Monthly Archives: June 2015

Review: Ex Machina (2015)

While televised science fiction content withered in US, UK seems to have made a serious headway in tackling the short story format, providing us with some near-future insightful stories on the subject of humanity as impacted by changing technologies.

Black Mirror, for example, a two-year series with a few, well-chosen story lines, provided us with some wonderful, visually-stunning and mildly antiseptic view of the genius-bar futures. Our relationships, our humanity, the use and distribution of our memories, and of course, in an eternal Asimov tradition, the question of androids in our civilisation.

These smart questions, it seems, we lack in an era mired in real questions surrounding our behaviour and technology. For example, I keep on wondering why we don’t discuss personal privacy with more bold brushstrokes, yet the population is overwhelmed, hoping that all will turn out for the better, while media seems to lack any appetite for serious discussions of freedoms, human nature, and our social evolution as intersected with these relatively new, unregulated technologies…but I digress, yet again.

The enigmatic thing about Black Mirror series is its appearance and setting. Not unlike Never Let Me Go, the film that touched me to the core, Black Mirror sets its episodes in relatively near future, as if just around the corner, undefined by actual year and era. Unlike Never Let Me Go, it is not a future in which humanity chooses its preferred period, but instead have a direct connection to our contemporary society. The differences between us and them, it seems, are hardly noticeable, apart from a snazzy widget or two.

This is one of the captivating aspects of Alex Garland‘s stab at the genre, with a remarkably innovative, subtle and emotive Ex Machina.

Garland wrote and directed Ex Machina, a film about Domhnall Gleeson, whose familiar face (incidentally the very same featured prominently in Black Mirror) depicts Caleb, a talented software engineer/boy genius, who wins a prize.

The prize, reminiscent of the Apple cultishness, is winning a few days with the Steve Jobs of the company, Nathan. The CEO, masterfully played by Oscar Isaac, has a secret, an sophisticated AI that requires testing, and Caleb has been hand-picked for the monumental task of deciding on the level of sophistication for the AI.

The win leads Caleb to a remote location where he meets Nathan’s new project. A glass house set above a waterfall whose architecture fits snugly between a billionaire’s dream hiding place and a villain’s lair (Is there a difference between the two, I wonder?) is a security haven, in which Caleb encounters a perfect creation, Ava, depicted by wonderfully tender Alicia Vikander.

Before you know it, you’re entranced in a triangle of competing objectives, suspicions, and manipulative actions that lead all the residents, human and otherwise, toward a certain demise.

Amongst these machinations, the eternal question is examined: what makes for a human, and how do we define the rights of someone who has the capacity to feel, intelligence to understand, and has a semblance of self-awareness? Measuring and evaluating these becomes an impossibility for Caleb who eventually uncovers a horrific truth, but also confronts his mounting attraction and fondness for Ava. Amidst all that is Nathan who is brilliant, obnoxious, manipulative and cruel, and whose actions make you wonder whether the world should know what kind of activities the sociopaths amongst us, wealthy or otherwise, engage in on daily basis.

Garland’s Ex Machina is beautiful, exploring relatively big themes with an indie lens, paying attention to the emotional depth of its protagonists, carefully exploring their desires, motivations, what they’re able to sacrifice in order to win.

I must warn you, Ex Machina has a sad, melancholic notes, and a mildly horrific ending. There is no doubt that there is no justice dispensed to participants, and as such does not give us moral resolutions. Yet, it does represent a story of survival, even selfishness, and examinations of the relatively unexamined motives. In other words, don’t expect an episode of The Next Generation, with captain’s voice resolving the great, moral questions faced by the protagonists, steering you in the right direction, but rather a story of questionable motives, questionable actions, and ultimately a messy, human approach to a resolution, whether deliberated on by intelligent machines or people.

