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“DMZ” Strong Premise, Scattered Storytelling [Review]

Despite all the-behind-the scenes turmoil that has plagued Warner Bros, HBO, and AT&T, the premiere streaming service HBO Max seems dead set on sparing no expense for programming. That’s evident here in their latest outing “DMZ,” a loosely adaption of a 2005 graphic novel of the same name. Everything from the cast to the crew to the production; it all looks and feels very expensive. This is both a gift and curse for the project. The cast elevates the material to deliver a compelling dystopian drama, and the filmmakers understand how to create gorgeous shots, one after the other.

Where it falls short is in its adapted script as well as the more abstract approach to the material in lieu of getting their hands dirty and digging into the darker themes that exist beneath the surface.

“DMZ” HBO Max

DMZ” is a miniseries created for television by Robert Patino, who adapts the graphic novel from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. It is directed by Ernest Dickerson (a prolific television director with a hand in just about every popular show imaginable) with the pilot directed by Ava DuVernay. It starts Rosario Dawson as Alma Ortega, a nurse who was displaced from her son during an evacuation attempt due a civil war on American soil. The war has left Manhattan as an all but abandoned Demilitarized Zone, separating the two waring sides of a shattered country. Alma decides to sneak into the DMZ to find her son and get him out, only to discover that the world left behind is full of danger and deeper ties to the zone than she ever imagined.

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What truly works in “DMZ” is Dawson, who truly gives her all to Alma even if the material on paper doesn’t require more than a by the book heroine. It is a departure from the graphic novel, but works as a fine entry point into the dystopian world. There’s a lot of hands off, at a distance kind of approach to the source material (more on that later), but Dawson digs into what’s put in front her with abandon and forces you to root for her survival and reunion quickly. It’s always nice to see Benjamin Bratt in anything, and his turn as the ruthless yet charming kingpin of the zone Parco Delgado is welcomed and matches the energy Dawson is laying down.

“DMZ,” HBO Max

The two are really the standouts here, as we aren’t necessarily given enough at the start to really invest in anyone else. There’s few colorful characters we meet along the way, but their impact isn’t as big in comparison to Dawson and Bratt. “DMZ” is also beautifully shot, with gorgeous cinematography and shot composition all throughout the series. This combination makes “DMZ” instantly intriguing and interesting, and while it attempts to try and introduce a number of subplots all at once, many of them start off intriguing enough to see them through to their conclusion. However, these scattered ideas created a scattered narrative, once that never feels like it truly wants to engage with the high minded ideas that the story has baked into itself.

DMZ” acts a trojan horse dystopian drama meant to take the current division in our current cultural climate as far it can go, tapping into the greatest fears of a radicalized nation divided. At least, that what it thinks it wants to do, and only kind of achieves this. The real core of what is laid out (particularly in the graphic novel) isn’t just that a divided America could potentially tear itself apart, but asks the question of displacement caused by America itself. Essentially it asks the question, “What if what the American military does to other countries ends up happening on its own soil?” It’s a worth question that deserves to be explored, but Patino (and the direction of DuVernay) seems uninterested in really getting into these themes.

“DMZ” HBO Max

The series strips away a lot of what it is supposedly about and trades it out for a simple story of a mother trying to find her son in a dangerous and unknown territory. That would be fine if “DMZ” wasn’t so set on constantly delivering dialogue about what happened. The picture is never really clear, and the series continually introduces character after character without any really meaningful purpose or concern for why they exist in the first place. This also never really allows the New York ravaged by war feel real, at least not in any meaningful way. See, it looks great and DuVernay really understands how to deliver amazing visuals. But the actual world that is built feels like a blank empty canvas instead of lived in Demilitarized Zone.

By failing to truly engage with the material, “DMZ” suffers in its scattered storytelling, and kind ends up dulling the danger and urgency outside if its initial premise. Even the gangland power struggles don’t feel all that real, either. Everything feels transported from different televisions shows, and could exist anywhere in any setting. This is a bummer, because there’s a lot to like in “DMZ,” and its stars do enough to kind of make you wish they could only exist in this strange world and nowhere else. That ends up being more of a folly of the filmmaker than the actors and the actual story, which has a lot more to offer than what “DMZ” is willing to engage with.

“DMZ,” photo by Eli Joshua Adé/HBO Max

Overall, the show is worth checking out. There’s enough to enjoy to make “DMZ” compelling and exciting television in the few episodes it has to offer. The show has a lot potential if it was more willing to be bold and follow through with some of the challenging questions and deconstruction of American systems that exist below the surface level storylines.

In essence, there’s more to the story than this series is willing to tell, which holds it back from being truly great and unique. “DMZ” premieres on HBO Max March 17th, 2022.

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You can watch the trailer below.

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