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Just when you thought the scariest thing about Auckland was the traffic ...
It's amusing to note that after his feature debut
, which was sort of a Peter Jackson cover version, that Jonathan King's second film ends up with two plucky heroes dodging a hideously disfigured creature to chuck something precious into a volcano.
Only this time, the cone is Rangitoto. And the only comparison this captivatingly creepy flick risks is with the much-loved previous (small) screen adaptation of Maurice Gee's kids fantasy about young twins vs aliens hiding out in Auckland's cratered geology.
That series did for a certain age bracket what
's Daleks managed a decade earlier. But today's young Harry Potter-ites require something stronger to get them scared. They need ...(cue scary strings from a soundtrack very big on them) ... Oliver Driver!
Having made him the sheep monster of his previous film, here King has cast Driver - quite literally, given the amount of facial latex - as Mr Wilberforce, the highly imposing creep-in-charge. And the movie heads somewhere neatly dark and disturbing every time he's on screen, especially in a scene where he's posing as a door-knocking policeman.
And that's the good thing about this
- it might be a retelling of a familiar tale and is deliberately teen-aimed, but it still generates a very real sense of menace and peril as twins Theo and Rachel (and mentor Mr Jones) go up against the Wilberforces around and under Auckland.
The film does come with some irritations. Neill's Mr Jones is perpetually earnest, though he is an ancient alien who has seen the end of his world and has seemingly been stuck in Auckland since, so coming across as
's grumpy uncle is to be expected.
The time given over to the twins' older cousin Ricky and his hormonal frustrations seems a bit pandering to the movie's market but his driver's licence and Datsun 120Y sure come in handy.
Screen newcomers Cameron and McBride put in solid turns as the twins, who we first meet in the wake of a family tragedy. With Theo emotionally withdrawn and Rachel needing his support, they are sent to a relatives' house on the edge of Lake Pupuke, a few doors down from the ramshackle Wilberforce mansion to which they are inevitably drawn.
Meanwhile, Mr Jones gets in touch and tells them their telepathic "twin-ness" is the only thing that will vanquish the monsters and restore North Shore property prices to their rightful state.
That involves plenty of just-in-time scurrying about in the dark, much proof that tunnels could really help the city's transit system, Mr Jones showing his talent for spontaneous combustion and Driver barking "make 'em dead" at his gooey sidekicks - who don't exactly seem like the planet-conquering types.
All that helps make for an exciting, fantasy adventure. It might aim young but that doesn't stop it succeeding in its ambitions of making Auckland feel like alien territory.
May the Wilberforce be with you.
Sam Neill, Oliver Driver, Sophie McBride, Tom Cameron.