Weeks ago, we took a look at the IMDB worst-rated sci-fi films. Hours later, the writer/director of one of them offered to send a DVD. Here's a look at the low budget sci-fi horror film Terrarium.
On the list of IMDB worst-rated films, I singled out Terrarium because it was comfortably in the bottom ten for sci-fi films, and because it received the lowest number of votes. It suffered from a mix of hatred and indifference, despite what I think is an awesome title for a sci-fi horror film.
Turns out the title was one of the reasons it drew so many complaints. It was re-titled War of the Planets and came out just before a certain mega-budget, mega-star, mega-cgi movie. The comparison didn't work well for it.
When I got to the end of Terrarium, I was surprised that it was rated so poorly. The concept is good. A group of people, picked for their various skills and loaded with seeds and supplies, are sent out to be the first colonists on a planet light years from earth. They are put into hibernation chambers during the voyage. When they wake up, they find the ship damaged and many systems offline, including the ones which let them out of their cells. In their weakened state, they try to break free. Soon they find that something big is coming in periodically to break them free and drag them off to be eaten.
Let's start with the good. As I said, it's a good concept. The idea of being physically free but practically helpless as a timer ticks down to your gruesome death is a frightening one. The most affecting scenes in the movie are the ones in which the group tries to figure out strategies to deal with the creature. There's one shot in particular, a woman trying to plug her ears so she doesn't have to listen to a fellow crew member get eaten alive, that's genuinely horrifying.
Terrarium has one important thing in common with the gold-standard of sci-fi horror films: Alien. It has surprises. The Alien, or Predator, sequels never had the same impact as the originals. In the sequels, the audience is waiting for the characters to catch up. They need to learn about the heat vision, the acid blood, the ‘rules' of that particular monster. In the original movies, the audience is just barely learning the rules themselves. Problems evolve and change over time. Mysteries are solved, only to bring up new mysteries. Terrarium has that. A basic horror film would have the crew trying to escape the creature. In this movie, once the creature is dealt with, new problems emerge. That's a rare quality in a film.
Terrarium has some important weaknesses, too. Many people commented on the low-budget special effects, but there's only so much you can knock a film for being low budget.
The bigger problem, though, is that if I were to watch only the beginning and ending, I would not surprised that Terrarium was rated so low. Although sci-fi embraces mystery, some questions do have to be answered. You don't have to explain where something comes from, or why it acts aggressive, but you do have to explain why it acts aggressive in that one way, and not another. The ending is weak.
It's the first ten minutes of Terrarium which are the most damaging. The film opens with a voice-over by the ex-wife of one of the characters. She's later seen disavowing her relationship with the character when she and some strangers see him and the other would-be colonists giving a press conference. The scene changes, and we don't see her again.
Meanwhile we follow the scene change to the press conference in which each character is introduced, along with their personal trait; the man of god, the sarcastic nerd, the sweet girl, the intellectual, and so on. The result is a long scene with too much information, none of which is relevant to the story. Characters should be well rounded, but not if it draws attention away from the main plot. Supposedly fights between characters in stressful situations make the scene more tense. In reality, they do the opposite. If the characters were really frightened, they wouldn't care about small personality conflicts.
Overall, Terrarium is a decent popcorn flick. It doesn't need more money. What it needs is less time. Start it ten minutes in, after we've seen the last of the earth, and it makes for a good ride.
Thanks to writer/director Mike Conway for the DVD.