Monday, June 08, 2009

I'm just here for the Sleestaks

Spoiler Alert! There are none. If you have seen the trailers then you have already seen the 'best' the 2009 film The Land of the Lost has to offer.

Since I am such a big fanatic of the original 1970s Land of the Lost television show I know that several people are expecting some angry, unhinged rant about the new movie along lines familiar to those who visit Star Trek forums regarding the reboot film. Other than a few humorous and not so serious gags aside I'm going to have to disappoint. As a fan of science fiction I know what I wanted to see in a LotL movie and the recent entry that opened this week to nearly universally poor reviews and a flat box office was definitely not it.

Simply put, it was not a very good film.

One of the creative problems barring success when adapting television shows to the cinema is the limitations of the broadcast format. Even the shortest story arc can be contained within a short time span of a half hour to an hour because their is a certain freedom to long form story telling that will gradually reveal over weeks. Some shows adapt easily to the big screen and the limited amount of time in which to tell a story and some do not. Star Trek was able to carry that television sensibility to the theaters with some success. There was enough interest from the existing audience of fans to keep the franchise afloat. Recently, faced with the reality of audience indifference the Trek brand was forced to retool the concept and and discard the television format, breathing new life into the Star Trek universe.

The original 1970s children's television show The Land of the Lost is one of those shows that was admittedly limited by the realities of television. However in spite of the Saturday morning budget and inexpensive special effects what made the show somewhat of a success and a small cult favorite were the stories.

The original series always played the science fiction elements as straight and even with the primitive green screen effects and sometimes over-the-top acting it worked, mainly due to the series being high-concept and high budget in spirit if nothing else. This is what the 2009 big screen treatment of The Land of the Lost is missing. In the attempt to distance the product from its "cheesy" origins and start over the film was retooled. However unlike Star Trek the re-imagined Land of the Lost will not share in the critical and financial success of the Roddenberry creation. The Land of the Lost is something of a squandered opportunity. Most films plan for at least a sequel or at most a trilogy over several years exploiting the desire of the audience to see more of the characters or events they care about. This is what brings people back to a television show week after week (and what proves troublesome when giving a serialized show the cinema treatment). The Land of the Lost franchise as it was presented in 2009 will very likely not create many financial opportunities in the future.

The story is particularly troublesome as while it is not complex, it may have been too much for the Director to handle. Often during the film often a character will say or do something in the beginning of a scene which is abandoned halfway through or forgotten about in the next sentence. It is particularly glaringly obvious during the Library of Skulls scene and may have a lot to do with the alleged comedy bits, notably focusing on Will Ferrell. Primarily, what was a problem was the mediocre comedic direction taken by the film. Had the Land of the Lost remained closer to its children's television origins and scared the pants off of the audience then it could have had the opportunity to spawn at least a sequel. There is ample proof that "Hard SF" can be successful at the box office, Star Trek and Batman being two recent examples. What is exceptionally disappointing is that under the right direction Will Ferrell has shown he can act a serious part, as he did a fine dramatic though absurdist role in Stranger Than Fiction. Like Adam Sandler and many other comedians they do their best work when their star power is reigned in and the film does not depend upon their one-liners or wacky facial expressions to carry it.

With a movie that is all about inter-dimensional travel many of the special effects were uninspired. This may have been an intentional homage to the limited budget sets and effects of the 1970s show but it seems odd that the production design would go that way when everything else about the film attempted some creative distance from the source material. There are plenty of references to the original series but they came off as trying too hard and like the humor felt forced into the scenes.

Visually the Sleestak are pretty much the main reason to even see the film or for that matter to watch the original show. Their back story was sad and inspired, another element of the serious tone of the original series that the film discarded. The giant, humanoid predatory lizards were upgraded and the charm of the 1970s series was not abandoned and they have a few new creepy features courtesy of improved prosthetic technology and CGI. Were it not for the frightening reveal of the rows of dentata this movie could have been aimed at more of a family audience with greater success, much like Journey to the Center of the Earth. One of the clues that the film would be a flop was that no action figures were released to any stores in my area and that is a sign that marketing and retailers have little confidence in the success of the film translating into store sales. Another is the lame attempt to create a new catch-phrase in the public consciousness by forcing a stupid joke down our throats by using a familiar daytime talk show host.

It isn't even that what made the film a failure is that it went with a comedic approach though it is clear I would have preferred the more serious style of Science Fiction. Any script whether it be dramatic, surreal or full of toilet jokes could be a critical and financial success if it was good and well-executed. Doctor Who and Red Dwarf are excellent entries in that style. The 2009 Land of the Lost movie is just bad and a very poor effort. It appears clear that the entire production was tailored for whatever Will Ferrell thought would work in a skit. But rejected SNL vignettes do not a movie make.

Look for the DVD to be out on the store shelves by August if not by the end of July. The original ending to the film including the cameos by Kathy Coleman and Wesley Eure that ended up being discarded in the final cut should be included in the release.

13 comments:

  1. Yeah, that is all pretty much what I was thinking this was gonna be like. Too bad, though. Definitely an opportunity wasted. Can't see any company getting behind a well-done "Land of the Lost" movie for a long time now.

    Oh well... :(

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  2. Yep, I was definitely one of those curious to know your reaction tthe movie -- especially since (unlike most film critics) you're a fan of the original series. It's good to know that the Sleestaks, at least, received some decent treatment. They used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid. As for the rest of the film, I suspected it was doomed the minute I heard Will Ferrell was in the cast ("Oh, jeez, they're gonna try to FORCE it to be funny, and it'll fall completely flat.") It's a shame the movie isn't good, but at the same time, it also shouldn't impact the charm of the original series.

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  3. Yeah. Just as I thought. Folks ought to leave the Sid and Marty Kroft world alone.

    Unless they can get Guillermo Del Toro to write and direct Puffinstuff.

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  4. Ouch. I was pretty sure it would be awful, but I was hoping against hope it might be salvagable.

    Great, it'll be another twenty years before it can be tried again ...

    Take it and run,

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  5. Sorry to hear that Sleestak.

    My sympathies.

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  6. So yeah, the franchise is dead for at least 10 years because of this.

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  7. I got a Land of the Lost compass key chain and small woman's LOL t-shirt I'll send you as a consolation if you're interested.

    But that may be salt in the wounds.

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  8. I'm always up for free stuff, but unfortunately I don't know any small women.

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  9. Haley Mills wears a small t-shirt. I see an opportunity there for you.

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  10. This might be a "Howard the Duck" level franchise-killer. Howard was well regarded until George Lucas turned him into paté with what is regarded as one of the few worst movies of all time. Now, mention Howard, and everyone knows him from that movie instead of from the Steve Gerber comics.

    Nice thoughtful review. I have a long review up on my blog (well, my last few posts have been LOTL-related)

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  11. Oh, it's not that bad. The situation, I mean, not the movie.

    Sci-fi is almost endlessly malleable, and its fans are notoriously tolerant of even the most blatant retcons. I haven't seen the movie yet, but consider the setting: an alternate universe with a history of time-travel elements and character "doubles". Hell, even a half-assed writer could explain away the events of the first movie enough to clear the field for a sequel.

    Think of LOTL 2K9 as a proof-of-concept experiment. Then imagine it being picked up by the SciFi channel or Showtime and worked over a la "Stargate". Man that was a crappy movie, but the TV show has been pretty good. And LOTL belongs on TV in the first place. Maybe it just needed a film to kick-start the process.

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