Friday, November 27, 2020

Cardboard Science: Challenger of the unknown


Directed by Irwin Allen
Written by Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen

Spoiler alert: moderate

It is an eternal truth that no movie named The Lost World can ever be any good.  This is true of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Spielberg's backwards-titled 1997 follow-up to his 1993 superhit, which was named in homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 speculative fiction novel, and which is in the running for the least-essential theatrical film of its director's five-decade career.  It is true, also, of the 1925 adaptation of the Doyle story, which thanks to Willis O'Brien's special effects innovation remains a cinematic landmarkmaybe even essential viewing for anyone interested in film historyand which is also sufficiently boring otherwise that it's no oversight that people usually just teach King Kong instead.  Finally, it is terrifyingly true of Irwin Allen's adaptation, which is unbearably horrid for a sci-fi adventure done with anything like actual studio resources in 1960 A.D.

Produced and directed by Allen for 20th Century Fox, it was his narrative feature debut after a career in documentaries; it was co-written by Allen as well, in alliance with Charles Bennett.  It does not get more inauspicious than this, and while the man objectively became an industry giant in the years to come, I don't know how The Lost World was successful enough to even let him do Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea immediately afterward.  Even on the level of "matinee adventure for idiotic twelve year old boys" that it was pitched at, it's bad.  It's bad for adults in 2020, for surelet's not let that sliderepresenting a veritable smorgasbord of nastiness.  It's sexist and it's racist, of course (arguably, it's more sexist and more racist than a novel written in 1912).  It has animal cruelty and calls it "special effects."  It wastes and humiliates not only good actors who had long and august careers behind them, but in Jill St. John, at least one actor with a somewhat noteworthy career still to come.  It is stupid beyond belief.

It is also horrendously boring, and boring in a fashion that seems like it ought to have transcended any cultural context, coming off just as boring to a kid in 1960 as it does today.  It's not even boring like its 1925 predecessor was boring: that Lost World is merely sleepy in the manner of many silent cinema programmers, but it still basically lived up to the idea, "a lost world of prehistoric beasts."  Allen's Lost World isn't even really about dinosaurs, and despite Allen roping in the 74 year-old O'Brien as his special effects technician (who one imagines spent this production twiddling his thumbs), it barely even pretends to be about dinosaurs.  In this extremely-long-feeling 97 minute film, maybe five are devoted to the dinosaursor I should say, ahem, "dinosaurs," with scare-quotes carved out of rock and set a mile high, like the logo for a Bible film, and perhaps also with alternating capital and lower-case letters.  That five minutes goes up to six, I suppose, if you include a giant skeletal ribcage, though obviously this is better described as a piece of set design; but the five minutes drops to roughly three, if you don't count obscured rustling in the bushes.

It's some significant time before The Lost World even gets to the lost world, in fact, and it spends a shocking amount of celluloid on the logistics of setting up the mission (this is actually one way it replicates the 1925 film's problems, inherited from the novel: just straight up banishing any sense of discovery by telling you "WE'RE GONNA SEE SOME DINOSAURS" right at the outset), though when I say "logistics," what I mean is a bunch of chauvinists debating whether St. John's character will come along, which she obviously fucking will because St. John was only hired in the first place to be nearly the sole interesting thing to look at for the next 97 minutes of our lives, so maybe we can have one line about how the South American highlands aren't a place for a girl, if that's the side you're taking, but good God, we don't need fifty or sixty tying up the plot for a solid half hour.

Well, leaving this gloss aside, this Lost World somewhat faithfully tracks the 1912 story, which is already kind of a problem, since it's still set in 1960, in other words at just about the last possible historical moment that this story could make sense, if not too late altogetherif there were dinosaurs in South America, there'd probably have been a whole Cinerama documentary about them by 1960.  It invites a certain amount of anachronism (the gentlemen scientists' club; the sort of early post-colonial vibe we get with whatever unnamed Latin country this is), and it's really only slightly less of an imposition than if Mike Todd's 1956 adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days had been set in the year of its release without changing its story.  Of course, I suspect that Allen and Fox determined that costumes of any sort would be the kind of expense they'd prefer to avoid (eighty-six the ape-men!), which is why the closest we get in that department is an utterly incongruous pink explorer outfit for St. Johnwhich manifestly does make her the most interesting thing to look at here, in fairness, though even on this count the cut and the boots aren't especially flattering to her ankles.  (And this digression to "Jill St. John's ankles" perhaps indicates the magnitude of the dullness we're dealing with here.)

Anyway, you know the basics: Professor George Edward Challenger (Claude Rains) has just returned  to Britain from South America with a bold claimdinosaurs persisting in the uplands of the Amazon Basinthat nobody much believes, least of all his professional rival, Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn).  Nevertheless, Summerlee is willing to be proven wrong if Challenger can put together the funding for a new expedition.  This comes from the father of Jennifer Holmes (St. John), and hence she and her brother David (Ray Sticklyn) manage to muscle their way onto the team, the latter because the former asked him to and he thought it'd be fun, the former because she's been on a multi-year campaign to marry their handsome guide to the Amazon, a certain big-game hunter and general-issue adventurer bred from English nobility, Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie, giving the closest this film has to a good performance with a shaded character who almost claws some quiet dignity back from the goofiness surrounding him).  Also along for the trip is the American reporter that Challenger angrily bashed in the head with his umbrella in the opening scene, Ed Malone (David Hedison).  Upon arrival, they are joined by their helicopter pilot, Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas), as well as his cringy ethnic stereotype/Peter Lorre impressionist sidekick, Costa (Jay Novello), who rides up to the plateau with our adventurers because, after all, someone in the party has to be weak and contemptible and scream at something every five minutes, so I guess it's nice it didn't have to always be Jennifer.  It is astonishing, by the way, how many people there are in this movie and how few of them get eaten by the dinosaurs.

