Review: Under the Mountain
This film was reviewed as part of Fantastic Fest
PLOT: After losing their mother, twins Theo and Rachel head off to the home of their Aunt and Uncle in Auckland (the story is set in New Zealand). It's not soon after they arrive they begin noticing strange things like the old Wilberforce house across the lake. They also meet a strange man called Mr. Jones (Sam Neil). Theo and Rachel learn from Mr. Jones their almost psychic bond is due to a strong level of potential "twinness" which will ultimately allow them to control special stones, help a race of good aliens and fight against an evil alien force.
REVIEW: For a fantasy film set in the real world like UNDER THE MOUNTAIN to succeed it needs to pull off a few basic elements. There needs to be a compelling reason for its central characters to get involved. Otherwise, the audience is left to wonder why these characters are putting themselves in situations normal people would find strange and sometimes scary. Also, there needs to be a strong central threat if the story is headed to a conflict that effects more than just the central characters. Unfortunately, UNDER THE MOUNTAIN has little of either qualification and falls under the weight of story problems.
Theo and Rachel, once they arrive in Auckland, become instantly nosy. Across the lake there is the old Wilberforce house and the audience immediately knows they will end up going there. The problem is, there's no personal reason for them to do so. They are just curious and perhaps a bit bored. It's also during this time, the buildup into the fantastical story, that we are to become aware of Theo's waning faith in the bond with his sister. Beyond a brief scene after the children learn of the death of their mother (which plays more like an emotional reaction than a clue into a major plot point), there's no real attempt made to show the bond breaking. It's mostly just Theo yelling at his sister.
Once we learn of the threat and meet Mr. Jones, we're in for a long bit of exposition in which we learn of very cool things to come including world destroying Gargantua. Unfortunately, beyond having these threats explained to us, we never really enjoy the fear of the potential destruction of our world. To call UNDER THE MOUNTAIN a bit anti-climactic is putting it nicely. What ends up being the case is that this adventure-fantasy story is merely about a brother and a sister and it's only the personal threat that makes itself known in ways with which the audience can identify. We spend a lot of time watching Theo and Rachel being chased around by the Wilberforce family (the evil aliens here) and the creature design, while effectively slimy and weird, is very evocative not just of Lovecraft but also of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST - but not as good.
The direction by Jonathan King (director of the boisterous and fun splatter comedy BLACK SHEEP) is adequate for what this is. However, in some key scenes, a sense of scale is another element lacking in the quest to provide an epic finale. He directs the story with only just enough visual flair to keep us interested. The hardest part for the actors in pulling off a film like this is handling the fantastical elements in the dialogue with enough seriousness balanced with a playful sense of adventure to make it fun yet strangely believable. At times the cast succeeds and during others the dialogue is painful (the constant use of the word "twinness" is particularly grating). The culprit, I believe, is as I mentioned before - the setup is truly lacking and because we haven't engaged in this mystery ourselves, we can't relate.
This is movie that will probably play better with the grade school crowd. There are a few good moments of tension to be found for those more sensitive. However, we have seen many examples in the past of these types of movies that are just as enjoyable for parents and other adults. This doesn't play like one of those. There is also a cultural element. At the screening, director Jonathan King explained the story as coming from a popular book in New Zealand in the 70's. There was also a subsequent TV show that terrified an entire generation of Kiwis. Without the background investment in the story there's not much motivation to care. It's watchable up to a point where you realize it's not going to come together in any way you would consider tense and adventurous, the biggest reason being the most threatening force is never given a chance to potentially succeed. Once that first watch is over, though, this isn't a story to return to again.