Does 'The Lost City' Herald the Return of the Action-Adventure Movie?
We're finally seeing one of Hollywood's favorite genres make a comeback.
There's a familiar refrain that goes through all our minds when we watch something made long enough ago that it feels like it comes from a totally different era: They just don't make movies like this anymore. Whether it's a mid-budget action movie or an erotic thriller, certain movies feel more and more like endangered species now that studios and audiences have felt the pull of the billion-dollar franchise blockbuster. But there's one genre that persists, and seems to be making a comeback in recent years.
The action-adventure movie, which brought us classics like Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, seemed like a dying breed in the face of the superheroes, video games, and toy franchises that have dominated Hollywood's attention in the last two decades. Transporting celebrities and camera equipment to faraway places is complicated and expensive, and it's only logical that studios would give more of their attention to stories and characters whose fanbase (and with it the promise of significant box office payoff) is already built-in. But if you're paying attention, you may notice that these movies, whose settings are often jungles and deserts and whose characters are either intrepid explorers of unknown lands or plucky adventurers in way over their heads, have been creeping back into theaters.
The Lost City, is the latest of these, starring Sandra Bullock as romance-adventure book author Loretta Sage whose material gets her kidnapped by a wealthy megalomaniac (Daniel Radcliffe in various linen suits) intent on using her know-how to find a lost treasure on a forgotten island. Her only hope of rescue is her Fabio-esque cover model Alan Caprison, played by Channing Tatum in full charming himbo mode, and the gruff, dashing mountain man Jack Trainer, a beefy and dirt-streaked Brad Pitt. "It's a big part of what made us want to go to the cinema and go on those adventures," The Lost City co-director Aaron Nee explained in an interview with Thrillist, when asked about the draw of this type of movie. "And so it's very exciting to see those opportunities coming back up and to be a part of giving audiences a chance to go and adventure again."
"I remember being a kid and seeing The Last Crusade in theaters," Aaron's co-director and brother Adam added. "Just that escapist feeling that you got from going on an adventure with Indiana Jones, and all of the twists and turns, but how it didn't take itself too seriously. That's the type of movie that I have been wanting again, my entire life." And it looks like audiences are responding, as The Lost City did remarkably well in its opening weekend, scoring $31 million in North America on its debut.
It's worth mentioning that The Lost City is more of an action-adventure-comedy, or an action-adventure-comedy-romance, a genre combo that never leans too far in any one direction. "We talked about it like we're making a Werner Herzog comedy," Adam said. "It was like Fitzcarraldo, where it was just so challenging, but I think that throwing the cast into this setting gave them the sense that the stakes are going to feel real, even though it's gonna be very funny."
The movie continues the action-adventure tradition of actually dropping actors in the rainforest and filming them for a few months (in this case, Bullock and co. filmed on location in the Dominican Republic), or, barring that, taking the care to build elaborate sets that look like they come straight from an overgrown jungle temple or a long-lost empire buried beneath the waves. There are exciting setpieces like armored car chases through a sea of trees and running from bad guys in a maze of caves, and softer moments like an impromptu dance in a local bar. It feels so much like a throwback that it's not a surprise when the Nee brothers cite Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, Romancing the Stone, and Amblin films as influences.
"The word that comes to mind for me is not just 'adventure' but 'romance,'" Aaron explained. "Not romance like in a relationship kind of way, but romancing adventure, you know, this sweeping quality. 'I'm going to take you away and we're going to go to strange forests and castles and things.' That's the kind of thing we really wanted to do with this."
In February, Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg headlined the video game adaptation of Uncharted; in 2021 Disney released their Disney Park ride tie-in movie Jungle Cruise starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson; in 2019 Nickelodeon and Paramount released a live-action Dora the Explorer movie Dora and the Lost City of Gold; the year before that Alicia Vikander took on the mantle of Tomb Raider video game heroine Lara Croft; David Grann's book about British explorer Percy Fawcett was adapted as The Lost City of Z in 2016 (whose title is parodied in Loretta Sage's latest book). Unlike the rest of these, The Lost City is completely original IP, though even within these video game adaptations and theme park ride dramatizations there is a hunger for exactly the type of story The Lost City is emulating. (And if Paramount were to license some tie-in Loretta Sage romance novels we wouldn't be mad.)
Adventure movies like these have been around since film was invented: George Méliès delighted audiences around the world with his science fiction spoof A Trip to the Moon in 1902, and Czech director Karel Zeman's midcentury fantasies Journey to the Beginning of Time and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen have gained new appreciation in recent years. Mention Pirates of the Caribbean and you'll get cinephiles crowing over the special effects and the iconic score, and Brendan Fraser's The Mummy is a stone-cold classic with a fanbase that surges forth at even the slightest mention of an appreciative tweet (the Nees revealed that Daniel Radcliffe is also a massive fan).
"When we read [the script], you know, it was in the first year of the pandemic, and it just felt like, 'Oh my gosh, this is the movie I want to see,'" Adam said. "It just felt like a warm piece of apple pie and you're just like, 'This just feels so good. This is what I want right now.' Everything we were working on was very reflective of the moment and darker and it was like no, no, this is what I want to be a part of."
"I do think that even some superhero movies capture some of that at times," he continued. "But I feel like we're all kind of hungry for just a new story that gives that same kind of feeling that those movies used to. I really hope that these movies are making a comeback. And I hope that our movie can be a part of making other studios and people go, 'Yeah, we can make these movies.'"