Steven Spielberg is back, with dinosaurs. No, it isn’t the fourth Jurassic Park… it’s Terra Nova, a new science fiction TV series—the first episode of which, “Genesis”, aired this Monday on Fox. While still incorporating the themes of survival we know from Jurassic Park, this show is about so much more.
2149 CE–A family is four
The episode begins in year 2149 CE with a shot of the moon, panning to the American flag—I’m sure they recently replaced it—and then onto a planet that may or may not be Earth, by the look of it. But it is indeed the planet we once knew, smothered in a fog of pollution so dense it looks like a red gaseous planet. The camera races down through the clouds into a dystopian city out of science fiction nightmare. Everything is dirty, not just unkempt—an industrial landscape coated in pollution.
The dystopian picture Terra Nova paints is our every nightmare. There is no sun; children have never seen the clouds. An orange is perhaps the first bright color we see, a moment of foreshadowing to a future, or a past, life. It is the source of much excitement; “I can’t even remember the last time I saw one of those!” Furthermore, everyone needs a rebreather to go outside. As we get a closer look at this city, a sign flickers past in ominous silhouette: “A family is four”.
Enter our main protagonists, the Shannon family—a family of five—and as the cops come storming in, we find out just how forbidden that is. After the father, Jim Shannon, is carried away to prison, we skip forward two years. Jim is still slated to be in prison for another four years when his wife, Elisabeth, is recruited to join the pilgrimage to Terra Nova, the new world and hope for the dying world. Terra Nova lies just one step through a time portal away… 85 million years into the past. After a daring plot for Jim to escape from prison, the entire Shannon family makes it through the portal.
85 Million BCE–Terra Nova
With stunning sets and architecture using natural woods to blend with a futuristic edge and often accentuated with white cloth, the settlement of Terra Nova is breathtaking and a lesson in contrast. It is surrounded by jungle with a landscape reminiscent of James Cameron’s Avatar, filmed in Australia. We say this with the utmost conviction: Terra Nova is beautiful. It hits you time and time again and you think to yourself, “If only we could have our planet back.” The contrast is underlined when Zoe, youngest Shannon family member, looks up into the sky and asks: “Are those clouds? Wow, they’re so bright!”
But this is all superficial. Terra Nova holds elements of science fiction, action and drama as well as a definite anthropological undercurrent. The show questions the commonalities of human behavior when put in an entirely new situation. A world where you can see white clouds instead of gray, and eat real fruit and enzymes instead of processed nutrients—these are things that define the shows drive. It takes into account cultural behaviors like rebellion and the pursuit of fulfillment and thrusts them into an uncontrolled environment.
The central theme of new beginnings and rebirth is strong in Terra Nova, it is the subject of much character development as well as plot for the story. “We blew it, we destroyed our home; this is a a chance to start over, a chance to do it right.” Whether this will change throughout the series is a question unanswered.
It is surprising, though, that we in 2011 can come up with a perfectly viable green utopia in a science fiction movie, yet we supposedly could not save our own planet from extinction by pollution. Terra Nova presents us with a grim picture of the future, one that we may not agree with. The overpopulation, too, seems farfetched, considering most western countries’ birth rates are already down sufficiently in our time.
The Avatar is strong in this one
We already mentioned the Avatar-style landscapes, but there is much more Avatar in this. It isn’t just the fact that both the colony in James Cameron’s film and the Terra Nova colony share the same commander, Stephen Lang, either—he’s lost his scar, but he did survive alone in the jungle for almost two hundred days. There is this whole sense of humans invading in a balanced and natural environment, while being effectively cut off from home—after all, the journey to Terra Nova is a one way trip.
The appeal is more than dramatic; the innate desire to explore and see what is new is part of the cult status of things like Star Trek. It taps into the childlike innocence and sense of wonder. Not innocence in the strict sense, but the innocence of living life.
There is more to Terra Nova than just a simple Avatar remake. The dinosaurs seem to come straight from Jurassic Park, with a CGI upgrade. Unfortunately, some of the dinosaurs, like the slashers, didn’t seem very realistic. They do form an interesting opponent, however. And then there’s a mystery, in the form of a rebellion, but there’s even more than that. Equations drawn on rocks. . . things that shouldn’t be there, but are. It’s almost like watching J. J. Abrams’ Lost.
All in all, Terra Nova’s pilot promises great things for the future of this series. The plot was well written, fast paced, and full of interesting developments with foreshadowing to a greater arc. The dialogue was nothing new, perhaps peppered with a few too many clichés. In fact, the whole thing held too many clichés, down to the disposable black girl running away from safety in panic and obviously becoming prey to the slashers.
The acting was good. It was nothing noteworthy, but certainly believable to a point. However, I did not like that the main character ended a lot of scenes staring off into space; it made him look confused a lot and a bit dumb. A curious question is how all these characters from a world bereft of sunshine have tans.
In many ways, this pilot almost felt like a feature film. It will be very interesting to see where they go from here, now that the conventions of film have run out and the real basis for a series needs to be established.