Killjoys Premiere Verdict: Unpalatable

killjoys promotional

SyFy is often known for bad choices: it’s rebranding efforts for one, but mostly for taking mediocre risks with unmemorable television concepts that never get to rise above the fold for variety of reasons. It is interesting how HBO has set an entirely new level for its productions, be it reliant on creativity or budget, and networks like Starz are following suit, yet SyFy refuses to expect, demand, provide the same, but I digress…

This particularly bad choice is created by Michelle Lovretta, known for her wonderful work on Lost Girl, and it stars Thom Allison, Tamsen McDonough, Aaron Ashmore in title roles.

Remember that show? The one set in dark corners of the future in which that guy does that thing?

Killjoys is just such a show. Set in a dark, corporate future, the protagonists are bounty hunters who only care about “the warrants” and have no allegiance but to their anonymous clients. “No one know who hires us,” but “the warrant is all,” reminds boss the waify, big-eyed female hunter, Dutch.

These interplanetary Reclamation agents patrol a quad experiencing some contemporary struggles between the haves and have-nots.

Dutch teams up with John and D’Avin, two brothers who make a deal with a bedeviled megacorp, creatively named The Company, freeing D’Avin from his indentured servitude as an arena fighter, in order to send them to pursue someone, or something called Rolly Desh.

There are daggers, mediocre parties with monks wearing orange, and all the other cheap, uninventive fodder of bad science fiction tropes on television.

My eyes were literally watering with boredom as I perused through the pilot episode of Killjoys. On the one hand, the screens are screaming for a bit of space adventure, while on the other hand, these flimsy, paper-thin plots leave us in agony. We simply deserve better, which is why my attention quicky turns to another episode of Game of Thrones. SyFy would be wise to remember what their audiences crave, or it will perish in the cord-cutting future unfolding as we speak.

Dark Matter a Welcome Sci-Fi Romp

Dark Matter crew

Full disclosure: I am seriously head over heels with Joseph Mallozzi. The man has chops. When Vancouver film production started to cough, stutter, falter and fold, Mallozzi, better known for his executive producer titles on Stargate SG-1, Universe, and Atlantis, looked to creating something new and exciting, and together with Paul Mullie, created a new comic book series, Dark Matter. Soon after, SyFy channel picked up the show, and Dark Matter the television production was on its way.

Yes, it did require Mallozzi to pack up his life and move his countless dogs, a lovely girlfriend, and what I suspect an impressive array of books and media and move it all to Toronto, but hey! That’s Vancouver’s loss.

Dark Matter premiered this week, and it is both hellishly entertaining, and largely uninspiring at the very same time. How did we accomplish this? My guess is, through the magic of Canadian television. The premise is set on a space ship traveling with a crew that awakens with more questions than answers, suffering a complete memory loss. As they seek answers to who they are and where they are heading, the rag-tag team encounters the ship’s security mechanism: an android in the likeness of Zoie Palmer, better known for her portrayal of Lauren in Lost Girl. The android assists as only androids do and uncovers a portion of who and what they are, and to everyone’s surprise, they are quite possibly the bad guys. The roster, it turns out, is made of misfits and murderers, but the universe which they occupy seems also cruel, manipulative, and punishing. Somewhat resembling the beloved Firefly the crew of Dark Matter, which may or may not become a cohesive team, faces many tough moral choices ahead as they have to negotiate their impulses, survival instincts, desires, understanding of their pasts and want of different futures.

A bit of a shaky start for Dark Matter, but a start of something that will successfully entertain and amuse, and perhaps aid in healing some of our cumulative open wounds left after cancellations of many fantastic and beloved television shows. It is also worth keeping in mind that imperfections need a bit of time to get ironed, and this show needs time to grow into its own.

Casting however, is not bad, but suffers from “Canadiana”. This strange phenomena refers to how Canadian productions generally choose their stars. I am going to tell you the big secret of all Canadian productions. For some reason, Canadian actors are chosen not for their ability to stand out, but rather for their ability to meld into the background of a set. The ones that have wallpaper faces, those are the ones we’re after. We don’t like interesting and memorable faces, or god forbid, “dramatics” in actors. No, no, after all that would be not very Canadian or very polite. Instead, we prefer to see actors in leading roles who will also fit very well as minor characters in US-based shows, or simply appear as extras in feature films. Those are the ones we love!

