Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The outer limits of terminal irony: Land of the Lost

I felt sick to my stomach watching Land of the Lost. I was just reading about how a convergence of debt, high energy prices, and global warming could create a "mega-crisis" of unheard of proportions soon. And when, some day, people look back at this watershed period of history, what kind of funhouse mirror did we hold up to our current deluded derangement? Ironic movies, like Year One, about cavemen? How about Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost?

To say that Land of the Lost is an unfunny disturbing nightmare still does not convey its particular ozone smell of the void, the nihilistic stupor of its complacency. The film has no narrative drive and no clear sense of its PG-13 audience. By being both insufficiently naughty for adults and vulgarly inappropriate for kids, the movie insults everyone simultaneously.

At some point, Ferrell must have suddenly said Yes! to the campy fun of playing the has-been scientist Rick Marshall in a revamped version of the enormously popular and cheesy 1970s cult children's TV series made by Sid and Marty Krofft. Instead of directly ripping off the TV script and having Rick bring a family into this prehistoric Land full of dinosaurs, primates, and Sleestak lizardmen found in a tear in the space/time continuum, the filmmakers decided to substitute Holly Cantrell (the sadly used English actress Anna Friel) for Rick's daughter, who is also called Holly. Thus, they substitute a grown woman for a little girl, even though vestiges of the original role remain when we see Holly wearing pigtails. And to substitute for Rick's son Will, the creators gave us an adult (again, with the same name, Will) in the form of a survivalist redneck played by Danny McBride.

33 year old Danny McBride plays a boorish boyish character--unsurprisingly, since Ferrell movies usually profit from amusing teenage boys with the images of grown men acting like aggressive children. Will distinguishes himself early on by holding a mug with breasts and saying "I like to call this one the perfect woman. Big boobs and no head." But for Friel, whose character gets involved in the plot due to her hero-worship of Rick, the film gives her little to do. When she's not running from a T-Rex, she's getting sexually harassed by primate Cha-Ka (who keeps grabbing at her chest) until enough time has passed for her to reasonably become Rick's love interest. At another time, as Will and Rick enjoy the stimulating effects of touching some crystal/glass portal, Will proposes that she "sit on it." Much as in last year's Stepbrothers, it's hard for women to have much of a dramatic function in these infantile movies, since childlike men by definition don't know what to do with them.

Other problems abound. Aside from its special effects and its ersatz Flintstones and Tomb Raider set designs, Land of the Lost has no real mise-en-scene. Someone makes a half-hearted effort late in the movie to cobble together a kind of post-apocalyptic postmodern desert landscape with an incongruously functional swimming pool. A hotel, the Golden Gate bridge, Big Ben, and a British phone booth all lie scattered around, half-buried in sand, but nothing in the "Land" makes any pretense of looking genuine. Land of the Lost displays the dead-end aesthetic of ironically recreating something that was already very ironic. You just end up with something inert, like small characters standing inside plastic toys in a McDonalds' Happy Meal. The original TV show at least had the built-in tension between its epic story ambitions and its tiny TV budget. The makers of the new film version spent $200+ million on set designs and special effects to fashion something nugatory--nothing, nought, zero, zilch--a film so lacking in tension, so self-aware of the stupidity of its premise that it reaches a complete stasis of perpetually winking at the audience. The people behind the movie are so busy winking, they neglected to include any reason for watching the film.

Later in the movie, in a moment that oddly evokes a similar plot point in the third act of Up, Rick has a crisis of leadership. He decides to give up, so he lies in the back of some random desert vehicle and places his hand in his pants. Will (McBride) does his part by acknowledging to Cha-Ka that he hasn't had a woman in 6 years. Then, when Rick inevitably "gives up on giving up" and returns to his leadership role, he saves the day in part by riding on a dinosaur. When Will gets his wish fulfilled by watching Rick slide, like Fred Flintstone, down of the tail of the T-Rex, he says "I have lived!" as he and the other characters continue to slowly die onscreen.


Hokahey said...

I definitely plan to avoid this "unfunny disturbing nightmare" for the many eloquently written reasons you provide - among them:

"You just end up with something inert, like small characters standing inside plastic toys in a McDonalds' Happy Meal." (We all throw out similes, but this one is inspired.)

"By being both insufficiently naughty for adults and vulgarly inappropriate for kids, the movie insults everyone simultaneously."

"The people behind the movie are so busy winking, they neglected to include any reason for watching the film."

Thanks! I really enjoyed this wonderfully written post. When my daughter, Jane, and I saw the preview, I looked at her for her assessment, and she said, "No way!" Thanks to Jane and your review I have been saved from a fate worse than ... ?

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey,

I still wonder who Ferrell has in mind as his ideal audience member. Some 34 year old guy who hasn't left his parents' house yet? What aspects of modern life do films like Stepbrothers reflect? Land of the Lost reminds me of the movie that bombs within Blake Edward's S.O.B. There's something fascinating about watching such an expensive project crash and burn, and deservedly so.

Rick Olson said...

You would have to drug me and drag me unconscious to get me into the theater for this one.

FilmDr said...


Perhaps (?) even the worst movies can yield something of interest for analysis, although watching Land of the Lost was a bit like looking into the face of the Medusa. I like Ferrell's work on his "Funny or Die" website.

Invisible Woman said...

Great review...when I saw that Will was doing this it made me a little sad inside...seems that it was justified :-(

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Invisible Woman,

I admire your ability to feel empathy for Ferrell. His work tends to fill me with alarm.