Review: Under the Dome / Cert: 15 / Director: Various / Screenplay: Various / Starring: Mike Vogel, Rachelle Lefevre, Colin Ford, Dean Norris / Release Date: November 18th
Welcome to Chester’s Mill, a picture-perfect New England town where everybody knows everybody else’s business and nothing exciting ever happens. Then, out of nowhere, the Dome comes down, sealing the town in and keeping the outside world out. While the initial emergence of the impenetrable bubble creates a flurry of casualties, it’s the aftermath that provides the most drama as the town becomes an insulated melting pot of terror, suspicion and panic from which there is no escape.
Providing the centre point for the show is Dale ‘Barbie’ Barbara (Vogel), an ex-Special Forces vet turned debt collector with blood on his hands but his heart in the right place. Fighting alongside him for truth, justice and the New England way is Julia (Lefevre), a journalist with a nose for trouble, and the temporarily orphaned Joe (Ford), who along with out-of-towner Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz) become the key to understanding the Dome. Providing the counterbalance is the town’s self-proclaimed King, ‘Big Jim’ Rennie (Norris) and his son Junior (Alexander Koch), both of whom harbour dark secrets that threaten to unravel as the tensions build towards a dramatic climax.
In 1990, IT became something of a TV phenomenon. Not just because it was a huge ratings winner, but because it was the perfect medium to transfer one of Stephen King’s lengthier stories to screen. At over 1000 pages long, any attempt to truncate the story into a 120-minute movie would have been a travesty. It’s no surprise then that 23 years later, his third-longest tale, Under the Dome has received a similar treatment, only this time it has found a different way to break new ground; by translating the story into a 12 episode run. Well, sort of.
There is no doubt that Under the Dome is a huge improvement on any of the Stephen King TV adaptations of recent years (the last being Bag of Bones starring Pierce Brosnan, which was made two years ago but seemed like it had been made a good ten years earlier). Thanks in no small part to the likes of The Walking Dead, this translation to screen feels more grounded in the real world and less like it takes part in the hokey King universe imposed by the last 20 years of average book-to-screen conversions. That said, there are still some remnants that cause frustration. There’s far too much melodrama for one, exacerbated by a series of issues ranging from occasionally corny music to suspect acting or just plain hammy dialogue. All of which is entirely unnecessary when you consider how flawless King’s dialogue and character work is on the written page.
There is little point in deploring the multitude of differences between this and the book as, understandably, certain elements had to change. In fact some of them are for the better. ‘Big Jim’ is a much more fleshed out character here, a testament to the writers as well as Norris’ performance while Barbie (despite being an Oliver Queen clone) becomes less of a two-dimensional hero. Interestingly, the main issue is the very thing that made this such an enticing prospect in the first place: the format.
It won’t spoil anything to reveal that the final episode leaves you hanging (a second season was announced just weeks into the series’ run), and that in itself provides the biggest problem. Had this tried to encapsulate King’s story tightly within one 12-episode run, it would have been perfect. As it is, it’s far too saggy. Episodes pass by where nothing of any note happens and sadly (unlike The Walking Dead for instance) the majority of the characters just aren’t strong enough to keep you glued to the screen. And that brings us another major issue, which again takes its key from one of its progenitors. Over the last three or so years, TV has been awash with shows depicting the end of existence as we know it, while following a small group of survivors struggling on, searching in vein for salvation. No doubt their popularity got this project green-lit, but it’s just too similar a concept to allow King’s themes to shine out.
As a slice of King lite, Under the Dome makes for passable entertainment, but it doesn’t quite hold its own among the other big hitters. Whether a second season will improve matters remains to be seen, but even so it can’t stop you from feeling like this was a little bit of a missed opportunity.
While deleted scenes pop up occasionally with certain episodes, the mother load of Special Features show up on the fourth disc. These include thoughts on the project from Stephen King himself as well as an in-depth discussion on the challenges of turning his mammoth book into an ongoing TV series. Two further featurettes on the show itself discuss a wide range of subjects from the perspectives of the writers, directors and actors. It’s great stuff and really embellishes the experience, allowing you to re-experience elements of the show that you might have missed the first time around. That and a genuinely amusing gag reel and Colin Ford’s in-character blog interspersed with self-shot videos make for a strong selection of extras.
Extras: See above