Although bestowed with Steven Spielberg’s enthusiastic imprimatur as one of the show’s executive producers (along with an endless list of producers, writers and a director whose credits include shows such as “24,” “Fringe” and “Castle”), “Terra Nova” insists you take it super seriously.
And that is a complaint. Years ago, Spielberg’s name on such a product would have stood first and foremost for the idea of strapping in for a thrill ride. Clearly that’s part of this package: “Terra Nova” builds toward a scene in which youngsters are trapped in a vehicle while carnivorous dinosaurs butt at it and try to nibble the delicious prizes squealing within. So, as with summer’s “Super 8” at the box office and “Falling Skies” on TNT, part of Spielberg’s industry appears to be offering the use of his brand to directors who wish to ape (I mean, pay homage to) scenes from the Spielberg canon.
In “Terra Nova’s” case, of course, the obvious bow here is toward “Jurassic Park,” which provides the visual inspiration as well as the early 1990s technology that made dinosaurs a more lifelike presence in the collective imagination. That stuff isn’t exactly cheap to make now, but it’s certainly cheaper — or just cheap enough to attempt in a weekly series.
My issue with “Terra Nova” is that the fun stuff is too easily dragged down by a pompous sense of bloat that has increasingly plagued much of sci-fi for the past 20 or so years, in movies and on TV. You sign up for a trip to Six Flags only to discover that you’re on your way to a really humid weekend with Habitat for Humanity, followed by a trip to the model United Nations competition. With all its speeches, paramilitary archetypes and clumsy expressions of the brotherhood of man, “Terra Nova” often feels like James Cameron’s name should be atop it instead.
The dinosaurs are fine, reflecting how skillfully the culture industry has mastered the art of staring at computer screens. I’m more worried about “Terra Nova’s” humans, who don’t do dialogue so much as they do exposition in service to plot.
“Terra Nova’s” narrative center is the Shannon family, who live in 22nd-century Chicago. Pollution is killing everyone, but the discovery of a time-travel portal has offered one last hope. We can go back 85 million years and start fresh, seeding a colony called Terra Nova. (Here you stop and blurt: “What about paradoxes?! Won’t we alter history and fate by doing this?” Above the Dolby sound, I shout: “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of! The scientists say we’re on a parallel time track or something. You are such a geek, anyhow!”)