Reviews

Did You Know that Dinosaurs Can't Break Through Wood? 'Terra Nova: The Complete Series'

Proof that a bloated budget can be deeply non-indicative of quality, Terra Nova squanders any potential it had on plots and character types that appear to have been created in a generic Sci-Fi Plot Generator.


Terra Nova

Distributor: Fox Connect
Cast: Jason O'Mara, Shelley Conn, Christine Adams, Allison Miller, Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott, Rod Hallett, Alana Mansour, Stephen Lang
Network: Fox
UK release date: 2012-09-24
US release date: 2012-09-11
Amazon
"We’re not in completely unchartered territory here..."

Kevin Reilly, President of Entertainment at Fox Broadcasting, on Terra Nova's lofty budget

ABC's LOST was a rarity in major network television. Any program that manages to last six seasons taking a simple stranded-on-an-island narrative turned philosophical rumination on the very foundations of life can consider itself an incredible accomplishment, even if it didn't make a lot of friends along the way. Its frustratingly open-ended storylines and big budgets no doubt ticked off many a network exec, not to mention the fans who couldn't help but think that maybe J.J. Abrams was kind of winging it. But regardless of whether one was a detractor, a devotee, or somewhere in the middle (I count myself in the latter camp), LOST proved that high production value doesn't just mean flashy effects and scary monsters: big budget can lead to well-executed big concepts.

Just a year after LOST concluded its open-ended storylines with the most open-ended conclusion possible, FOX decided that it ought to have its own big-budget spectacle. Instead of getting stuck in the philosophical quagmires that dragged down many parts of LOST, however, the folks behind Terra Nova opted for a simpler narrative. Well, as simple as the complexities of time-travel will allow it.

The year is 2149, and the Earth has been savaged by overpollution. Though no specific causes are delinated, it's clear from its sparse, desert landscape and bleary skies that excessive production and consumption of crude and continued destruction of the ecosystem are to blame. In this near-apocalyptic state, where if one is to walk outside she must wear a mask so as to not breathe in the toxic air, strict measures have been taken to prevent any further damage to the Earth, lest the entire human race die out. The most significant measure passed involves strict population control; billboards all throughout the nameless metropolis shown at the beginning of the series read “A Family is Four”.

But, of course, not all families are. The Shannons, headed by Jim (Jason O’Mara, not quite nailing the Jack Shephard vibe he’s intended for) and Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) just didn’t feel complete without a third child. As a result, they live in constant fear of the state, who at any moment could come in and abduct their youngest daughter Zoe (Alana Mansour). Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, this happens, and after two years in the slammer Jim escapes, leaving the decaying Earth the only way possible: through a time-travel tunnel that takes those desperate to survive far back in time to Terra Nova, a new colony established during the Cretaceous period. In this fledgling commune, headed up by military man Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), people are forced to figure out how to adapt to the abundance of life that surrounds them, ranging from small beetles to giant, threatening dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, I can go no longer into this review without ridiculing this show. "Bloated" is but one of many words that describes the follies of Terra Nova, a show that confuses special effects and lazy sci-fi tropes for compelling television. Don't let the dollar signs and Steven Spielberg executive producer credit fool you: this is as generic as a high-concept television program can get. Nearly every plot device feels like a rehash: the population control storyline is just like every dystopian narrative ever filmed or written, the conflict between the Terra Nova colony and the enigmatic "Sixers" is a straight-rip of LOST's Others vs. Survivors, and the ultimate twist in the story, wherein corporations from 2149 are actually only going to use Terra Nova for its resources, follows Lang here from the already hackneyed Avatar script.

As if all these weren’t bad enough offenders, the dialogue doesn’t do the actors any favors, either. From the awful attempts at hard-boiled quips in the pilot (“What you ought to do is give me a gun and a badge and let me do what I’m good at,” Jim says with a steely gaze to Taylor in the pilot) to gobs of expository dialogue that would even get a rise out of Christopher Nolan, this is a show trying to say a lot in the clunkiest way possible. This then leads to type characters that never develop anything beyond one-dimensional motivations: a lovelorn teenager here, a military general with a dark past there… what you see is what you get.

But calling Terra Nova clichéd or underdeveloped is too easy. Cliché is the most obvious, smack-you-in-the-face problem here; however, it’s the most superficial. Beneath the many issues one would expect from a multi-million dollar major network epic lies an insidious premise, a premise one could easily imagine being sneered by some network higher-up: “If we make it pretty, and have lots of explosions, we’ll get our viewers. We’ll laugh our way to the bank.”

This might appear tautological, and in some ways, it is: after all, Michael Bay did manage to have Transformers: Dark of the Moon get greenlit even after the cinematic excrement that was Revenge of the Fallen. Still, the dreck that is most of Terra Nova is reasonable proof that networks will do anything to cash in on a trend, even if the resultant product (yes, I said product, not work of art) is so clearly half-assed that not even big dinosaur fights can keep in viewership for more than eleven episodes. (Plus, it's not as if the CGI always matched the series' budget: a lot of the dinosaur scenes have CGI so bad they might as well have used MS Paint.) Terra Nova is a reflection of how anonymous network suits think of us, and if they’re right we’re idiots who go slack-jawed at the mere mention of time travel.

The culmination of this fact comes in one simple detail. Despite being able to bring back loads of futuristic technology with them, the colonists at Terra Nova surround their home with a wooden fence. Not walls, which could actually keep small animals from coming in and people from going out into the dangerous forest, but a fence, structured by poles that practically beg to be climbed. (Spoiler: Jim does in the pilot.) In a script rife with internal inconsistencies and bizarre logic, this is the weirdest example: apparently, dinosaurs that for the majority of the series are able to take gunfire like champs are inable to break past a wooden barrier. Presumably, we’re just supposed to look past that fact, but to anyone with an eye for quality will notice it right away. Even though the viewership of Terra Nova was nearly triple of TV’s reigning greats like Breaking Bad even in its short tenure, it is a true deconstruction of network cynicism that American audiences rejected this financial behemoth. The dinosaurs (somehow) may not have been able to break past the wooden barrier, but we did.

The bonus features included with this four-disc set don’t really add to the experience; there are some deleted scenes and a gag reel, as well as some featurettes that will only appeal to the most ardent of fans.

2

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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