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The superb design team behind AMC’s The Terror built an entire world in a Hungarian studio — an icebound landscape of rocky outcrops, gelid waters, a frozen tundra marked only by burial cairns, all of it seeming to stretch on forever. It could be an inhospitable alien planet or the bleached terrain of an epic Western. Which makes perfect sense when you consider how deftly this dramatically robust, commandingly acted adaptation of Dan Simmons’ fictionalized account of the lost 1845 British Royal Navy expedition to the Arctic blends genres, from historical adventure to survival saga to psychological thriller to creature horror.
The 2007 novel originally was optioned by Universal for feature development. But already, from the first two episodes that premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s international TV showcase ahead of the series’ March 26 broadcast bow, it’s clear the property benefits from the expanded breathing space of cable drama. The meticulous etching of characters and their complicated dynamics, the dissemination of dread, the vivid sense of prolonged isolation, all provide the foundations for what promises to be an escalating nightmare of disease, starvation and rampaging monster carnage.
AIR DATE Mar 26, 2018
Opening text explains the objective of the voyage, the latest attempt to forge the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean. This is followed by a brief prologue four years after the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were lost along with their crews. A rescue party has encountered an Inuit woman and a dying old man (referred to in period usage as Eskimos). He passes on the dire warning of one of the ships’ officers who had lived among them: “Tell those who come after not to stay here. The ships are gone. We are gone.” The man also shares more cryptic information about a fearsome creature called Tuunbaq.
Rewinding to 1846, the power structure of the two vessels is established. Puffed up Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) heads the expedition and captains the Erebus, while his more introspective second-in-command, Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), captains the Terror. Third in the chain is James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), a preening braggart who’s either sucking up to Franklin with obsequious flattery or boasting of his own past heroics in accounts likely embroidered for effect.
Crozier has little patience for Fitzjames‘ self-aggrandizement, and the antipathy is mutual. “There’s nothing worse than a man who has lost his joy,” Fitzjames remarks of him to Franklin in one of his constant digs. The unlikelihood of Crozier, an Irishman, rising to the top ranks of the British Navy, also comes into play. Franklin’s undistinguished record in a past polar expedition makes him determined to end his career in glory, fueling his reckless refusal to hear Crozier’s prediction that they are heading into disaster.
Edward Berger, who directed the two opening hours, benefits greatly from the recruitment of first-rate actors to bring dramatic texture and interior life to a group of uniformed men somewhat constrained by the “God, Queen and Country” politesse of the Victorian era.
That applies less in the lower ranks, where the most intriguing character so far is Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), scarcely ruffled when he’s interrupted by a lieutenant while having furtive sex below deck with a shipmate. An Irishman who has spent his working years in England, Hickey knows enough to be sure that the officer (Ronan Raftery), a timorous religious man, will convince himself he saw nothing. Hickey’s nationality also provides a connection with Crozier that he looks likely to work to his benefit.
The chief contrast to the officers’ stiff-lipped reserve comes from Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready), an aptly named junior medic with a number of emotionally penetrating moments in the early action. He shows deep compassion as he ministers to a sickly young crew member whose health precipitates drastically after he starts convulsing and coughing up blood. Goodsir is unable to see the vision of an Inuit shaman that appears during the patient’s agonized final moments, but the certainty of the dying man’s gaze makes him believe another presence was in the room.
That powerful scene — along with other tense interludes such as a man overboard and a daring diving-suited foray into the depths to remove packed ice from a damaged propeller — ratchets up the life-or-death stakes quite early.
Showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh take their time with the storytelling, ensuring that it’s character-driven first and foremost, though there’s also painstaking attention to atmosphere, with a dense soundscape of wind, shifting ice and the groaning wooden beams of the ships. The ominous whining of the ship’s dog, the haywire compass readings due to the Arctic magnetic field, the otherworldly glow of the Northern lights, and the graphically bloody nature of the hacksaw autopsy on the dead sailor contribute further to the creeping chill factor.
By episode two, Franklin’s grandiloquently oratorical pep talks about greatness and adventure are already beginning to sound hollow, and beneath Hinds’ windy demeanor, the captain seems to know it. Having remained packed in until spring as the brooding Crozier warned, Franklin sends two exploratory parties with boat sledges East and West to scout navigable waters. Neither group returns with promising news, and one lieutenant is lost in the chaotic aftermath of a violent ice storm, taken by what the other men believe was a massive bear. The flash visual of the creature suggests otherwise.
The key development here, and one that promises to have increased weight as the series progresses, is the accidental shooting during the confusion of an Inuit native, whom Goodsir does his best to save. The wounded man’s shattered daughter (Nive Nielsen) is the same young woman from the prologue, who appears to know much about the predator threat. Her instinctive distrust of the foreign interlopers is somewhat eased by the gentle diplomacy of Crozier, who has a rudimentary command of her language. That contrasts with Franklin’s brusque view: “These people are not our concern.”
With no sign of a thaw in any direction and food supplies dwindling or going rotten, things are clearly going to get a whole lot more desperate as starvation, disease and possible mutiny combine with the external threat to tear into the men’s fraying composure.
The question arises as to whether genre fans accustomed to the elevated body count and gore factor of, say, The Walking Dead, will have the required concentration for the layered drama wrapped around The Terror‘s sharp shocks. It’s also a very male-centric show; other than the Inuit mystery woman, female presences are confined to London flashbacks, with Franklin’s wife (Greta Scacchi) and the niece (Caroline Boulton) they have repeatedly urged to reject Crozier’s proposals of marriage.
But there’s an impressive confidence to the storytelling that will grab viewers with a taste for sophisticated horror. All-round terrific acting is a huge part of it, notably from Harris in his best role since Mad Men. (And how great to see Hinds and Menzies together again after HBO’s lamented historical ripper, Rome.) The production’s physical elements also are top-notch, from the richly detailed ships’ interiors to the miniatures and digital effects work of expansive overhead shots. The claustrophobic sense of entrapment is reinforced every time ace cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s camera swoops back to reveal the two ships like toys, wedged into cracked marble that seems destined to engulf them.
Production company: AMC Studios, Scott Free Productions, Entertainment 360, EMJAG Productions
Cast: Jared Harris, Ciaran Hinds, Tobias Menzies, Paul Ready, Adam Nagaitis, Nive Nielsen, Ian Hart, Greta Scacchi
Director: Edward Berger
Screenwriters: David Kajganich, Soo Hugh, adapted from the novel by Dan Simmons
Showrunners: David Kajganich, Soo Hugh
Executive producers: David Kajganich, Soo Hugh, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Alexandra Milchan, Scott Lambert, Guymon Casady, Dan Simmons
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Series)
Premieres: Monday, March 26, 9 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)
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