[16 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Wow - did we have Brad Silberling all wrong. The director of this past Summer blankbuster Land of the Lost wasn’t insane when he decided to turn the beloved Sid and Marty Krofft semi-serious sci-fi kid show classic from the ‘70s into an over-meta irreverent romp. He wasn’t misguided when he cast Will Ferrell as the heroic father figure, Danny McBride as his snide sidekick, and Pushing Daises’ Anna Friel as a decidedly grown-up female adventurer. Every oddball turn - the exploring of sexual and scatological boundaries, the surrealism by way of Stuckey’s production design, the complete and utter reinvention and perversion of every character and concept forwarded by the original - was preplanned and approved by a studio that saw nothing but dollar signs. But after it bombed, barely covering a small percentage of its elephantine budget, dissatisfied viewers still apparently have the right to question his decisions.
The answers can be found on the commentary track to the newly released Blu-ray version of the film. Loaded with the kind of self-affirming explanations that help someone sleep at night, Silberling makes one thing very clear - everything you see onscreen was done on purpose, accomplished to take his memories of geekdom over the Saturday morning show and twist them into a pure post-modern mess. For this director, perhaps best known for guiding the first (and so far, only) Lemony Snicket film, as well as Caspar and City of Angels, there is nothing insulting here, nothing disrespectful to the nature of what Sid and Marty once created. For him, it’s all about artistic choices, about allowing his actors to adlib in surefire comedy creativity. So what if some of the humor is inappropriate, or even worse, unsuccessful. It’s all part of a bigger picture production ideal, one based on paying homage to the TV treasure while dumping all over it at the same time. If you can figure that backwards logic, you will love this film. If you can’t, a pristine 1080p image isn’t going to save you.
The story finds research scientist Dr. Will Marshall as a laughing stock. With everyone from Stephen Hawking to Today ‘s Matt Lauer mocking his theories, he’s been reduced to a running joke among local grade school science classes. When a visiting Oxford gal named Holly Cantrell comes calling, she wants to know about the success Marshall has had with his hypothetical time travel device. Sadly, it’s very little. Inspired by her sudden interest in his work, our hero fashions his amazing machine, and the pair go to test it at a local “mystery” spot. There they meet proprietor Will Stanton, a crude man with an even more rudimentary grasp on reality. Suddenly, Marshall’s contraption causes a spike in prevailing “tachyons”, and soon the trio is sent hurtling down a raging rapids and through a waterfall-inspired vortex. Waking up, they find themselves in the proverbial ‘Land of the Lost’, an oddball universe filled with ape creatures, lizard men, and rampaging dinosaurs.
Take Step Brothers, remove all the sibling rivalry humor, insert plenty of pee and poop gags, set it all in a surreal backlot that’s half Dino-Lion Country Safari, half Salvador Dali product placement dreamscape, and then pump as much Ferrell and McBride at the audience as possible. Call in the Kroffts, give the old coots a paycheck, and name the creation Land of the Lost. Then, sit back and watch as audiences…well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it. This remake/reboot/reimagining of the ‘70s stalwart about a family suddenly stuck in time and space is so uneven, so scattered in both approach and tone, that you don’t know whether to laugh or wince, shudder or simply stand up and walk out of the theater. If this is what $150 million buys today, then our country is really in a complete and utter economic meltdown.
Though he denies it in his discussion, part of the blame for this overripe frat house flop goes directly to Silberling. As the commentary makes abundantly clear, he feels that the best way to handle the Krofft’s cracked fantasy realm is to simply stick smarmy actors in the middle of a glorified greenscreen and let them riff until something salvageable can be created. It’s actually not a wholly bad idea. When placed in the right realm, Ferrell and McBride can be electric. They can be and usually are funnier than numerous lame laugh-fest wannabes. But here, they do nothing but tread water - and they do so poorly. We except a certain level of irreverence from the duo. What we get instead is an attitude so mocking that it makes the whole experience pointless. If the people on screen aren’t taking things at least semi-seriously, why should we.
This is not to say that Ferrell and McBride are bad, or miscast. Indeed, they are only playing to their orchestrated strengths and to an audience ready to lap up every bit of their anger-spawned spoofing. But like Mike Myers in The Love Guru, this is a film for confirmed fans only - and even that’s a stretch, quality wise. Anyone hoping to glimpse a bit of the old Land of the Lost magic will wince when the Sleestaks are transformed into Alien rip-offs, or when beloved Neanderthal Chaka turns out to be a hopeless horndog. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking a nostalgic favorite from several decades ago (right, The Brady Bunch Movie?). But this version pisses all over the original - literally. Indeed, there is a sequence dealing with dinosaur urine that has to go down in history as one of the most pointless bits of forced scatology ever.
But the biggest mistake that this Land of the Lost makes is the total disregard for the sci-fi setting created. Nothing is ever explained here - not even when plot point Enik shows up to send the narrative careening off into heroes and villain mode. Leonard Nimoy’s cameo is cast aside with complete disregard, and the ending is given over to cheap F/X and stunt work. Yet we’d buy all the bumbling and burlesque if we just understood the rules of this particular parallel space. Why the various derelict ships (including a couple of flying saucers)? Why the old school motel with convenient pool (ready for a pointless drug dream montage)? If the dinosaurs and Sleestaks don’t get along, how did they survive each other until now? And why does everything in this particular domain revolve around feces, phlegm, and numerous man/animal bodily fluids? Of course, once we hear the reasoning (in both the alternative narrative and the endless bonus features which produce their own kind of cynical backslapping), it still makes no sense.
For those who like their satire glib, snide, and on the decidedly stupid side, Land of the Lost may satisfy. It defiantly builds up a big head of silly steam trying. But in the end, the lack of any real affection for the original series will ward off the Krofft faithful, and Ferrell’s fans haven’t actually been reliable when it comes to making his movie’s consistently successful (right, Semi-Pro and Stranger than Fiction?). Indeed, the only demographic assured of enjoying themselves are the same ADD-addled viewership that makes random hit or (mostly) miss shows like Family Guy a Fox favorite. In fact, if you didn’t see the other names listed among the credits, you’d swear Seth MacFarlane and his band of comedically challenged cronies were responsible for this hopeless hatchet job. As long as you enjoy the actors involved, Land of the Lost will mostly deliver. If you don’t, you’ll vanish into an entertainment void all your own - which might be what Silberling had in mind all along.