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Featured TV on DVD Review: Under the Mountain

August 6th, 2010

Under the Mountain - Buy from Amazon

Under the Mountain is a movie from New Zealand. It is based on a novel of the same name by New Zealand novelist Maurice Gee and was previously adapted as a mini-series in New Zealand back in 1981. Obviously the story has a strong connection to that nation, but how does it work as a movie?

The Movie

Rachel and Theo Matheson are twins who have a very close relationship: so close they have a telepathic bond. At the beginning the movie, their mother dies in an accident and while Rachel tries to reach out to Theo for emotional support, Theo shuts down emotionally. They father doesn't take it any better and, while he recovers, they are shipped off to live with relatives who live by a volcanic lake.

While visiting the park that serves as a lookout over the lake, Theo meets Mr. Jones, a strange fellow with an affinity for fire. He's an unfriendly sort and tells him to shove off. But later that day, when Theo is researching the nearby volcano, he runs across a photo of the same man taken in what appears to be the late 1800s or early 1900s. Meanwhile, Rachel comes across the Wilberforce residence, an old and dilapidated house from which a strange smell is emanating. She also sees one of the bizarre residents, who seems to take an interest in her. Intrigued by these two events, they start investigating, going so far as to go inside the creepy old house, at night, where they find strange, slime covered... growths. They also overhear a conversation between two Wilberforce Drones about the "Gargantua" waking up, the twins arriving, and that the "Fire Raiser" is dying. And most importantly, if the "Fire Raiser" meets the twins, how they will have to kill the twins.

Armed with this knowledge, Theo immediately tries to find Mr. Jones, whom he thinks is the "Fire Raiser", but this leaves Rachel alone in the house. And when Mr. Jones sees a Wilberforce Drone spying on them, he knows she's in trouble and they have to race home.

They do get there, in time for a lot of exposition.

Like I previously stated, the novel this is based on was previously adapted as a mini-series and I think is likely the better format for a story like this than a 90-minute movie. There's not enough time to build the characters before the action starts. And it is important to have an emotional basis for the characters, because the main point of the plot is the relationship between Rachel and Theo. Because we never get the emotional anchor, this part of the story doesn't have the same impact. Likewise, there are many, many plot details in the movie that feel rushed. Who Mr. Jones really is, his connection to the Wilberforce and the Gargantua, etc. all are explained to us through a rather long, exposition-heavy scene rather than being introduced to the viewers in a more organic process.

Speaking of organic, I would like to talk about the film's strengths and arguably its biggest strength are the creature effects. (This is not surprising, as they were done by WETA, which is the same firm that handled Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and others.) The creatures had a real organic feel to them, and a Lovecraftian vibe to them. Not all of the special effect were top notch though. But this movie clearly didn't have the same budget as a Hollywood blockbuster.

In the books, Rachel and Theo are said to be 12 years old, which is roughly the target demographic the books were aimed at. Even though the twins are older in the movie, around 15 or 16, I think, the film is probably going to work best for kids around 12 years old.

The Extras

There is an audio commentary track with Jonathan King, the director, and Matthew Grainger, the writer. It's a good track with plenty of information spread throughout, including several mentions of H.P.Lovecraft and how his writings helped influence the look of the film. There is also a 47-minute long making-of featurette. There are very few talking heads and it is mostly looking at the filming process and other behind-the-scenes work. (For instance, we see WETA working on some of the physical special effects.) Worth checking out.

The Verdict

I can't help get the feeling that too much of the original novel had to be compressed away when being turned into a 90-minute movie. This hurts the effectiveness, as we never get the real emotional core we need and major plot points have to be explained explicitly rather than revealed naturally. That said, the book was aimed at kids and I think the same target demographic will rather enjoy Under the Mountain, even if it won't please all the adults watching. Add in better than expected extras on the DVD, and it is worth checking out. Call it a solid rental / soft purchase.

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