By Rogan Marshall | February 13, 2004

I wish reviewing underground films didn’t so often entail pitying the poor bastards you’re obligated to publicly eviscerate. “Terrarium” comes equipped with a second disc, presenting, among other dismissible extras, behind-the-scenes footage which makes it clear that Mike Conway is an earnest independent filmmaker, who has invested time, soul, and what appears to be a life’s savings in this picture. Unfortunately for us both, none of this adds up to enough to redeem his lousy little movie. 

Despite writing as bereft of an understanding of any and all demands and necessities of story and form as the work of a talented ten year old, “Terrarium” clearly wants to be a post-pulp sci fi/horror adventure in the same claustrophobe modernist mode as Carpenter or Cameron. Even aside from and ahead of any questions regarding his talents as a writer or director, as a producer, Conway just doesn’t have the money and toys to pull off anything remotely approaching verisimilitude. Nevertheless, he and his cast and crew, reaching for the sky as if they believe it to be much lower than it looks, execute a perfectly dreadful and, more damningly, perfectly humorless script, against a backdrop that hardly ever even suggests what it is supposed to represent, at which they refuse to allow themselves to crack a smile. 

Rather than explain at greater length how Conway has made a completely unwatchable movie, I’ll just settle on one good example: the spaceship set. “Terrarium” concerns a manned expedition to another solar system. I won’t allow myself to get distracted talking about the ludicrous science you’ll find here, not to mention plot mechanics that continuously disregard logical cause-and-effect with a straight face.  

(All right, I’ll get distracted a little. The script also displays a child’s cultural IQ, and sense for personal dynamics – as if the writer has never really met people – just seen them on TV – and bad TV, at that. You have to wonder what he was thinking… frequently. For one scene, he makes up some medical details, regarding field treatment for a squished limb – fictionalizing material you can pull out of any first aid manual. It is, I know, a cruel thing to do, to compare a writer to children, over and over… but who disregards such first level details of the writerly work, outside of grade school? Big words deployed in onscreen titles are misspelled. I mean, really. No one but a filmmaker’s parents has to take that kind of carelessness. Unless it’s unintentionally funny to an absurd degree, and this, unfortunately, isn’t. Or there are some really special naked girls – you know – the Harry Novak Effect. Unfortunately, there aren’t any naked girls, on the planet Conway takes us to.)  

I’ll stick to talking about the spaceship set. It’s ambitious as hell. It’s all one piece, it’s something like twelve feet high and twenty-five long on the outside, and has two detailed rooms inside. However, despite the tremendous amount of visible work in this thing, it still looks like cardboard and tinfoil, and nothing prevents you from seeing that it lives in someone’s back yard. It’s sort of like that Waterworld boat, the one they spent forty million dollars on and ended up looking on film like they threw it up on a back lot in two days and hung a blue sheet behind it. It not only doesn’t work at all, but it is painfully, relentlessly obvious that the filmmakers are refusing to acknowledge that it doesn’t work, even as they work around and on it. Conway’s spaceship set is also like that spaceship set in Fellini’s 8 1/2 – the purposeless of which in Fellini’s film serves as a metaphor for his purposeless process. At any rate the metaphor is sort of similar: this spaceship set looks like it might be just about anything but a real spaceship. “Terrarium” looks like just about anything but a real movie. 

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