is based on a book based loosely on the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who went looking for, well, a lost city.

On a mapping expedition, Percy found evidence of a civilization not yet discovered by the English that’s possibly older than their civilization — which is a shock to their common belief. The rest of the film follows a search to find hard evidence to prove the civilization’s existence. The Lost City of Z is as close to Indiana Jones 5 as we’ll get until 2019, and it’s sadly without the theme music. As a double major in PMA and archaeology, I was eager to see this historically based film about proving archaeological findings, to discover how much it pertains to archaeology.

This picture is more historical than archaeological. In particular, the flow felt a great deal like Lawrence of Arabia (Don’t worry, it’s not that long.). The constant transition from jungle to England mimics Lawrence in the desert. Large gaps of time pass, only revealed by the dialogue, instead of establishing shots. Both films also feature prevalent historical inaccuracies.

You can bet that as soon as the film finished I was researching what really happened to Percy and the lost city. And…yeah, he was a racist and  incompetent man who never found anything. He went on an expedition to find a lost city based off of a scrap of paper from 1743. In reality, there was no pottery and possibly even no lost city. They added more archaeology to the story, but factually, there was basically no archaeology involved.

The style of the film is much more realistic than the campier and, for lack of a better word, fun Indiana Jones franchise. The musical score is less emphasized, putting the focus more on their surroundings. There is a great deal of the hand-held camera technique and close-up shots, giving the audience the sensation that they are there with the characters.

The effects, characters and make-up design were incredibly believable. The film was shot on location, using practical effects when possible and didn’t rely so much on CGI. The main characters were well acted, and Hunnam conveyed the obsessed man effortlessly. Several well-known actors signed onto the film, such as Harry Melling (Dudley from Harry Potter), Ian McDiarmid (the Emperor from Star Wars) and even Robert Pattinson, everyone’s favorite sparkling vampire. To be fair, Pattinson’s acting is passable, and it almost makes you forgive him for being in Twilight.

My heart went out to Percy’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). It seemed like Percy abandons her every chance he can, and before each time he leaves, he impregnates her. And, despite being progressive outside the household, he is still sexist and strongly supports gender roles within it. Percy is not a great father either because of his habit of running from his family in order to find his city on years-long expeditions. The icing on the cake is that he only informs Nina just before he leaves for his last journey that he intends to spend years researching the city. Seriously — divorce him, Nina! Percy is so obsessive that the only way his son Jack (Tom Holland) can connect with him is by helping his dad find the lost city. The most interesting thing about Jack is how quickly you can relate to him, despite his limited screen time, because of his drive to connect with his father.

I ironically enjoyed the realism of this overblown,  larger-than-life, film, particularly about the cannibals. There’s a scene where Percy befriends a native tribe, who turn out to be cannibals. Unfortunately, this is not true to reality, as the real Percy would have run away or attacked them. Cannibals are humanized in this film as a people who ingest others for spiritual purposes and are not barbarians, which is refreshingly different from films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. They are even seen cultivating the jungle (something assumed impossible) and helping the protagonists.

The contrast with the more barbaric, land-seizing English analogy has been overdone. But presenting the main protagonist as a product of his time, and flawed, is something new brought to this tired table. For example, he wants to catalyze a new time in understanding that, with the help of the City of Z, shows how a seemingly primitive culture has roots pre-dating England. At the same time, he is primitive in his own beliefs of gender roles in his own house.

This film was well crafted with one exception. The film is very slow, especially at the start. There are several scenes at the beginning that, despite allowing time for character development, could have been taken out completely. The very first scene takes places in 1905, and that whole segment is pointless, as we’re introduced to him again in the next year. Also, it felt like half of the scenes in the film are Percy convincing people to either join, or not join, him on his dangerous journey. The opening is interesting though, as a village appears in the dark next to the title with the sounds of the jungle in the background.

So, is this an archaeology film? Not really. It focuses more on the determination and anthropological aspect than the artifacts and cultural implications of the city.

I’d give this film 4 out of 5 adventurous hats because it was well-formulated but dragged too much at times. And, I felt myself wondering how many times we’d see Percy try to convince someone to stay or go, if the film could begin later to cut time, and when the film was going to end. I can only hope that, unlike this movie, the musical score for the next Indiana Jones film leaves me with something to hum while exiting the theatre.


Trip Hastings is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].