STUDIO: Lions Gate
MSRP: $26.98
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
• Commentaries with Jonathan King and Matthew Grainger
• The Making of Under the Mountain

The Pitch

Escape to Witch Mountain, Aussie-style.

The Humans

Starring Sam Neill, Tom Cameron, Sophie McBride, Oliver Driver, Leon Wadham
Written by Matthew Grainger & Jonathan King
Directed by Jonathan King

The Nutshell

After the tragic death of their mother, twins Rachel and Theo Matheson (McBride, Cameron) go to stay with the aunt, uncle, and cousin, Ricky, in Auckland, New Zealand where they live down the street from the mysterious Wilberforces — slimy creatures hell-bent on world domination, who only the teenage twins can stop with the help of Mr. Jones (Neill).

Maniac Cop: Thunder Down Under had some of the series’ best effects, but sorely lacked enough Davi.

The Lowdown

Had Under The Mountain come out when I was 10 years old, I’d probably have lapped up its good-vs-evil, teens battling supernatural forces hell-bent on destroying our world.  And given its PG-13 rating (which really has nothing to do with the age 13 anyway), that’s exactly the audience for whom director Jonathan King made this movie.

You’ve got telepathic twins who were once close and are now distant after the death of their mother.  You’ve got the whole “getting sent to live with the aunt and uncle” plot line.  There’s also the (slightly) wacky cousin who is a bit put out to have to take care of his relatives.  And, of course, the whole “you’re the only two who can save the world” aspect that is required for teen-led adventure tales.  The elements are all there and King conducts them all well, pacing the film to zip along briskly without feeling rushed; King’s camera doesn’t linger on the red-headed Matheson Twins – Rachel and Theo – for too long during the emotional set-up nor not enough as the fantastical plot kicks in.  Toss in some solid special effects and action sequences and you’ve got yourself a winner.

But for being an adventure focusing on twin teens, I found it’s nearly total lack of humor to be a rather glaring omission.  And I don’t mean that the jokes fell flat.  It’s that there just weren’t any sources of humor to begin with.  Aside from the pathetic misadventures in teenage love by cousin Ricky trying to get to second base with his girlfriend, this film takes itself very seriously.  Had it been made back in late 80s/early 90s, from which it takes a number of its cues, I imagine there’d have been a few different changes.  For example, instead of Rachel and Theo’s stoic aunt and uncle being like a poor man’s Jason Statham and Wife, they might have been wacky goofballs, a source of levity and comedy.  Or cousin Ricky could have been amped up even more to play foil to the seriousness of the Twins, who rarely, if ever, crack a smile.

It should come as no surprise that Frank’s favorite SNL skit was “Canteen Boy.”

Luckily, though, while the film plays everything straight, it smartly doesn’t cross that line into being overly serious: you don’t roll your eyes when the characters do or say things that you know they’re going to say or do.  And for that I give a lot of credit to King for maintaining a consistent tone throughout the movie full of no-name actors (in the USA at least) and Dr. Grant himself, Sam Neill, and directing the film with a sure hand throughout.  Even though none of the actors do anything all that spectacular in front of the camera, they fit their roles and avoid any overacting, which is quite a feat when dealing with such fantastical things as Gargantuans, the Wilberforces, saving the world with two magical, glowing stones, and a guy who can transport himself to different places in time using fire.

Despite the low budget that is clear when a movie hits directly to DVD, proudly displaying Sam Neill’s name above the marquee, the effects are on par with a Hollywood summer tent-pole flick.  Minus the lackluster finale — which lacks scope, not quality — the visuals are outstanding, notably with the squid-like creatures known as the Wilberforces getting the CG treatment courtesy of effects powerhouse WETA Workshop, which does excellent work on all of their projects.  Under The Mountain is no different.  What I dug even more, though, was that King employed the use of practical effects, too — especially in the case of the Wilberforce’s slimy, decrepit house — not relying only on WETA’s magic to create his world.  It looked like the Wilberforces themselves had a practical element as well, but it was hard to tell where it ended and the computer graphics kicked in.  

For once, calling this redhead a “firecrotch” is a legitimate description.

The makeup and set design brought the Wilberforces to believable life, which made them that much scarier and more effective in creating the atmosphere of this world-on-the-edge-of-apocalypse.  The only real bummer was that the Gargantuans were barely even touched upon — these are giant aliens who live under the volcanoes who have teamed up with the Wilberforces to take over Earth.  We catch merely a glimpse of these blue whale-esque beasts when the Twins make their way into the catacombs underneath Auckland, but this is the kind of thing that would’ve made for a barn-burning climax.  King goes another way, playing up the emotional element which is necessary to complete the character arc and theme of the film, but c’mon, couldn’t that have been achieved along with these enormous monsters appearing, too?  It’s a cool concept for a movie like this and to not see some massive leviathan bursting through the earth out of a volcano was a bit of a letdown.

That said, it never felt like that plot point was missing.  King and his co-scribe Matthew Grainger elected to make the focus on defeating the Wilberforces — so, structurally, it’s sound.  I just thought if you’re going to introduce a cool element like the Garganutans, it’d be great to pay it off with some monstrous-beast action.  Rather, my main beef with Under The Mountain is that its seriousness never lets it feel very fun.  I mean, this isn’t a dark movie, even though it has some heavy elements — the Twins’ mother dies, the sense that they are in actual peril — so it feels like there’s something missing when there aren’t those moments of comic relief to change up the flow of the film.  They clearly made the decision to do this early on in the script phase since they could’ve incorporated characters to provide their Grandpa from The Lost Boys or a friend like Evil Ed from Fright Night, but they opted out of that.  It didn’t make for a worse movie, necessarily, but just one that didn’t feel nearly as fun as a teenage-based save-the-world adventure should be.

Rehearsals of the upcoming remake of Mask.

The Package

The film looked fantastic.  Excellently shot and the scenery was incredible.  I had never thought much about visiting New Zealand before; now I’d love to spend a vacation in Auckland.  The city looks amazing and acts as another character in the movie — it’s integral to the plot and a unique setting that you don’t see often in film.  You can watch it with the writers/director commentary and also check out the making of, both nice additions to the release.

7.5 out of 10  (8.5 if you’re under 14 years old)

Dr. Grant mournfully remembered his time on Jurassic Park.. the good ole days.