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Under the Dome
When the dome comes down, so does civilized society
Loves: Stephen King, The Stand
Likes: Epic stories, supernatural tales
Dislikes: Small-town politics
Hates: Stretched-out stories
A year ago, as a resident of Long Island, New York, I experienced Superstorm Sandy. Aside from some roof damage, I was very lucky to have escaped serious destruction (though others I know in the area weren't as fortunate.) However, I did get to see first-hand what happens when people are under pressure and resources are slim, as I walked through the empty aisles at Target and drove past lengthy lines of people waiting for gas deliveries. We can all point to events like 9/11 and say we'll pull together and get through, but when the chips are down and we can't get bread, will we be so civilized? It's situations like that make for some real drama.
That's what powers one of my favorite book adaptations, the TV miniseries of Stephen King's The Stand. Part of it is the cast, which is incredible, part of it is the story, which though a bit blunted for TV, is fantastic, but the big thing is the scope of the tale, which actually lives up to the label of epic. A massive novel, it required plenty of time to tell the story, and the miniseries let you get to know the characters and become involved in their story.
Under the Dome is a similarly lengthy King work, though the scope is markedly smaller, taking place, for the most part, inside the small Maine town of Chester's Mill, which one day finds itself suddenly stuck under an invisible shell that cuts off the townspeople from the rest of society. In adapting the story to TV, plenty of changes were made from the book, including the crux of the plot, but the most interesting decision was in turning the book into an on-going TV series, with a plan for five seasons. That's part of why Under the Dome should be considered a very loose adaptation, or perhaps an expansion of the book's concept. That's also part of why this series may end up a more fulfilling exploration of Chester's Mill than King' original work, which, for all its storytelling grandeur and detail, comes up a bit short when it comes to the core of the story, feeling more like an over-long episode of The Twilight Zone than a King classic.
Under the small-town New England surface, Chester's Mill harbors plenty of secrets, which makes it a fitting place for Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike vogel, Bates Motel), a rugged man of mystery, who is on his way out of town when the dome appears. Trapped with the repercussions of what he's done while in Chester's Mill, he now has to find a way out while learning who he can trust, which is hard thanks to constantly shifting loyalties. As a former military man, he is instinctually good and can handle himself in most situations, but when he finds himself aligning with the town newspaper editor, Julia (Rachelle Lefevre, The Twilight Saga), whose missing husband he was involved with, he struggles with guilt.
Barbie and Julia aren't the only ones looking for answers. Played by Colin Ford, young Joe's scientific curiosity drives him to find the source of the dome, accompanied by his friends and an outsider named Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz), with whom he shares an uncommon connection, while the town's remaining political leader, used-car salesman Big Jim (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad) has his own less-noble interests, and an army of lackeys, including his possibly sociopathic son Junior (Alexander Koch), the epitome of the rich small-town jock. As with The Stand, there are plenty of other characters to meet (and often grieve for), and with 13 44-minute episodes to work with, there's plenty of time to get to know them well and see how their lives intersect (and since Chester's Mill is a small town, those intersections are deep and plentiful.) This allows some smaller parts to shine, like farmer Ollie (Leon Rippy), one of the few citizens willing to challenge Big Jim, setting up a power struggle.
Though the series is obviously mainly concerned with the invisible dome that surrounds the town and a supernatural mythology pursued by Joe and some of the younger residents, there are several levels to the show's story, including a conspiracy amongst the town's leaders that comes to light thanks to the effects of the dome, a father-son conflict between Big Jim and his disturbed son Junior and the ongoing crisis that a lack of resources brings. While the mystery of the dome is certainly the reason to keep watching, it's the interpersonal relationships that keep the show moving through each episode. Unfortunately, with at least another season on the way, the first season offers next to nothing in terms of a satisfying conclusion to the main storyline, leaving you waiting until the next go-round. There needed to be some sort of closed arc to make this work as a whole. As it is, it's just a segment of a story that requires a massive time investment with little pay-off.
That's off-putting, considering the dream team behind the show, from King to executive producer Steven Spielberg to lead adaptor Brian K. Vaughn, not to mention director Niels Arden Oplev (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who set the tone for the series with the pilot episode, and an engaging cast, despite a lineup lacking in recognizable faces. The level of quality in front of and behind the camera also makes the storytelling surprising, because it's often sub-par. Perhaps it's because it airs on CBS, the most pedestrian, lowest-common-denominator network of the big four, but Under the Dome frequently feels like bad community theater, with overt melodrama that obnoxiously crashes into the more interesting elements of the plot (for instance, the invention of the villainous Maxine adds nothing but pulpy stuffing), as well as dialogue that's so obvious that an introductory screenwriting student wouldn't consider putting them on paper. Contrast them with the Faustian spiral Big Jim experiences, and there seems to be some detachment in the quality of the crafting that would possibly indicate network interference.
