Sunday, December 1, 2013

Movie review: Lost Continent 1951



Well, it’s time for another movie review, and time for one of the bad movies. This week is a pretty obscure one, known mostly to only Mystery Science Theater fans.  Just say the phrase “Rock Climbing” to a MSTie and they’ll know what that means.  The film is the 1951 film Lost Continent.  It is one of the many 1950s science fiction films, but with strong influence from the Lost World genre of fiction.  It was one of the many collaborations between brothers Sam and Sigmund Newfeld and executive producer Robert Lippert (who also produced King Dinosaur).  Cesar Romero, already a star and only a few years after his service in the US Coast Guard, was chosen for the lead, with Hugh Beaumont (several years before Leave It To Beaver), John Hoyt  (before most of his film work), Sid Melton (part of a long series of minor comedy parts in Lippert films), and Whit Bissel (in his most prolific period of movie and TV work).  This was an ambitious film, not only with a large colorful cast, but also with expensive stop motion animation effects by Augie Lohman (who would later create Moby Dick for the John Huston-Gregory Peck adaptation and the effects for Soylent Green).





The film is introduced with Star War style scrolling credits and begins with military stock footage, of course, but it actually has a lot to do with the story this time.  The footage is mixed in with a scene in a military control center, setting up the premise.  An American rocket, flying over the south Pacific during a test, loses control and crash lands in unknown coordinates. Dr Phillips (Hugh Beaumont), Dr. Briggs (Whit Bissel)  and Dr. Rostov (John Hoyt) insist on recovering it. We are then introduced to the other characters as they are recruited-Major Nolan (Cesar Romero) is on a date and Sergeant Tatlow and Lieutenant Wilson are the mechanic and pilot for the air force.
A plane ride establishes their characters-the military personnel are at odds with the scientists. When they approach the rocket coordinates, the controls die and they crash land. They meet a villager (played by Aquanetta) and her brother , who explain that the rocket crashed on top of their sacred mountain. This scene sets up the next plot point: they must climb the mountain to reach their rocket. Lots of rock climbing.

Ah yes, rock climbing. The motif and the mantra of Joel and company in the Mystery Science Theater episode. The middle of this movie is focused on their ascent, and it’s excruciatingly boring. I used to save my opinions after the synopsis, but I think I’m justified in changing the format.  Joel and his robot pals went mad during this sequence. The filmmakers attempt punch up this dull middle with a few scenes: the group encounters poison gas (“What’s a little poison gas?”), during a night’s storm Rostov sees a giant lizard, and at one point Briggs’ heart gives out and he falls to his death.  Unfortunately, the lizard is fake and brief, the poison gas does little to the plot and adds no excitement, and Briggs has had so little screentime and lines than his demise is not tragic. The fact that they quickly move on after only a very brief moment of grief doesn’t help the pathos.  Then back to rock climbing; a lot of rock climbing


About an hour into the movie, they finally reach the top and find a lush plateau full of tropical vegetation.  It’s about at this point that Nolan and Wilson begin to distrust Rostov (“I don’t think anything”), suspecting him of having ulterior motives.  Their suspicion grows when Phillips and Rostov find traces of uranium under the soil and show a great deal of enthusiasm for the find.  Fortunately, that’s when the dinosaurs come in. 

First, Phillips identifies a huge fresh print as prehistoric. “My calendar says 20th century AD not 100 million BC!” Nolan objects,  but the next scene has Tatlow spot a Brontosaurus.  With a roar, it attacks the party. Phillips is treed, but that’s a really bad idea with a hungry sauropod! Being a 1951 movie, however, the army guys brought their guns, and Nolan and Wilson drive off the dinosaur.  That night,  while Phillips and Wilson ponder their situation, and Rostov shows a great deal of interest in the radiation (causing more antagonism from Nolan). The next morning, Phillips and Rostov are gone, and the rest find them nearby-Phillips is pinned by a rock and Rostov is menaced by a Triceratops.  Nolan vents at Phillips but the Triceratops charges. This time they’re rescued by another Triceratops. As the ceratopsian duel to the death, the party manages to free Phillips and escapes. 
The next scene is the emotional climax during a smoke break-Nolan apologizes to Rostov for his suspicions, but Rostov understands and explains his past “First in one of Hitler’s concentration camps, then my wife and unborn child died in another with Russian-made barb wire. It doesn’t change that much”.   Phillips and Rostov then exposit that volcanic gas is building up underneath the plateau and that the radiation trail to the rocket has died off, making their situation hopeless.  Wilson despairs, but Nolan takes command and sternly rallies the rest, reminding them of their mission and their common situation. “So I’ll spit in their eye”, Wilson snipes. 