But, as noted, The Lost World isn't about dinosaurs, though it's not about anything else.  From its very earliest momentswell, its very earliest narrative moments, after a halfway-decent opening credits sequence regarding lava flows (already hack shorthand for "deep time" by 1960), accompanied by the only part of Paul Sawtell and Burt Schefter's score that they expended any noticeable effort onThe Lost World has committed itself to dippy comedy, and by the end of the first scene, it's already run out of good filmmaking.  The first five or so shots are almost literally the only ones where Allen and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch even appear to have shown up to set with a plan, offering an acceptable if overly-wacky comedic beat involving Rains's cartoon version of an irascible dickhead scientist glowering over the guy he just smacked upside the head, with the camera tracking out in a low-angle POV as Rains rants and raves.  From here on in, there is barely even one single good shot in the whole film, with Allen and Hoch just indifferently arranging an endless series of master shots that the ensemble equally-indifferently throngs their way into.  Everything about this movie is boring, yes, but the uncaring nature of it is probably what makes it so dismal.  (Let's not even get started on the day-for-night photography, which is just "day-for-day, with dialogue establishing that it's dark.")  It's perhaps especially harmful, considering that "dippy comedy" winds up so central to Allen's take on the story: a stupid jungle adventure movie that at least took itself seriously could have potentially survived dead-eyed filmmaking like thisin fact, The Lost World even ticks up very, very slightly when it just finally gives up the pretense of being science fiction, and accepts that the best it is ever going to offer is a gang of white adventurers running away from cannibalistic natives in a fanciful volcanic cavebut when so much of the movie depends on the "comic" backbiting between Rains and Haydn's dueling professors, or the frivolity of St. John's character (or the poodle she brought with her to the rain forest), the cinematic barbarism of it all curdles The Lost World like rotten milk.

Then again, who knows what choice Allen had: his excuse, in later years, was that Fox gave him just enough money to agree to make the movie, and not anywhere close to enough to make it good, which, adding credibility to Allen's claim, does at least explain why he hired O'Brien to do stop-motion animation for a movie that has no stop-motion animation in it.  Instead, Allen took recourse to tricks at least as old as Hollywood's other ur-dinosaur picture, One Million B.C., with one scene in particular being a straight-up restaging of the exact same notions exhibited there.  These live reptiles (so-called "slurpasaurs") are, I guess, not even charmless at first, when they're merely frightening our heroes by way of semi-adequate process shots and editingthere's even a lateral tracking shot of a tegu lizard with junk glued to its head, stalking through a plastic "jungle" and, indeed, slurping at the air with faint menace, that's surprisingly effective.

Whatever charm there could be to a tegu in a hat emerging from a bubble bath to gnaw on a plastic figurine of a guy, however, has long since been exiled from this film by the time it happens.  In the years since its 1940 release, One Million B.C. had been exploited heavily by B-filmmakers who wanted to do dinosaurs but had no budget, and I try not to despise them for that, even though what One Billion B.C. did to its animals was despicable, because at least they didn't make the ugly footage.  Unfortunately, the tiny bit of sweat equity Allen put into his dinosaur movie was to shoot new footage, in color and in CinemaScope, which meant, necessarily, an all-new tegu thrown into a box with an all-new crocodile for his centerpiece "dinosaur" battle.  Assuming that "unstaged animal combat" can have merits in the first place, it's terrible on whatever those merits would beit's so disaggregated by the editing that they may not actually be fighting, at least not fighting for their lives, which I rather hope was in fact the casebut it's a disgusting and disquieting piece of real-life violence nonetheless, and so one must remind oneself not to complain too much about the absence of dinosaur action in this dinosaur movie, insofar as that's kind of like watching a snuff film, then complaining that not enough people get murdered on camera.  And it costs Allen more respect from me than all the crappy first-time direction in the world, and that's a pity, because I might be about the only person on Earth who thinks Allen was ever worthy of much respect in the first place.

Score: 1/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The Lost World is the kind of movie that makes me resentful of my own format, because, you know, "that which is indistinguishable from magic," which is to say unscientific bullshit, is "all of it."  But since it is my format, I will say that an isolated plateau is not an especially plausible place for giant dinosaurs to have persisted, evolutionarily-speaking.
  • When Challenger shows off the newly-hatched baby dinosaur he's managed to extricate from the plateau's volcanic destruction, for the first time in the whole film he identifies one by name.  This lizard with crap stuck on its head is a "t-rex."  Also, the nesting site of the plateau's tyrannosaurs is in the Fire Caves of Bajor for some reason.
  • There is a tribe of indigenes who live on the plateau alongside the dinos, and it is never explained why all the dangerous dinos have not been hunted to extinction, because that's what we do.
  • I did not mention the giant spider:
Oh, come on, Irwin.

The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • They terrorized, injured, and possibly killed animals for this crap, in Nineteen fucking Sixty.  That's enough for this section.
  • The bright yellow seaplane they arrive on is neat.  That's all I've got.

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