Steven Spielberg announced a fourth Jurassic Park movie yesterday — but he already has a huge dinosaur epic in the works. Terra Nova is a hugely ambitious time-traveling dinosaur TV show — and we've seen the first episode!
Actually, we saw the first hour, and the pilot is two hours long. So what's the verdict so far? It was gorgeously cinematic, really exciting... and somewhat flawed.
Major spoilers ahead!
So the first hour we saw took us from the beginning of the Shannon family's adventure in the dystopian polluted 22nd. Century all the way to their life in the prehistoric past. It's hard to say what looked more impressive: the huge sweeping shots of the gray, smoggy future cities with hints of Blade Runner in the giant holographic screens and neon lines, or the massive jungle scenes with real jungle intercut with CG landscapes full of mist and wild palm trees.
But the dinosaurs definitely looked amazing, in the few big set pieces we saw. (The producers said the second hour of the pilot includes a lot more cool dinosaur stuff, including some dinosaurs that will be accurate to the latest paleontologist thinking.)
So we start out in the 22nd Century, where a cop named Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) brings a bag containing a special object back to his family. What's in the bag? It's... wait for it... an orange! Everyone is like, We haven't seen one of those in years! Can I peel it? Can I smell it? It's a "Kaylee strawberry" moment. But the happiness is shattered when the cops show up — because the Shannon family has three children, in violation of the law that allows only two kids per family. They hid their youngest kid, the precocious Zoe, in an air vent, but the cops trash the place and find her. Jim Shannon freaks out and decks his fellow cops — and they cuff him and drag him away.
Flash forward to two years later. Jim Shannon is locked in a maximum-security dystopian prison, where they don't even give him a breathing mask so he's dying thanks to the polluted air. His doctor wife arrives to tell him that she's been recruited to go back to the prehistoric past, with their two remaining kids. He is sad that they're going without him and without the youngest kid, but then his wife slips him a breathing mask. And inside? A laser. (There are a lot of lasers in this episode, which is a major plus!)
So it's up to Jim Shannon to escape from a maximum-security prison, get his illegal daughter who's in an institution, and then break into the maximum-security facility where they're sending people back in time through a time fissure. Does he succeed? Well, duh. It's a pretty exciting sequence, and full of suspenseful awesomeness.
Once the whole family is back in the past, the tone shifts to "sense of wonder" mode. There are a ton of good things, and a few egregiously bad things.
Good: The dinosaurs. They really are great, in the glimpses we got of them. There's a sequence where the youngest girl, Zoe, meets a brontosaurus and starts feeding it tree branches, and it lifts her off the ground by the branch she's holding. (And no, it doesn't bite her arm off, although you sort of wish it would.) Later, a "carno" dinosaur attacks towards the end of the first hour, and it's a standout sequence in which Stephen Lang and Jason O'Mara get to be amazingly badass. Great stuff.
Bad: The Shannon kids. At least in the first hour, they're unbearable. Especially the oldest, Josh, who is like Tyler from V turned up to 1000. It's like someone created a scientific formula for how to create an annoying teenage boy character, and then somehow grew the result in a vat. He's bratty, whiny, rebellious, obnoxious and mean to his dad — who we've just seen break out of prison to bring the family back together. (Oh, and Josh has the world's most unconvincing romance with a rebellious teenage chick he meets, who dares him to go swimming in the waterfalls outside the fence.) And the youngest kid, Zoe, is the focus of some very syrupy Spielbergian "heartwarming" moments.
Good: Stephen Lang. If you just think of him as the evil colonel from Avatar, you'll be amazed by his heroic, studly turn in Terra Nova. Here, he plays Nathaniel Taylor, who was the first settler in the prehistoric world and is the leader of the colony. He's an environmentalist and an inspiring leader, who is clearly keeping MAJOR SECRETS from the colonists.
Also Good: The insane bromance between Stephen Lang and Jason O'Mara. This is why you'll watch this show. The two men practically make out the first time they're on screen together, when they come into conflict because O'Mara's character is an escaped convict who has no useful purpose in Lang's perfect colony. They stare into each other's eyes and face off with smouldering tension. Later, Jason O'Mara is clearing jungle vines with a machete, and he climbs up and winds up taking off his shirt because of the heat. There is a long shirtless sequence — and then we pan around, and Stephen Lang is watching shirtless Jason O'Mara through his binoculars. For, uh, scientific reasons. Then O'Mara saves Lang's life, and they pretty much get married in front of ten waterfalls. (I am not exaggerating, they stand in front of TEN WATERFALLS and look into each other's eyes.) I love this relationship already.
Bad: The time travel explanations. Ugh. Science fiction fans will want to stab themselves when the middle Shannon daughter launches into a nonsensical explanation of the notion that this is a new timeline and therefore they can't change the future. (I don't think that's what "alternate timeline" means, actually.) The show grinds to a halt so the show can answer a question that a handful of time-travel nerds want an answer to — and the answer is really bogus.
Good: The dangling plotlines. There are a lot of them, and they provide tons of scope for future episodes. It turns out a group of colonists who came through during the Sixth Pilgrimage (the "Sixers") are evil and have broken away to create a militaristic evil splinter colony. We meet them at the end of the first hour, and they're clearly going to be a problem. Also, the future people are sending back more and more colonists — 100 people next time — creating a strain on the new colony's ability to house and feed everyone. And there are mysterious carvings showing weird equations, which Josh the bratty teenager finds — they're clearly old, and Taylor apparently knows about them and is keeping them secret. Also, during the panel discussion, the producers said that the situation in the dystopian future will keep getting worse and this will affect the prehistoric plotlines — especially the agenda of the evil "Sixers". And then there's the saga of the Shannon family, and their struggle to stay together.
Overall verdict: The first hour is incredibly gorgeous, and I can't stress the loveliness of the vistas and the coolness of the dinosaurs. The pilot definitely aims for the look and feel of a big feature film. And the first hour is an exciting journey with the suspense over Jim Shannon's escape from prison, his attempt to break into the time tunnel, and then his tough adjustment to life in the not-quite-idyllic past. After seeing an hour of this show, I'm already pretty hooked and eager to see more — in spite of a few bumps along the way.