Written and directed by James Gray, The Lost City of Z (2016) traces the life of British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is compelled to scour the Amazon for evidence of a lost civilization. Along the way, he’ll repeatedly abandon his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his children and overcome resistance from skeptical colleagues, all to ultimately come up empty handed. It is based on a book of the same name by David Grann.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film since its release, because it’s one of those real life stories more incredible than fiction. Percy Fawcett’s adventures inspired both Indiana Jones and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912). Unfortunately, The Lost City of Z was less an adventure film and more a plodding, meandering biopic that never quite finds its footing.
As the film opens, we see Percy Fawcett at the cusp of the British upper class. He is a major in the army, but has no medals; he goes on a hunt and kills the stag, but is not invited to dine on it. We see he’s skilled, daring, and willing to take risks. However, this isn’t quite an introduction.
The film makers assume their audience already knows who Percy Fawcett is, but he is a relatively obscure historical figure, especially to American audiences. It’s crucial to quickly establish the identity of the main character and why he is important. Otherwise, you lose the audience’s attention.
Thirteen minutes into the film, a plot finally appears. We learn Fawcett’s father was a gambling drunkard, and he is told that if he completes his mission to map the Bolivian border it will redeem his family name.
Fawcett discovers pottery deep in the Amazon, but on his return to England, Royal Geographical Society members are skeptical that South American natives are capable of producing such artifacts. He convinces a few members to accompany him on another expedition, which turns up nothing. Fawcett goes off to fight in World War One where he’s wounded in a gas attack and later reconciles with his eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland).
Jack convinces him to embark on one final expedition. We see them wander around the jungle for a while until they’re captured by an Amazon tribe and drugged, leading to a pointless flashback / hallucination before the screen fades to black. Back home, many years later, Nina presents the president of the Royal Geographical Society a compass Percy said he would send home if he ever found the lost city.
Historically, no one knows what happened to Percy and Jack Fawcett, who disappeared on May 29, 1925, but it’s likely they were killed by hostile natives or succumbed to disease. Over the past several years, anthropologists have discovered concrete evidence of a lost civilization in the Amazon, near where Fawcett went missing.
This film is more or less accurate, although it softens some of his unusual beliefs, including that the lost city of Z was an outpost for ancient extraterrestrial gods and a remnant of Atlantis. In one interesting scene, during the First World War, he’s shown consulting with “Madame Kumel” (Elena Solovey), a character based on psychic and occultist Madame Blavatsky. Although Fawcett was a devotee of Blavatsky’s, she died in 1891.
The Lost City of Z somehow manages to make an incredible, real-life story boring. It suffers from lack of direction and plods along unmercifully for 141 minutes. The film should have started right in the middle of the action, on Fawcett’s last expedition. His personal history and previous expeditions could be retold through brief flashbacks. Instead, it takes so long to get to the point, then leaves audiences with a cheap teaser to make up for lack of a satisfactory conclusion. As a result, it bombed at the box office, grossing $8.57 million in U.S. sales off a $30 million budget. What a disappointment.