In Hollywood, shorthand for romance and empowerment is “colonialism.” Showrunners and directors have long sent their characters to exotic locations to showcase their special abilities or personal growth. From Iron Fist, Dr. Strange and Batman heading East for mystical martial arts powers to James Bond seducing and murdering his way through former British possessions to Harley Quinn pounding the tar of halls full of non- burly whites, the non-Western world has long been a prop for stories of white empowerment.
Even movies that recognize the problems of colonial narratives can’t always figure out how to empower their (white) characters without it.
Adam and Aaron Nee’s new adventure rom-com “The Lost City” doesn’t exactly challenge those tropes, but it does try to soften and deflate them. This makes it a more thoughtful and touching film. But it also underscores that even movies that recognize the problems of colonial narratives can’t always figure out how to empower their (white) characters without it.
The film stars best-selling novelist Loretta Sage (played by Sandra Bullock). Five years ago, Loretta lost her archaeologist husband and she is still struggling with her grief. She’s finally finished a new romance novel about a remote Amazonian people she and her husband studied in real life.
Enter bizarre billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), who believes Loretta can help her translate clues to an ancient treasure. When she refuses, he kidnaps her. Her cover model Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum) hires rugged adventurer Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) to rescue Loretta — then accompanies her because he has a crush on her.
The configuration recalls the classic 1980s rom-com “Romancing the Stone”, up to and including the parallel steamy dance scene. But he doesn’t quite have the pizzazz of the prototype: Tatum is OK as a clumsy, impatient himbo, but he can’t match the grumpy charisma of Michael Douglas. Bullock holds her end however, limping through the jungle in high heels, a purple jumpsuit and a load of exasperated weariness – all of which she puts aside with surprised aplomb when she suddenly comes face to face with the nether regions covered of Alan’s leeches.
As in “Romancing the Stone”, the joke is that the protagonist’s fictional novels come true. Loretta wrote a bunch of frankly silly stories channeling “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – and Alan dressed up as the main character shirtless. Now, suddenly, they’re living the story: climbing cliffs, starting fires, and dodging mean men. Loretta and Alan just need to get out of the United States, and they can be different, bigger people in a more exciting landscape. This colonial fantasy is largely true: the world is there for you, if you are the white citizen of a superpower; you just need to go out and inhabit it.
Generally, whites seek not only power abroad, but treasure. “The Lost City”, however, is careful to condemn colonial greed. Fairfax wants to find money and prestige abroad, but he’s the bad guy. Loretta is more motivated by her sentimental connection to archaeological research; this trip is a tribute to her husband. And Alan just wants to make Loretta happy. (This latest dynamic allows Bullock to continue her string of films in which much younger men are utterly dazzled by her, reversing the usual Hollywood gendered script.)
Generally, whites seek not only power abroad, but treasure. “The Lost City”, however, is careful to condemn colonial greed.
“The Lost City” also goes out of its way to make sure the viewer knows that Loretta and Alan are fighting and sending in mercenaries, not islanders. And the film’s conclusion doesn’t tie true happiness to vast stolen riches (as it does in “Romancing the Stone”). Instead, the film ultimately tells how grief is a universally understood experience. Emotional charge is connection, not ownership.
Nevertheless, the vestiges of appropriation are difficult to eliminate. Main local character Rafi (played by Héctor Aníbal) gets his own mini-arc, but the story isn’t about him. His country and his heritage still serve primarily as a setting for the growth, excitement, danger, and sexy flirtation of some white Americans.
None of this is to say the movie is bad. If, like me, you enjoy this genre, the film is quite good. It’s a well-written, frothy comedy, with engaging leads, a witty script, and a deserved, genuinely thoughtful twist at the end.
Yet the appeal of “The Lost City” cannot be separated from the expectations of the colonial genre. Loretta and Alan are goofy and endearing, and you want them to take on the scenery in their own lives. But Hollywood can apparently only imagine them doing this in a setting where they also implicitly own other people’s landscapes.