Here’s an example. Actors like Anthony Lemke have been in tons of things. What? You don’t know who Anthony Lemke is? Don’t you remember his memorable guest appearances as Michael Martin in Warehouse 13, or as Tim Engels in Flashpoint? Is Anthony Lemke a man resembling Patrick Stewart? A tall, statuesque actor with a bold face and a baritone voice that makes men stand up straight and ladies swoon? No. Does Lemke make a memorable Adama, or a Han Solo? The trick with Lemke is that he could be literally anyone you don’t like and don’t care for, and least of all remember. Canadians refuse to celebrate personalities, memorable faces, eccentricities, the weird and the odd. In fact, Canadians don’t even like actors who are above average in articulating their speech and facial expressions because it makes the other ones feel bad. The actors who are mediocre, yet familiar – now, those are our top picks!

What Dark Matter does offer is a classic science fiction mixed with a tinge of a good adventure and such things are becoming rare these days which is why you should definitely tune in and enjoy. We may run into a few cliches, but they too will be a welcome respite.

Review: Sens8

Wachowskis

This Netflix-produced drama has an otherworldly edge and is difficult to categorize, but represents a new tinge for US-based productions.

Created by the Wachowskis in tandem with Michael J. Straczynski, better known for his work on Babylon 5, is complex, dramatic, emotionally consuming, and rather awkwardly tackles some rather big themes and subjects. Oh, it is also very gay – as in LGBTQ-friendly and is boldly featuring some very diverse cast of characters, which includes gay men, women, and transgendered roles.

Sense8 is primarily about loss, lust, love, sappy sentiments, belief, and friendship. The narrative weaves a connection between eight protagonists who are connected, Matrix-style. Their ordinary lives are interrupted by an image of Daryl Hannah angelically appearing, and then dramatically dying.

The eight soon realize that their butterfly stage of adulthood is only beginning, about to take a different shape as they awaken to a new reality, one in which they begin to communicate with one another, co-op each others talents and skills, and seek each others support when needed. In more than one case, they even fall in love with one another, console each other, and serve as a coping mechanism for difficulties they face.

Without going into the details surrounding each and every character, one could argue that Sens8 is superbly pedestrian, somewhat boring, about as elegant as Adam Sandler’s “The Cobbler” (and if you think about it, the two sport quite a bit of similarities) – I found it difficult to retain any sympathy for the characters until I reached episode 9, which amounts to saintly patience on my part.

However, Sens8 does represent an interesting breakthrough in TV production, one that I have been also quite patiently awaiting: the attempt to tackle grand ideas on paper-thin budgets.

Thus far, for Americans, this is an unusual approach, practically unheard of, while for UK productions, it’s almost a given.

Doctor Who production, for example, does an amazing job at creating grandiose, awe-inspiring themes, on what one might consider a very mediocre production budget. Largely fueled by rich, orchestral music, and partly by the carefully built up anticipation and emotional charge, UK shows somehow manage to successfully convey complex stories with often supernatural or otherworldly themes by simply relying on good acting and the ability of the audiences to suspend their disbelief.

American shows, on the other hand, especially those mediocre ones, often heavily rely on flimsy CG effects, linear narration, and blunt, flat actors who leave us uninspired while rummaging through incredibly simplistic stories.

Sens8 heavily borrows these techniques and creates a fairly exciting, yet mediocre show, with some elevated complexities. Why, there re even a science fiction elements! There are the bad guys, composed of Icelandic researchers. There are the good guys, whom I find difficult to empathise with, yet I find interesting and varied enough to observe, and finally, there is growth, narration that does develop and intersect lives of our protagonists. The protagonists are an evolutionary branch of humanity, the destruction of which is a priority for a shadowy organisation that hides amongst the dark corptocracy.

Sens8 is a sign of things to come – ambitious ideas partially curtailed by money – yet it is also a sign of promise that we may yet see more competent storytelling adapted on flimsy TV budgets, and for that, the Wachowskis should be commended.