The Dead Lands (2014)
Editor’s Note: The Dead Lands is out in limited release this Friday, April 17th.
Two ancient Māori tribes find themselves at war in The Dead Lands, the latest from director Toa Fraser. When Māori chief Tane (George Henare) welcomes the army of a nearby tribe, lead by Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), he expects the men to talk peace. Instead, Tane’s teen son Hongi (James Rolleston) discovers Wirepa desecrating the bodies of his own ancestors in a bid to provoke war. Before Tane can assemble his men, Wirepa’s army slaughters the tribe, leaving behind only a handful of women and Hongi, who has long been considered weak by his own people. Hongi vows to kill Wirepa, as much for revenge as to prove his own worth. His quest takes him through what is known as the Dead Lands, said to be haunted by a flesh-eating monster.
The film’s eagerness to borrow from unusual cinematic sources adds some much-needed texture, but it doesn’t always work …
The Dead Lands thus becomes an extended chase sequence as Hongi teams up with this so-called monster (Lawrence Makoare) who rules the Dead Lands. During the duo’s pursuit of Wirepa, the film freely moves between a fantasy world full of spirits and visions, and a harsh reality where a chieftain might give lip service to the idea of peace, but is happy to take almost any excuse to spill blood. Both tribes are obsessed with the past and long-held traditions, though Wirepa has little interest in it; it’s his defining trait, one that makes him evil and reckless.
Amidst the stereotypes and blood-drenched fight sequences is a larger point about history and respect that The Dead Lands means, but fails, to grasp. Too often, the film starts to plod, bogging itself down with slow pacing meant to add gravity to an unimpressive story. The Dead Lands is the first feature-length film made in the Māori language and with all Māori characters, yet this interesting setting is used for a terribly conventional, unimaginative tale.
The film’s eagerness to borrow from unusual cinematic sources adds some much-needed texture, but it doesn’t always work; The Dead Lands seems unable to resist the lure of cornball action tropes. The lead villain is exactly as suave and handsome and stubborn as nearly every other lead villain of the last few decades. Characters are near death one day and, after a damp washcloth and a good night’s sleep, are as good as new in the morning. The synth-heavy soundtrack reminiscent of 1980s American flicks adds unintended cheese, and the old martial arts movie trope of an entire army of obliging extras standing around as their colleagues go, one at time, to fight a big baddie is the stuff of comedies, not action dramas.
These are unfortunate choices for a film that otherwise makes a good-faith effort to use historically accurate language, clothing, weaponry and art.
These are unfortunate choices for a film that otherwise makes a good-faith effort to use historically accurate language, clothing, weaponry and art. On that level alone, The Dead Lands is fascinating, especially with the inclusion of mau rākau (literally, “the use of weapons”) and ancient Māori weaponry. But the fight sequences are choreographed to look like a generic Hong Kong action flick, and the visuals are so slick and glossy that there are moments in the battles which look positively Disney-fied. It’s an unfortunate approach to what should have been an interesting and unique story. The film’s choices of when to stay true to the past and when to shrug it off are just as interesting — and just as ill-advised — as the character’s choices.
The Dead Lands is the first feature-length film made in the Māori language and with all Māori characters, yet this interesting setting is used for a terribly conventional, unimaginative tale.