Wilson, hunting for food, brings down a pterosaur, and the animal lands next to the rocket. Then two Triceratops and Brontosaurus show up.  Nolan quickly makes up a plan-the scientists will go get vital information tapes from the rocket while Wilson and Tatlow will distract the dinosaurs.  The plan works, and the dinosaurs are scared off.  But no sooner than the scientists complete their task than the Triceratops returns, killing Tatlow. A few bullets to the face prevent it from finishing them off. 
The falling action of the movie is the climb down, interrupted by a remarkably dull earthquake.  They manage to escape aboard one of the natives’ catamarans as the island collapses (?!) behind them.  And with that, the film abruptly ends.

I really do try to sympathize with this movie. It’s ambitious, it has strong performances,  the plot is solid for an adventure hook, and the dinosaurs are quite well done despite not being nearly as well done as O’Brien or Harryhausen.  However, this is solidly a bad movie and a real dud of one.  Sid Melton has decent comedic timing, but his lines aren’t very funny. Most of his character is obsessing over planes.  Wilson, being the stock army guy, is just plain annoying. Cesar Romero has a few effective scenes, but really has little to do and it takes multiple viewings to figure out that he’s supposed to be the hero.  

Of course, the main problem is the middle act. Nobody likes to see endless walking and climbing in a movie. It’s really boring. Imagine if Lord of the Rings had even more endless scenes of the Fellowship walking around Middle Earth, or Frodo and Sam across Mordor. Instead, montages and editing were used to keep the story moving. No such luck here.  Instead, very little dialogue is exchanged for 20 minutes as the characters just keep climbing. The middle part of any story must be handled carefully-it’s a problem that’s kept me from finishing many of my own stories. This film doesn’t even try.

The final third, despite the dinosaurs, has a great deal of problems. Rostov is suddenly suspected and just as quickly forgiven instead of a long arc. The tension between the military and the scientists was never explored before and is never resolved. The dinosaurs, being so expensive, really are cameos and have very little to do with the plot. By the time the party reaches the plateau, it’s too late for anything interesting to happen.  The models, while pretty good compared to other attempts (witness Beast of Hollow Mountain) and certainly worth the cost (witness King Dinosaur), are still not worthy of Delgado and the animation lacks the character of Willis O’Brien, despite a few interesting touches such as the homage to King Kong’s Brontosaur attack.  

Of course, after finding the rocket, there’s the problem of ending the film, and the film botches that, too.  The earthquake is given one line of foreshadowing, and it’s hard to make out what’s to blame.  Like the 1960 Lost World, this natural disaster is given more time than the animals, and destroys the lost world for no good reason.  Was there a compulsion to just kill off anything weird or challenging to the status quo? Is it because natural disasters are cheaper to film and just as exciting for some people? Either way,  the earthquake adds nothing.   The ending of the film is incredibly abrupt as well; there are no character resolutions, there’s no upside or reward to the whole mission; we never see either female character again, and there’s no dialogue whatsoever.  At least in the horrid out-of-no-where climax of King Dinosaur, they attempted some sort of bizarre comment on the destruction.

Lost Continent is a film that can be watched without Joel, Crow, and Tom, but it certainly helps a great deal to have them along for levity. While the banter and Sid Melton’s  entire character suggest high-spirits, the slow glum crawl up the mountain and the shocking brutal deaths of two of the characters (neither of which have much of impact to the story) prevent any real fun. So I’d say you have two choices; the MST3k episode http://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Science-Theater-XVIII-Continent/dp/B003CNQPNI or with the channel skip at your fingertips. I give it 42/100 for the dated charm, some good performances, and the dinosaurs

3 comments:

  1. The most i remember of this movie is the shoes. Weird, but I kept thinking "who wears leather-soled street shoes on a hike?"

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    1. It's the 50s. These guys were smoking while climbing a mountain. I'm surprised they didn't climb in suits and ties.

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