Terrarium (2002) – By Duane L. Martin

What kind of a movie can you make with $27,000, a full scale sixty-four foot long spaceship built in your own back yard, and a dream? A really damn good one apparently. Terrarium is the creation of a Las Vegas film director named Mike Conway and with a budget of only $27,000, he’s managed to create a film that tells a far better story than anything Hollywood has ever put out in any of it’s 100+ million dollar snorefests.

Terrarium is the story of twelve astronauts who are being sent to another planet to start a colony. Each is sealed in a water filled stasis tank within the ship and feeding and stimulant tubes run from the celing of each chamber down into their bodies to keep them alive on their fifteen year journey to the new world. When the ship crashes unexpectedly due to a malfunction and a miscalculated orbit, the crew finds themselves waking up, but still sealed in their chambers and unable to move due to the atrophy their bodies experienced during the trip. The bodies are lined up in the walls much like a compartment on a train would be. Three on top and three on the bottom inset into a wall parallel to the other six inset into the other wall. They can see each other, and what’s happening outside of their compartments, and that’s where the terror begins. An ape like carnivorous creature has broken through the wall of the ship, and as the crew watches helplessly, the monster breaks into one of the chambers, partially devours one of the astronauts, and then carries what’s left away. This begins a long and very psychological struggle in which the crew tries to regain their strength within the chambers so they can break out and save themselves from the creature. What they don’t realize in their immediate quest for survival is that there’s a much greater, and a far more intelligent danger awaiting them outside the ship.

Terrarium’s strength lies in the fact that it relied on storytelling rather than fancy CGI effects, and the acting by the all volunteer cast was quite good, albeit a little stiff sounding at times, which allowed you feel yourself kind of locked into their struggle as they try to survive on this new world. What’s funny is that a lot of the characters in Terrarium aren’t really people you’d care about all that much in any other movie, but in this one you find yourself pulling for them to survive.

There are special effects in this movie and some CGI space scenes and such, but the movie doesn’t rely on them at all. In fact, the movie didn’t originally have them at all. When Mike Conway first made the movie, he managed to get it shown in a Las Vegas theater where it attracted the attention of Chuck Carter, P.J. Foley, and Bart Anderson…guys who had previously done visual effects for Star Trek and Babylon 5. They offered to do some effects shots for free to help enhance the movie. Mike accepted, and Terrarium got some snazzy new effects. A year later, David Rosler was hired to do the crash landing sequence, and he liked the movie so much he threw in some other exterior shots and an explosion as well.

I’d also like to mention here that I was extremely impressed by the professionalism of the cinematography. The scenes were all well thought out and there were cuts to different views at the appropriate times. Often, it was what you didn’t see that built the overall tension of the movie. The night scenes, which were basically all the outdoor scenes, were all perfectly lit, so you knew it was night but you could still see the characters and everything that was going on. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is for me to watch a film with night scenes and basically end up with a black screen where you’re only barely able to make out some vaguely highlighted shadows moving here and there. I’ve seen a lot of low budget features, but never have I seen one that was shot as well, or edited as well as this one.

Being a classic film reviewer, it’s always a pleasure for me to see films that rely on characterization, storytelling, and real creature effects rather than a bunch of CGI creatures that don’t even look like they’re on the same screen as the actors. This film reminds me of one of those old sci-fi movies from the 50’s, so it’s no surprise that I liked it. This film is currently being independently distributed by Mike Conway himself, though I believe he is working on distribution deals with various companies. I would encourage you all to go to http://www.terrariumthemovie.com and purchase a copy of the movie for yourself. As of this writing, the cost is $14.99 and it includes not only a behind the scenes documentary that is quite good, but also three extra short films as bonus features that Mike had done prior to the Terrarium DVD release. Believe me, you’ll get your money’s worth.