Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: The Dead Lands

Film Review: The Dead Lands

The Dead Lands (2014; Directed by Toa Fraser)

Toa Fraser’s Maori-language action-adventure quest film is immediately arresting from its first shot, even if it does not ever quite deliver on this initial aesthetic promise. The serene beauty of a slow tracking shot of a lush primeval forest with its large-rooted trees, tall grass, and distant mist is subtly disrupted when, far in the deep-focus background, two human figures flit quickly through the gaps in the field of vision between the trees. This fleeting glimpse of motion develops into a frenetic, aggressive chase and confrontation between two Maori warriors that frames the remainder of The Dead Lands but also emphasizes a certain repetitiousness and rote thematic element in the film.

Following the dynamite opening sequence, The Dead Lands settles on its narrative. In pre-European contact New Zealand, the village and lands of Chief Tane (George Henare) are visited by the scion of a rival tribe, Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), and his warrior cohort. Wirepa’s ostensible object is to visit the gravesite shrine of his honoured ancestors, but his true design is to accuse the chief’s teenaged son Hongi (James Rolleston) of desecrating those remains as a pretext for war between their tribes. Wirepa and his goons don’t even wait for their plan to bear political fruit before ambushing Tane’s village and massacring its inhabitants, venerable chief included.

Hongi escapes this atrocity, however, and assumes his father’s mantle and staff-like weapon, vowing revenge against the old man’s killers. He tracks Wirepa’s troop into a forbidden territory called the Dead Lands, supposedly haunted by a vicious cannibalistic monster who kills anyone who trespasses into his realm. This monster is a nameless warrior (Lawrence Makoare) cut off from Maori society as well as the honour conferred upon him by a connection to his own ancestors. He’s already appeared, hunting down an intruder in the aforementioned opening scene and terminating him with extreme prejudice. Hongi convinces the Warrior not to have him as his next meal and to instead aid him in his quest to defeat the arrogant Wirepa, who has offended them both by differing degrees.

The Dead Lands settles into questly pursuit tropes fairly quickly like an antipodean Apocalypto, coloured by the Warrior instructing Hongi in fighting techniques and Hongi carrying on mystical summits with his dead grandmother (Rena Owen). The unlikely allies pursue their enemies through magnificently shot New Zealand landscapes (if you thought that there weren’t many spectacular vistas in the small island nation left to showcase after Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films, which featured Makoare, Fraser is glad to prove you wrong), an epic chase punctuated by adrenalized showpieces of furiously staged, culturally-specified hand-to-hand combat. These scenes are built up as the film’s highlights and generally are, even if the most visually interesting of them (a battle at dusk in a jungle stream between the Warrior and a young woman who recognizes his tribal markings) is a bit of a story detour meant mainly to motivate the Warrior to reveal his dark history.

Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring focus on Maori warrior culture almost to the exclusion of other elements of Maori identity. The Dead Lands doesn’t entirely reduce Maori culture to a series of hyper-masculinized fight scenes; Maori religion, art, dress, and habitations are all reproduced with what I’m sure is reasonable accuracy, to say nothing of the consonant-heavy aural effect of the Maori language which all of the characters speak exclusively. Even the inconsistently applied but culturally accepted practice of cooking and consuming one’s enemies after defeating them is treated in a matter-of-fact fashion; barbaric as this seems to modern sensibilities, it is unquestionably a part of Maori tradition.

But The Dead Lands is about armed men fighting and killing each other, and as central as this core practice and the particularities surrounding it are to Maori traditions, it is not a subject imbued with either breadth nor depth, at least in its treatment by Standring and Fraser. To their credit, the filmmakers question the inherent glory of killing another person, first through the Warrior’s wounded cynicism and then through the pragmatic wisdom that Hongi achieves with regards to his adversary. These choices mediate and even counteract the predominant martial affect of the film. Not enough to destabilize its thematic implications or its effective thrust of manly contention, but just enough to signal the audience that they realize the limitations of such an aggressive, action-centric worldview.

The Dead Lands is, almost without question, the most excitingly-pitched and popularly accessible fictionalized depiction of classical pre-contact Maori civilization yet committed to celluloid. The hope must be, however, that it will primarily serve to open the creative door to richer and more diverse such depictions.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: