Friday, June 19, 2009

Review of The Lost World (1925)

When I was young I tried reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), about the discovery of an Amazon region where dinosaur still reign, and I don’t think I ever finished it. I had much better luck with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which I sometimes read aloud to my brother as a form of speech therapy (sadly, I never acquired a British accent). But back in the turn of the century everyone and their literary agent, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Henry Rider Haggard, was trying to get a lost world story to market.

Now nearly 100 years later, the subgenre is making a bit of a comeback, albeit with far less serious treatments. “Land of the Lost” (2009), the latest in the uninspired “Will Ferrell plays the fool” franchise appears to have already sealed in its fate as an artistic and financial disaster. What that means for the knock-off created by The Asylum, “The Land That Time Forgot” (2009), which comes out next month is easy to guess. The Asylum, an unscrupulous studio that makes no-budget films that ride on the coattails of blockbusters with similar titles(amongst them “The Transmorphers,” “The Day the Earth Stopped” and “The Da Vinci Treasure”), deserves a post of their own, but it will have to wait.

The subgenre’s only real success since “Jurassic Park” (1993) may be Pixar’s delightfully self-aware “Up,” which has the sideways wisdom to update The Lost World while dropping the dinosaur angle at the crux of the original. It manages to be satiric and yet still whimsical, heartfelt and original. Amongst the clever nods to Doyle’s story in “Up” is an image of ‘Paradise Falls,’ a sheer Venezuelan plateau taken right out of the 1925 adaptation of “The Lost World.” It’s that film, which might be considered the grandfather of lost world cinema that I’m going to review today.

“The Lost World” (1925) begins with journalist Edward Malone being told by his girlfriend that she won’t marry him unless he proves his manliness by facing death. Looking for a dangerous assignment, he agrees to sneak into a conference by the irascible Professor Challenger, a scientist whose reputation lies in tatters after championing the lost journals of Maple White, which depict dinosaurs on an obscure South American tepui. Challenger becomes the laughing stock of London high society, but manages to mount an expedition with Malone, big-game hunter Sir John Raxton and White’s beautiful daughter Paula.

It doesn’t take them long to reach the plateau and they’re soon sighting more dinos than they know what to do with. After crossing unto the plateau by felling a tree over a vast chasm, a brontosaurus destroys their makeshift bridge and leaves them stranded. The scientific inquiry and search-and-rescue mission quickly become secondary issues compared to survival and escape.

Director Harry Hoyt let his special effects team go wild, headed up by Willis O’Brien of later “King Kong” (1933) fame. In the fully restored version of the film his stop-motion battles between various dinosaur combinations threaten to overwhelm the rest of the story. Most of the action with the giant reptiles has little to do with the human characters, who mostly stand by and share our rapt attention rather than running for cover.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s primary villains, a race of violent ape-men, have been consolidated into a single character. This ape-man, who hasn’t any backstory, motive or means of expression, is incongruously bent on murdering the rescue party. Lacking higher cognition or anything to rival the firepower that Raxton possesses, he’s something of an anticlimactic pushover when compared to the potential killing-power of the dinosaurs. The result is that there isn’t much tension or oppositional force to drive the film until the film’s memorable last act, in which Prof. Challenger’s pet specimen breaks free and rampages through London. The idea was so much better than the novel’s ending that it was also tacked onto the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” in 1997.

Hoyt’s handling of his actors is not nearly as bad as I was expecting for a special-effects driven silent-era film. Lloyd Hughes is fine, if forgettable, as the gung-ho handsome lead and his biggest fault may be that he’s chained to such a predictable character arc that includes an inevitable romance with Bessie Love’s Paula White. Bessie Love makes the best of her role considering that she has no qualifications for being on the trip and serves little purpose but to provide a love interest, a duty made difficult considering that she’s also required to be constantly screaming with fear and crying over the death of her father.

The minor roles are much more interesting. Professor Challenger is no fatherly academic, but the type of guy who chops his own firewood and can handle himself in a fight. His performance is proud, angry and determined, but just short of hacky mad-scientist overtones. Sir. John Raxton is surprisingly sympathetic as the uptight British hunter who shows a good deal of quiet humility and restraint as he comes to accept that Paula prefers Edward. He gets to have a subtle performance amidst all the huff and roaring. There’s also Jocko, an ingenious monkey who actually plays into the plot somewhat cleverly. I also liked that Arthur Conan Doyle has a cameo at the beginning, where he introduces the film.

“The Lost World” may stray into cheesiness at times, but it’s really never bad (well, excepting scenes involving the blackface natives) and is overall a highly entertaining treat for fans of old-timey adventure yarns. Despite the excellent job restoring the film, there were still cuts that made me think there was still footage missing and pieces mismatched and that may explain why the action isn’t as sustained and smooth as it could have been. If you can live with that, and appreciate the fact that the stop-motion and live-action events are necessarily a bit detached from each other, you’ll enjoy the film’s charm and gusto.

Walrus Rating: 7.0

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