Movie Review: ‘Land’ gets lost in silliness

18 Jun

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Land of the Lost (2009) (PG-13) 101 min.  directed by: Brad Siberling. Starring: Will Ferrell, Ana Friel, Danny McBride, John Boylan. cinematography: Dion Beebe original score: Michael Giacchino.

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I wasn’t expecting epic storytelling or thoughtful science when I went into Land of the Lost.  It obviously doesn’t have those things and neither did the original series. What I was hoping for was a reasonably exciting adventure, some good laughs and most importantly a creative use of the prehistoric setting. Unfortunately, what we get instead is a series of Will Ferrel bathroom jokes, out of place sexual references and a ‘plot’ that basically consists of notes taken on a napkin while browsing through an episode of the original series.

I barely remember the original Land of the Lost, and refreshing myself with a few youtube clips verifies the utter silliness of it, but the one thing it did have was a coherent and somewhat interesting story(if you were a sci-fi obsessed adolescent as I was) that took itself seriously but not too seriously. All of the amateur fx, doltish acting and downright wierd characters  made it silly, not its intentions. Land of the Lost 2009 has no other intention than to be silly, mawkish and self- aware. Its so afraid of being sincere that it purposely sabotages any scene that even hints at character development, drama or a fleshed-out storyline.  In doing this, it completely undermines itself and destroys what could have been a fun time at the movies in favor of a Will Ferrell SNL skit with cartoon dinosaurs.

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When the movie ended, my wife and I considered what had gone wrong. I personally think its a matter of tone and intent. Land of the Lost is less like the current crop of remakes ( it posesses no obvious respect for its source material) and more like the film adaptations of tv shows that appeared during the 90s; The Flinstones, Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch and we could go on.

Each one of those movies didn’t trust(and maybe rightly so) a modern audience to accept its premise and characters without snickering, so it did the snickering for them. Now, Lost comes along with Ferrell as Rick Marshall, a paleontologist studying wormholes;Anna Friel as Holly, the scientist who believes in him after everyone in the world (including Matt Lauer) has laughed at him; and Danny McBride as Will, an arrogant redneck tour guide who is accidentally along for the ride when the scientists trigger a portal through time that warps them into a prehistoric land. There are a few more characters that reflect the odd world of the original series; an ape-man named Cha-Ka whose primary attributes are leering and groping, a reptilian creature named Enik who belongs to the savage tribe of Sleestacks, and a smart-ass Tyranosaur nicknamed ‘Grumpy’ who lives to harrass Rick.

Once you understand those elements, thats all there really is to this incarnation of Land of the Lost. I recognized aspects of the original series, including the mysterious ‘Pylon’ that allows it’s occupants to travel between worlds, but I didn’t recognize any of the tone. A reasonable adventure could have been assembled from the pieces, but there is no faith in the subject matter and the script doesn’t even attempt to tap into its resources. Its as if the filmmakers only set before themselves two objectives: make it LOOK like the original show and let Ferrell carry the rest of the movie with dinosaur pee jokes and ungainly slapstick. McBride gets to tag-team with Ferrell often, but Friel might as well not be there at all. Shes lovely and talented but thats one more attribute than the movie requires her to have, so forget about the talent part. 

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If you have studied time travel for years and are now suddenly deposited in a world that runs on the very essence of your beliefs wouldn’t you respond with more wonder than Marshall does here? There is no sense of  amazement or excitement or even much danger. When Ferrell accidentally pole-vaults into a dinosaur’s mouth (no really, he does that, I swear) the only worry we have is how extreme the eventual reveal of his evacuation from said dinosaur’s bowels will be. To the movie’s credit, we don’t have to worry about seeing Ferrell’s head surrounded by a CGI sphincter.

It also hurts that Land isn’t funny. I’m a big fan of Ferrell’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby but thats because the movie understands what it is and in addition to Will’s charm as a comedian, that film had talented and ingenious writers that made the cascades of craziness take on a certain surreal logic. The writers of Land of the Lost don’t bother to be clever or witty and they don’t bother to even consider making anyone sound like a real person. Ferrell falls flat in movies where he is expected to provide all the humor. I think he has a certain presence that works and he can certainly play an audience, but unlike some of the better performers before him, he can do very little if the writing isn’t already working in his favor. Outside of one great gag involving the sound distorting properties of the Pylon and a Ferrell/McBride duet of Cher’s “Life After Love”, I found myself straining to discover the humor in LOL(which never actually happened for me).  

I’m not sure what happened here, but I was actually a little surprised that the movie never finds its rythym because there is clear care and detail placed on desiging the world of the new film to mirror and evoke the original series. Brad Siberling, a relatively gifted director that usually puts his talent to the service of big-budget studio vehicles, is more a chameleon than a man of original vision. He directed City of Angels and managed to give the film a near arthouse look that suggested a more canny and thoughtful director. When Lemony Snicket required Tim Burton but could not nab him for the job, Siberling came in and developed a film that didn’t just look like Burton but mostly felt like him down to everything but that director’s own unique affection for the outcast.

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Here, that knack for pitch-perfect replication is put to uncanny use. Land of the Lost doesn’t look like a big budget summer project as much as it looks like an extrapolated version of a cheap 70s retr0-design, which it is. The sleestacks resemble almost completely the ones from the original and the world within the Pylon looks just like a universe you might find on the original Dr. Who series. Even the dinosaurs, realized through CGI, have been crafted to suggest and homage the goofy, herky jerky movements of stop-motion critters. All of that works. I look at the film and recognize that universe, and I also see the ways it has been expanded; particularly the portal dumping grounds that features random landmarks like a viking ship, downed aircraft and what might be the Golden Gate Bridge.

And yet, why bother with all of that wonderful detail if it isn’t supported by a story or characters that we are even supposed to care about? Big budget comedies are definitely hard to pull off and I understand the desire to either focus on the thrills or the laughs, but consider movies like Ghostbusters or Big Trouble in Little China that took silly premises and built a stable story and strong characters around them and then allowed the performers and the script to generate the laughs. No one involved in Land of the Lost seems to really care about it and thats the real problem. I would have glady watched a goofy adventure with unrealistic events and over-the-top gags if it had been but tied into a story with any discernable structure or momentum. Alas, all of that has been lost in translation.  

 

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