The 13 episodes of Under the Dome's first season are spread across four Blu-Ray discs, which are packed in a stylish, four-tray digipak case featuring episode descriptions, special features info and photos of four main cast members behind each disc, as if the clear tray was the dome. Then the digipak is held inside a thick, two-piece cardboard slipcase with a die-cut dome that sits in front of the top of the case. It's a rather impressive presentation. Each disc's animated menu features options to to play all the episodes, select shows, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. Audio options include English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, while subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
The 1080p, AVC-ended transfers look good, but there's something about them that doesn't quite sing, though it could partially be the fault of the shooting style, as the series at times looks a bit soft. The level of fine detail seems like it could be higher, as some close-ups show wrinkles and pores, but there's a lack of definition in textures and settings. Color looks appropriate, if a bit amber-hued, but again, that could be a style choice, as it's not a consistent situation, with colder-colored scenes showing no warm tones. Black levels are good, keeping the night scenes from getting muddy, which is important for one underground scene in particular. Digital distractions aren't a major concern, though there is some aliasing and some compression issues to be noted in some of the busier outdoor scenes (in the trees) and the darker moments. It's not egregious though.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks aren't going to blow anyone anyone, but they are perfectly serviceable, keeping the dialogue clean, strong and distortion-free in the center channel, while the surrounds get some work from the oft-present atmospheric sound and some occasional sound effects. The action in the film is presented in a very linear style, so the audience isn't normally in the middle of any of the explosions or firefights, and as a result you're not getting any real dynamic mixing.
The extras are mostly made up of featurettes from Spielberg's primary chronicler, Laurent Bouzereau, kicked off by "Under the Dome: Filming the Pilot," a substantial (28:29) featurette on the making of the first episode, starting from a pre-shoot table read with King. It's a very in-depth look behind the scenes, featuring interviews with the majority of the talent involved (including Vaughn and frequent thoughts from King), plenty of on-set footage and some peeks at pre-production materials and the intriguing practical effects done on the film. There are obviously plenty of spoilers, as the pilot is covered from beginning to end, so save it for later viewing.
The mastermind is back with "Stephen King and Under the Dome" (11:53), which opens with a bit from author (and King friend) Michael Connelly, as well as a reading of the first (brief) chapter of the book. Both men talk about the book, while King discusses his characters and the process of moving the story from the page to the screen, including some of the differences. For King fans, there's some fun moments with him to check out.
The well-constructed featurettes continue with "Under the Dome: From Novel to Series" (14:36), which focuses on the writing and casting of the series, spending time in the writers' room talking about how the story was crafted, including the experiences and perspectives they brought to the series. Then "The World of Under the Dome" (12:06) looks at the visuals of the film, centering mainly on the locations, sets and costumes. Crew members show and explain the North Carolina towns that stood in for Chester's Mill, as well as the finely-crafted sets and the wide array of costumes required by the show's massive cast.
"Under the Dome: The First Season" (29:32) is a bit like the "Filming the Pilot" featurette, but it covers the entirety of the 13 episodes, delving into the show's more unique aspects, like the way it went right to series production and the variety of directors who worked independently, yet maintained a cohesive look to the show. The big points in the plot get reviewed in interviews and on-set footage, making for a concise overview of the season, full of analysis and insight into the show.
"Joe's Blog" is a bit of viral content for the series, made up of 11 entries; a mix of text and video "posts" They start before the dome's appearance, and run though the later part of the season. There's nothing that adds to the story, but it is a bit more of the characters to check out. There's also a 4:38 gag reel full of goof-ups and goofing off, The serious nature of the series makes these silly moments rather absurd.
Four deleted scenes from three episodes are included, running a total of 3:04. One actually changes how the relationship between Big Jim and Ollie would have played out this season, but the other three lack importance, especially one exceedingly short moment that has next to no meaning. The presentation of these scenes is frustrating, as you have to hunt and peck through the episodes, starting each one until you find a menu for a deleted scene. And of course, on each disc, it's the last one that actually has the deleted scene.
A set of launch promos are also available, in a 3:20 loop. Disappointingly the original Super Bowl teaser that created the initial interest in the show is not included.
The Bottom Line
Like The Stand, Under the Dome uses a sci-fi/horror concept as a jumping-off point (as well as a through line) for exploring how people react when everything in their world changes. However, the mysterious origin of the dome adds another element to the story, which explores the effects of desperation. Unfortunately, this impressive re-interpretation of King's vision offers a severely disappointing conclusion to the season, as the show stretches the plot into a second season. On the other hand, the presentation is solid and the extras, produced to Spielberg's standards, are wonderfully in-depth, so if you're a King fan, or just want more about the people of Chester's Mill, this is a fine collection.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.