Monday, May 2, 2011

Under the Mountain

(2009) Directed by Jonathan King; Written by Matthew Grainger and Jonathan King; Starring: Sam Neill, Tom Cameron, Sophie McBride, Oliver Driver; Available formats: DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel confused.  The little-known film Under the Mountain is a magical mess from New Zealand, a would-be fantasy epic concerning a pair of psychic fraternal twins and their effort to save the Earth from certain destruction.   Despite the cataclysmic overtones, New Zealand pedigree, and effects by Weta Workshop, any similarity to another Kiwi-filmed epic is purely coincidental.  Instead of building on each subsequent scene, it’s a frustrating parade of incoherence that masquerades as an adventure fantasy for the Harry Potter generation.

Under the Mountain begins with the first of several tired fantasy clichés, loss of a parent.  Teenage fraternal twins Rachel and Theo return home to learn that their mother has died in some poorly explained accident.  Presumably as a result of their distraught father’s insistence, they’re promptly shipped off to live with their aunt, uncle and cousin, who live several hours away.  Amidst their unresolved grief, they discover things are not quite right in this new town.  The mountains that populate the region take on a sinister role, and strange things are afoot at the nearby funeral home.  As their senses become attuned to their new surroundings, the twins’ latent, untapped abilities seem to be emerging.

Without the aid of a prologue, or anyone to serve as a reliable guide to the weirdness, it’s difficult to stay invested in the story.  Judging by the amount of background information that wasn’t disclosed, I surmised that Under the Mountain was part of a much more substantial work.  A little sleuthing revealed that the film was based on a 1979 novel, which also spawned an early 80s eight-part (!) television miniseries. What’s left is quite obviously a severely truncated version of a story that demanded much more than could be contained in a scant 90 minutes.

One of the foundations of a good fantasy film is strong characterizations.  It’s easy to swallow a lot if the characters are properly fleshed out, and their actions seem at least marginally credible.  The normally reliable Sam Neill is reduced to a ranting nutcase (No, that’s not a clinical term.) named Mr. Jones, who somehow manages to convince the main characters that they are in a life or death struggle between worlds.  His character should serve as an anchor, linking the known to the unknown, but he just adds to the confusion.  He’s aloof, gruff and unlikable, and looks like he slept under a bridge for the past week when the twins initially meet him, yet somehow he readily earns their trust.  We learn that he’s been traveling through time and space to recruit other twins to do battle, against the forces of evil.  Why twins, you might ask?  As far as I can ascertain from the sketchy details, some twins possess a special bond known as “twinness” that imbues them with special (albeit vague) powers to combat the forces that would enslave humankind and bring about their ultimate destruction – or something like that. 

Under the Mountain’s antagonists don’t really fare any better.  The main foes, referred to as Wilberforces, resemble a cross between the Tall Man in the Phantasm movies, Davy Jones from the interminable Pirates of the Caribbean series and Agent Smith from The Matrix.  When one of them uses his caustic juices to burn through a metal door, this sets up an obligatory disbelieving adult scene, in which the twins’ uncle sees the corroded door, and dismisses it as adolescent mischief.  The Wilberforces are merely in the service of a much more menacing threat, the Gargantuas -- massive creatures that lie dormant underneath several mountains in New Zealand, with the potential to destroy the world if awakened.  If you’re hoping to see more than a momentary glimpse of the omnipotent monsters, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  Only one of the Gargantuas makes an appearance, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.  In fact, you might want to skip this altogether, and see the far more entertaining War of the Gargantuas, which really isn’t much more coherent, but makes up for it in monsters you can actually see, and possesses an undeniable kitsch factor.  Oh well, back to the review…

The twins (and the actors for that matter) do little to distinguish themselves as the film’s protagonists.  In one scene, Rachel knows that she’s in imminent danger, and just passively stands by the door, waiting for one of the Wilberforces to break through.  Most of the time, she’s left with the thankless role of damsel in distress.  Her twin brother spends most of his time being unpleasant, alternately oblivious and hostile to his sister’s concerns.  When Theo callously thwarts his cousin’s amorous encounter with his girlfriend, it’s unclear why the annoyed cousin would agree to help him.  It’s safe to assume that at least some of his behavior could be chalked off to grief over his mother’s death, but nothing remains fully explored, and his conduct is more of a distraction than an integral facet of the plot.  The twins’ eventual discovery of their powers seems more accidental than revelatory, as a perfunctory service to the script.

Under the Mountain seemed like a trial as my initial interest rapidly gave way to tedium.  I can’t really comment on the original source material, but based on what’s left on screen, the omissions were considerable.  If you haven’t read the novel, which would probably include most of the population outside of New Zealand, then you’ll likely be at a loss to determine what’s going on.  Under the Mountain is a reminder that not everything that’s lost is necessarily worth finding.  At least the world was spared the word “twinness” from wider usage.

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