If you spend any time on the fringier parts of the internet, or have ever said “lamestream media” and meant it, you might be familiar with the treasure hauls of the Grand Canyon. From an Arizona newspaper in 1909, came stories of G. E. Kincaid, a collector for the renowned Smithsonian Institute, finding an entire ancient city, of Egyptian descent, deep underneath the Grand Canyon, full of ancient weapons and gold and other such gems of a lost civilisation. The Smithsonian, for some reason, hid all evidence of this, as none of the finds from both that expedition and the one that followed a few months later were ever put on public display or even acknowledged. We have researcher David Childress to thank for much of this information, as he did investigative work in the early 90s.
Of course, this is all garbage. The newspaper article was a hoax, as were so many of the time (it being the height of the “yellow journalism” trend – my favourite was a lost city in rural Missouri, which of course turned out to be nothing at all). These hoaxes were able to exist because in the age before the widespread use of the car, it was pretty difficult to get into the middle of nowhere to check whether the ancient buried city was really there and because by tomorrow’s paper we were all on to the next crazy claim (how times have changed, eh?), but that’s not stopped a whole industry of charlatans making money from the overly credible. Kincaid never existed, there’s nothing of the sort in the Grand Canyon, the Smithsonian covered nothing up, and David Childress is one of the very worst of the modern snake-oil salesmen, who barely even manages to look like he believes it himself during one of his many TV appearances on the History Channel. I can’t emphasise strongly enough that none of this is true, at all.
But, truth doesn’t stop you from telling a good story, and SyFy has told a good story here. Feeling like it was written by someone who swallowed Childress’ tale hook, line and sinker, but who could still craft a decent character and have some fun, we’ve got a movie set around the time of the hoax (date is never mentioned, but from the state of the clothes, tents and equipment, it’s about then). Dr Samuel Jordan is leading an expedition into the Grand Canyon to find this alleged hoard, when he and his party are captured by mysterious indeterminately-ethnic people. The other half of his party go looking for him, and pick up a few stragglers along the way.
For a SyFy movie, this is a great cast. Head of the expedition, and secret good guy, is Jacob Thain (Michael Shanks, “Stargate SG-1”). Jordan’s daughter Susan is Shannon Doherty, who’d by this point probably realised she was never going to be that big a name again. Potential love interest for Susan and obviously a secret douchebag is Marco Langford (JR Bourne, a great “That Guy” actor). Feminist scientist and sort-of-a-douchebag is Hildy Wainwright (Heather Doerksen, “Fringe”, “Cabin In The Woods”). Rounding things out are a guy who’s sort of dull and just…on the expedition for no reason, a journalist who’s also kinda the comic relief, and the sole survivor from the attack on Jordan’s party.
They find the secret entrance to the Egyptian / Aztec mashup civilisation and we’re on for action and adventure, as they try and rescue the Dad, maybe steal some artifacts and develop some love connections, or not (spoilers!) There’s that thing where they have to translate some ancient symbols to open doors, and so on, where Thain comes in handy – he’s super smart as well as being a little aloof – and Langford isn’t, because he just keeps triggering traps with his impatience, including getting one of the team killed with an axe to the head.
The primary thing to say about all this is, it’s extremely standard stuff. You’ll see the twists coming from a mile off, and there are no surprises at all. But, that’s not always a bad thing, because we’ve covered dozens of SyFy movies where they couldn’t even be bothered to get the basic story building blocks right. A good solid adventure story set among a lost civilisation, where everything happens for a reason, is a pleasant rarity for that channel. There’s also a pleasantly light tone, bringing to mind the “Librarian” TV movies and a very distant Indiana Jones cousin.
Also, kudos to the set designer, or the guy who found the sets. They walk through an outpost town and it’s being built around them, which is a quietly clever move. So many Western towns look old and worn out because I think that’s what we expect, but here we see the beginning of that, which also conveniently hides that the movie was building the set too. Everything was new once! And it also looks like they filmed near an actual canyon (up in Canada, so again, kudos) which fooled me – admittedly, it wouldn’t take much.
I’ve not even mentioned the primary effect yet, a demon who’s supposed to be the old god Quetzalcoatl. He looks great, and while if I’d seen a blu-ray the effect might have looked a bit cheesy, my less-than-perfect stream left him looking great. Not sure about his motivation or why he exists and is a normal flesh-and-blood creature, but it’s an adventure story and that’s the sort of villain these movies have.
While it’s not the most exciting or original, it does the simple stuff very well. I’d have been happy if they’d bothered making themselves era-appropriate occasionally (Doherty seems of 2008 far more than 1908, and her Dad’s jacket is synthetic with tons of pockets) but we can’t have everything. One for an undemanding Sunday evening, perhaps.
Rating: thumbs up