Directed By: Toa Fraser
Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka
Tag line: "Where the warrior spirit was born"
Trivia: Official submission of New Zealand to the best foreign language film category of the 87th Academy Awards 2015
Set hundreds of years in the past, 2014’s The Dead Lands follows Hongi (James Rolleston), the son of a Maori chieftain, as he tries to avenge the slaughter of his entire tribe. The trouble started earlier, when Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), the son of a rival chieftain, stopped by to pay his respects to the graves of his ancestors. Following a tense confrontation with Hongi’s father Tane (George Henare), Wirepa and his soldiers seemingly head for home, only to return later that night, attacking and killing Tane and many members of his tribe.
Determined to make Wirepa pay for his actions, Hongi tracks him to an area known as the Dead Lands (thus named because the people who once lived there have died off), a supposedly cursed region that, according to legend, is guarded by a fierce warrior. Realizing he can’t defeat Wirepa and his men by himself, Hongi seeks out this warrior (Lawrence Makoare), who agrees to help him. But over time, Hongi will discover that the warrior, who many believe is actually a demon, has reasons of his own for joining the hunt.
Shot in New Zealand’s more picturesque locales, The Dead Lands is, start to finish, a beautiful motion picture, and features some thrilling action sequences. But, at its heart, the movie is a tale about honor and duty, both of which (if this film is to be believed) were of vital importance to the ancient Maori. As the only survivor of Wirepa’s attack (mostly because he hid while it was going on), Hongi feels both remorse for not having fought back (for Maori warriors, the only proper way to die is in battle), and duty-bound to avenge his loved ones; several times throughout the movie, Hongi (while asleep) is visited by his deceased grandmother (Rena Owen), who urges him to kill Wirepa and restore his family’s honor. Not to be outdone, the warrior who assists Hongi is himself living under a cloud, and looking for a little redemption of his own.
Yet as engaging as its story is at times, and as exciting as many of the battle scenes are (especially the climactic showdown), there’s nothing in The Dead Lands that we haven’t seen before, which, to be honest, disappointed me a little (not knowing anything about the Maori or their way of life going in, I was hoping for something a bit more substantial, but instead got what amounted to a well-made, though rather pedestrian, action flick) Those in the mood for a fast-paced, entertaining diversion will undoubtedly find The Dead Lands to their liking, but once the movie is over, it will quickly evaporate from the mind.