By: Mark Barber
The Dead Lands is a rare pre-colonial narrative. Rarely does a film provide a cinematic lens through which we may see a pre-westernized, pre-colonial native culture. Given such emancipating opportunities, it’s curious that director Toa Fraser would make such a comfortable film for western audiences.
Featuring an all-Maori (people indigenous to New Zealand) cast, young Hongi (James Rolleston) seeks revenge on a rival tribe that eradicated his people. To do so, he seeks the help of a legendary warrior (Lawrence Makaore, who played many an orc in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) who prowls the “Dead Lands,” a seemingly liminal space between real and fantasy.
This brief glance at pre-colonial New Zealand is displaced by the film’s magical realist tendency. Being a co-production with the UK, this is hardly surprising. Closer to Disney’s Pocahontas than to Terrence Malick’s breathtaking The New World, The Dead Lands’ more fantastical elements will protect audiences from any “unwarranted” cultural shocks.
Regardless of its heavily westernized depiction of native culture, Fraser’s overall technical competence makes for an occasionally thrilling adventure. While many of the quieter moments lag, the stylized, ritualized fight sequences are dramatically compelling. The physical and emotional stamina of Rolleston and Makaore provide further dramatic weight to these sequences.
The Dead Lands caters to the west’s fantastical depiction of native cultures, but those wishing for such an experience will likely enjoy this sporadically gripping action film.