Not that all films about white people having transformative experiences in the South American jungle are created equal or are meant to be, but consider that Aguirre, the Wrath of God came out in 1972, is an "everybody must see this and bow down in awe of its sublimity"-level masterpiece, and is made of up 95 minutes of constant propulsion into madness. Now consider that The Lost City of Z, 45 years later, has like 15 different plots over the course of 141 minutes. The core of it is the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who in the first decade of the 20th Century was assigned by the Royal Geographic Society to map out the Bolivia/Brazil border. Over the next 20 years, he returned to the Amazon jungle many times after that, growing ever-increasingly certain that he was hot on the trail of a previously unknown civilization or the ruins thereof, which he lovingly referred to as "Z".

I have not read David Grann's 2009 book from which writer-director James Gray adapted The Lost City of Z, but I imagine that it has much the same structure: Fawcett goes, then he comes back, then he goes, then he comes back, then he g- OOPS, WORLD WAR I JUST BROKE OUT then he sits around recovering from his war wounds, then he goes. That's fine for a book of reportage, in which narrative cleanliness is not a factor. It's also, actually, fine for a movie: The Lost City of Z is basically the same story with basically the same themes (man goes to a far-off country and grows obsessed with it, then keeps returning at the increasing expense of his family back home) as The Hurt Locker and especially American Sniper, and both of those turned out perfectly well. The thing about The Lost City of Z - what's both very interesting about it, and also, ultimately, what's broken-down and dysfunctional about it - is the way it tries clutter that structure with every idea ever, while also adopting the tone of a dry history rather than of an actual, like, movie.

The Lost City of Z commits hard to the idea that real life has a decidedly unsatisfying narrative flow: unlike The Hurt Locker or American Sniper (the latter also a biopic, lest we forget), it doesn't even think about presenting one clear line from start to finish. In the first scene, we're introduced to Fawcett's chafing at the ruthless class structure of every aspect of British life, by the end we've arrived at a spiritual transformation into something beyond the human, along the way we pause for a too-long war sequence and messages about how the leaders of the British Empire were smug racists. One scene pipes up to desperately talk about gender roles among 1910s British progressives, but the film is much too full to do anything with it, so it just sits there, calling attention to itself.

There is absolutely no flow to any of this (Fawcett's sympathy for the natives of the Amazon jungle is probably an echo of his resentment as a "lesser" Briton, but I'm doing the movie's work for it in drawing that connection), just a bunch of scenes that take place in order because historically, that's how it all happened. Certainly, there's only the flimsiest sense of causal linkages, and even Fawcett himself, the glue holding this together, has two distinct personality shifts over the course of the movie without any clear indication why or when. The whole film feels more like a chronicle than a story - a chronicle without dates being properly ascribed, at that (depending on the scene, chronological jumps are marked by the year, the year and month, or in one case the year, month, and date; or more often by nothing at all, and we get to play a fun game of "how in the hell did four years pass just now?"). To a certain extent, I admire this: the willingness to hold history at an emotional remove and play its character study as a dry, objective study of behavior without interrogating the psychological activity driving that behavior is unexpected and largely interesting. Hunnam's performance is just good enough to imply an inner life that we can guess at without actually seeing, and the whole thing functions as a pretty cool history lesson.

As a movie? Eh. The Lost City of Z is enormously handsome, at least, between Darius Khondji's plunging black cinematography and Sonia Grande's vivid, comfortably worn costume designs, and the inherent beauty of the South American jungle (the film, set mostly in Bolivia and Brazil, was shot in Colombia). If it succeeds at nothing else, the film wonderfully captures the sense of overwhelming presence that drives Fawcett's actions: the depiction of the jungle is heavy on the atmosphere, the sound mix, the painterly skew of colors into the yellows and golds. It's all a nice contrast with the scenes back in England and Ireland, generally the film's most dramatically focused and visually creative. The deliberate, almost geometric choreography of characters in European spaces is, in its way, just as much about discovery and objective remove as the scenes of the jungle: the film is something of an ethnography about an ethnographer in this sense. It's a bit of a chilly intellectual game, shifting between different modes of artistic detachment along with the shift in continents, but Gray and crew make it work.

Still, chilly intellectualism is a dangerous game to play in cinema, and it takes a more aggressive filmmaker with more overt, clear designs on what the movie is doing to put over. Considered as an aesthetic object, The Lost City of Z is satisfying without being particularly special, and considered as a story, it's not even that. The film keeps drawing close to an ending and then continuing on; it makes no distinctions between what is interesting, what is useful, and what's just filler (the WWI scene, in particular, is wildly out of place). It drags in several characters played by recognisable faces, who seem like they're going to be important, with complex lives of their own - Fawcett's wife Nina (Sienna Miller), traveling partner Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), teenage son Jack (Tom Holland), adventuring biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), and the whole of the Royal Geographic Society - only to leave them window dressing for Fawcett's own history. It hammily plonks out Messages about colonialism, without actually dealing with it. The last of these is the most irritating, maybe: just in 2015 we got the wonderful Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent, which told an extraordinarily similar story from the natives' perspective, and still managed to have more clearly-etched European characters to boot. It's also prettier, and better-edited. So anyway, definitely go see Embrace of the Serpent, and as for The Lost City of Z? I dunno. Don't not see it.