Film review: Under the Mountain

New Kiwi movie Under the Mountain enjoys a rare position in New Zealand's cultural history.

It's not just that the book was one of author Maurice Gee's first genuinely commercially successful novels, but the subsequent 1981 television series was probably the first time that New Zealand television had foraged in the well-established "kidult" market, and they came up with a cracker.

Judged today, by the inexcusably shoddy DVD release, that eight-part series looks a little dated. But if you were anywhere near the target market back during the days of the Springbok tour and Muldoon's wage and price freezes, then Under the Mountain was a defining time in your life.

ALL OVER THE PLACE: Under the Mountain is a sporadic affair.
ALL OVER THE PLACE: Under the Mountain is a sporadic affair.

The series scared and thrilled a generation of Kiwi kids like nothing had before and nothing local has since. So Jonathan King's (Black Sheep) movie-length adaptation of the same source material arrives with a rich whakapapa behind it.

In film form Under the Mountain is a sporadic affair. The story of two rural kids who discover an alien plot to take over the world has morphed into a weightier and slightly more adult story of two adolescents (Sophie McBride, Tom Cameron) sent away from home after the death of their mother.

While in Auckland, they are befriended by an older man, "Mr Jones" (Sam Neill), who tells them in short order that they are – cue music – the last hope to save planet Earth.

Beneath Auckland's many volcanoes slumber malevolent beasties who are within days of rising up and turning our world into their own personal mud bath.

Mr Jones, in time-honoured fashion, is not the scruffy old wino he appears to be, but actually the only survivor from the last planet the beasties moved into.

The lead performances – newcomers McBride and Cameron especially – are pretty good. Oliver Driver has a fine time as the head baddie, and Leon Wadham lends some much-needed comedic chops to a film that occasionally needs lightening up.

Neill brings all his usual grimacing gravitas to the party, and gives a few of the story's sillier moments a little weight and dignity. Special effects from Weta Digital are superb for a limited budget, and more than good enough to convince a young audience.

On the downside, the film's pace and tone are all over the shop. Shots that are necessary to complete scenes are missing. Entire sequences seem to be edited so as to dissipate whatever tension the script might have contained.

An entire back story of Mr Jones' previous dealings with the beasties is hinted at in a late scene, but is missing in action until then.

And the pseudo-classical soundtrack is so intrusive and overused that I am still gripped by a great urge to personally strangle every single member of the NZSO's string section until they promise not to do it again.

For all that, Under the Mountain isn't bad. I wish the film had arrived with more personality, audacity and a perceivable director's vision stamped upon it, but for its intended audience, I suspect it will do just fine.

Under The Mountain
Director: Jonathan King
Starring: Sophie McBride, Tom Cameron, Sam Neill, Oliver Driver, Leon Wadham
Rated: M
Time: 92 mins

* What did you think of Under the Mountain? Post your comments below.

The Dominion Post