Monday, November 14, 2016

Film Review: The Lost World

"The Lost World"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Worlds collide in the silent, science-fiction adventure movie, "The Lost World" (1925).

Based on a novel written by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle (perhaps best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories) here is an example of true sensationalist, Hollywood escapism in its earliest form. The term "Summer blockbuster" hadn't been coined in 1925 but "The Lost World" in many ways was the precursor to such future films as "King Kong" (1933), "Godzilla" (1954), "Jaws" (1975) and most obviously "Jurassic Park" (1993).

Despite the genre this movie essentially created, one doesn't hear enough about its significance in the history of cinema. Most movie fans may be more familiar with "King Kong" and cite that as an influential movie because of its special effects. But, "The Lost World" beat it to the punch. In fact, the man responsible for the stop-motion effects in the movie, Willis H. O'Brien, also worked on "King Kong" and one of its knock-offs, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949). Without question "The Lost World" was a movie years ahead of its time. But, where's the love? Where's the Criterion Collection DVD? The movie has fallen into the public domain and as a result multiple prints of the movie exist, each with different running times. One version I saw runs approximately 63 minutes however my review is based on a 92 minute version, which combined eight known prints, creating the most complete version known, since the movie first premiered, with a running time of 106 minutes. It was also given a full orchestra score conducted by Robert Israel, whose work is always impressive.

Our adventure takes place in London, where reporter Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes) has hopes of asking his sweetheart, Gladys (Alma Bennett) to marry him. She rejects him before he can ask, stating, "I will only marry a man of great deeds and strange experiences - a man who can look death in the face without flinching." In order to win Gladys' love Ed seeks a dangerous assignment.

Within this sequence we have a theme found in so many movies of the 1920s, 30s & 40s, that of masculinity and the efforts men must go through to prove themselves in the eyes of women, who seek adventurous, muscular men. The scenario is one which usually is the making of slapstick comedies but here the theme lends itself, quite naturally, to an action / adventure story.

In pursuit of his dangerous assignment Ed learns of a Professor Challenger (Wallace Berry) who proclaims he has discovered a land in the Amazon where dinosaurs still roam. The professor becomes the laughing stock not only of the scientific community but society at large. How could dinosaurs still exist? We all know they have been extinct for millions of years. But, Prof. Challenger must save his reputation and demands a small group of brave souls join him on a trip back to the Amazon. Those brave enough to join him are big game hunter Sir. John Roxton (Lewis Stone) and Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father, also a scientist, first discovered this lost world, but was abandoned by his crew and left to possibly die on the Tepui and of course Ed, who sees this as his perfect opportunity to demonstrate his bravery to Gladys.

As was common during the time period, "The Lost World" is skeptical of science, a theme which would progress in horror films of the 1930s and science-fiction films of the 1950s. The Professor Challenger character is initially presented as a "mad scientist" who dares to threaten society by exploring the "unknown", thus meddling in the affairs of nature. It is a theme not unlike the one found in "Creature of the Black Lagoon" (1954). Bad things happen when people are curious. They might actually find something.

And so our characters set off on their adventure, where the usual stereotypes and situations are established. There will be a love story angle developed between Ed and Paula. Roxton will secretly be in love with Paula, but will understand Paula sees him as a father figure and not a possible romantic interest. "The Lost World" will then be a story about young, romantic love, unrequited love and adventure. All the makings of today's standard Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie doesn't create much doubt in the mind of the viewer that such an island exist and doesn't delay the presence of dinosaurs in an attempt to create suspense. When the dinosaurs are seen there is not much of a sense of awe and disbelief. Much of that may have to do with the fact the movie is more than 90 years old. Instead the viewer marvels at the special effects. That is quite the accomplishment for a movie as old as this. Further proof of the movie's significance.

The flaws of the movie is a lack of character development, which doesn't explore the love interest between Ed and Paula enough. It also doesn't do enough to establish Ed as a man afraid on danger, which would create more of a character arc by the end of the movie. Once the characters are on the island, there seems to be little for them to do. The action is mainly comprised of them running away or hiding from the dinosaurs. What was the objective? No one even has a camera with them to take photos for proof.

Still, the movie does everything else we'd expect from the genre today. For better or worse, not much has changed. Watch "Jurassic World" (2015) and you will find similarities. "The Lost World" does a good job of heightening the action and always finding moments to blend adventure with humor.

Of all the performances in the movie it may, oddly enough, be Lewis Stone who comes out looking the best. His character Roxton is the most grounded character in the movie which makes him to most relatable. Contrast this character to Professor Challenger, who is much more animated. Mr. Berry doesn't seem to set any limitations for himself. Paula unfortunately nothing more than a brooding young woman. The movie doesn't even have the decency to make her a damsel in distress.

The real stars of "The Lost World" are of course the dinosaurs. Filmmaker Harry O. Hoyt and special effects artist, Mr. O'Brien, create a unique film world for audiences with thrilling action sequences. The world of cinema owes much to "The Lost World". All serious movie fans should make an effort to see it.