The easiest analogy you could make about The Lost City of Z would be to call it “Lawrence of Arabia But in The Jungle”. This isn’t to say that James Gray’s long-anticipated film is an instant classic – though it is good – but that it’s a slow-burn adventure movie meant to be seen on a grand scale, a rare occurrence for cinema in the digital age.
The similarities between the two films don’t stop there. Taking place during World War I, both protagonists are white British military men with blonde hair who, having been sent to disputed territory, question their loyalty to the English government. Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett in the more recent release. Between 1905 and 1925, Fawcett traveled to the Amazon several times (the eight journeys are condensed to three expeditions for the sake of the movie’s pace) in search of a secret, mythical city.
Covering twenty years in just over two hours means that the story basically becomes a highlight reel. The Lost City of Z ignores a traditional dramatic structure, but avoids tedium through the rapid succession of plot points. While the run-time is more manageable than Lawrence of Arabia’s 4-hour experience, Z loses some of the character and plot development that might have enhanced the story (it’s not often that you want a 2-hour film to be even longer). As it exists, the movie feels like it’s constantly in exposition mode. That’s not a bad thing, especially considering that it is adapted from a non-fiction book, but the rushed development left me somewhat detached.
Although this is yet another film about a white explorer, it doesn’t seem outdated or overly problematic. His journey is not to conquer or belittle, but to understand. His belief in an advanced, sustainable city, devoid of European influences, is laughed off by many of his colleagues. They view the Amazonians as “savages” who need the white man’s help to be civilized. The film takes Fawcett’s side.
Many of Fawcett’s companions die, and those who survive don’t evolve much beyond a few archetypes. After two hours of watching Robert Pattinson’s face grow increasingly grotesque, I’m still not sure I could name a defining attribute of his character. Tom Holland is exciting if only because he’s about to be Spiderman. And Sienna Miller is great, but underused by the narrative (even though she’s like, the only female character).
But if nothing else, the biggest reason to see The Lost City of Z on the big screen is for its cinematography. Shot on 35mm, the gorgeous jungle tracking shots are a sight to behold. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour) creates a breathtaking meditation with every shot.
With a narrative that’s constantly on the move, The Lost City of Z doesn’t contain a ton of anything, but there’s a lot of variety. This is impressive because the addition of various sets, costumes and locations likely blew up the film’s budget. 30 million might not seem like a ton, but considering the movie’s art house disposition, it looks like The Lost City of Z is destined to lose money. It’s an art piece that’s really not “for” anyone, and that’s part of its charm. Thankfully, with distribution by Amazon Studios, it’s not likely to become lost itself.