Lightning Media // 2009 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // July 23rd, 2010
Believe In The Power Of Two.
Under The Mountain undoubtedly stands as one of the most frightening pieces of children's television ever produced. Based on the novel of the same name by Maurice Gee, the 8-part miniseries simultaneously delighted and terrified children back in the early '80s. Now, nearly 20-years later, the story has returned.
Following the sudden death of their mother, twins Theo (Thomas Cameron) and Rachel (Sophie McBride) are sent to live with their aunt and uncle in Auckland, New Zealand. While exploring their new surroundings, the twins soon learn about the Wilberforces, a strange, reclusive family living in a dilapidated house on the islands outskirts.
For as long as they can remember, the twins have shared the power of telepathy, and an apparently chance meeting with the enigmatic Mr. Jones (Sam Neil, Possession) sees them come to learn the true extent and purpose of their gift.
Mr. Jones, the twins discover, is from an alien race known as "The People Who Understand." Through Mr. Jones, the twins learn that the Wilberforces are actually an alien race themselves, but unlike Mr. Jones's race they are intent on destroying all life on Earth. Even worse, the Wilberforces have allied themselves with the "Gargantua," a devastating race who, thanks to Mr. Jones's intervention years ago, have been trapped beneath seven of Auckland's volcanoes. However, it seems the Wilberforces have awoken the Gargantua from their slumber, and are mere days away from the great beasts rising up and destroying all life on Earth.
With time quickly running out, the twins must learn to harness their burgeoning powers, as they alone must stand against the Wilberforces to save the world.
The problems with the film adaptation of Under The Mountain begin and end with its screenplay. Clocking in at a mere 91-minutes, co-writers Matthew Grainger and Jonathan King (who also directs) struggle desperately to cram in the events of the TV show. The script sees the film move along at a frantic pace, and in doing so jettisons huge chunks of the mythology established in the miniseries, leaving a slew of characters who are never fully realized and major plot points stripped to the bare bone.
It is this excessive trimming of the storyline that leaves Under The Mountain an almost incoherent jumble. The running time is so restrictive it hardly has time to mention the three alien races that are integral to the plot, let alone handle them in any satisfying way. Handled properly, and with an extra 45-minutes, this story of supernaturally powered twins battling the zombie-like Wilberforces, while trying to ensure the devastating Gargantua remain sealed in their tombs, could have been spectacular. Sadly too many corners have been cut, and too many details skimmed over.
Due to the characters being so paper-thin, viewers are unlikely to fully invest in them, or care about their predicament, which is bad enough; but when those same characters appear to be just as ambivalent toward the unfolding events, it's downright unforgivable.
Considering most of Sam Neil's lines revolve around reminding everyone of the apocalyptic events that will unfold should their mission fail, there's an alarming lack of urgency surrounding the central protagonists. At times it feels as though the gravity of the situation that has befallen them is totally lost on Theo and Rachel. Similarly, the film doesn't afford the twins and Mr. Jones enough time to suggest he is preparing the two youngsters for the fight that awaits them, as opposed to the TV series where Mr. Jones was far more of a Ben Kenobi figure to the twins. Indeed, Theo and Rachel spend most of the film ignoring what little advise Mr. Jones provides, only to finally come to their senses during the unforgivably rushed finale, that is sure to leave a sour taste in the mouth of all but the most undemanding of viewers.
Anyone who has seen the TV series will tell you just how creepy the Wilberforces were. Their slimy appearance, coupled with their odd speech patterns, made them truly memorable villains that possessed enough threat to make the viewer believe they actually stood a chance of winning -- despite their fecal-like appearance whenever they transformed. Unfortunately their big screen counterparts, regardless of some excellent makeup work, very rarely exude the same level of menace. It's very hard to fear bad guys who are always a yard off the pace, as is so often the case here. Oh, and don't get me started on the terrible CGI implemented whenever the Wilberforces transform into their original worm-like form.
Being the only recognizable name in the film, Sam Neil leads by example and offers up a solid performance. Despite the poor script, Neil delivers a number of memorable moments, chief amongst them being his interrogation scene. Likewise, Oliver Driver (Black Sheep) does some good work as Mr. Wilberforce, but is so hampered by the material he is given to work with that his best efforts are ultimately for naught. Newcomers Tom Cameron and Sophie McBride, as twins Theo and Rachel, don't yet possess the acting chops to carry off a feature by themselves, and both turn in merely adequate performances here.
The screener copy of Under The Mountain supplied for review was devoid of any extras.
Again, like the extras, the audio and video contained on the screener are not completely representative of the final release. What is here suggests a colorful image with solid black levels. Fine detail is lacking, but as already stated, this may well be resolved when the retail copy hits shelves.
Unlike his contributions to the screenplay, Jonathan King's direction, while unlikely to elevate him to the big time just yet, shows a growing talent, and a progression from his previous effort, the gorefest Black Sheep. King ensures that confrontations between the twins and the Wiberforces contain more threat than the limp screenplay should allow; an early encounter between a police officer and a home alone Rachel is particularly creepy.
Married to Richard Bluck's cinematography, King's direction makes the most of the striking Auckland scenery. But even so, so much has been lost in translating the story from TV to the big screen, that one or two directorial flourishes here and there are not enough to save the film.
It must also be pointed out that Under the Mountain was shot on a low budget, and should be applauded for attempting to brake into the Potter dominated fantasy genre without the financial muscle to compete on a level playing field.
Those, like me, who grew up as fans of the TV series, are almost certainly going to be disappointed by Under The Mountain. So much of what made it special is completely lacking, meaning that the film adaptation feels related in name only.
Those unfamiliar with the show are likely to share the same feeling of frustration towards the movie. There's just nothing unique about Under The Mountain, leaving the whole thing at worst feeling too generic, and at best nothing more than Harry Potter-lite.
Review content copyright © 2010 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Lightning Media
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Official Website