Posted May 3, 2017
By ZACHARY DEVITA
In the last 30 to 40 years, science-fiction has spread its definitional roots and developed new meanings for this strange genre. This expansion is in many parts thanks to the increase in television channels, outlets and programs, along with updated technology across different media that fit the variety of topics found in science-fiction.
The genre looks to bend and push the limits on reality, making insanely creative scenarios become real on the screen.
These creative scenarios, which are presented wonderfully on a big screen, may finally close the advantageous gap sci-fi books hold over the TV or cinematic mediums. While many look to sci-fi books due to the imaginative properties they hold (compared to the restrictive presentational properties of TV and film), they may soon leave their pages or e-readers for what the silver screen offers.
Furthermore, many science-fiction based novels get developed into television and movie versions, allowing fans of the original text the ability to enjoy the work brought to life using another lens, adding dimensions not visualized before.
True science-fiction fanatics will be impressed by the standards and qualities of a variety of modern sci-fi shows found on multiple cable channels and even over the top services, such as Netflix. The shows include HBO’s “Westworld,” FX’s “Legion” and Netflix’s “The OA.” While the first two shows have different source material to base plot and story structure on, Netflix’s series is its own original and unique idea.
This originality pushes the cable-based programs to a more superior level of direction, writing and overall cinematography than the over the top services program. This is not to say that “The OA” isn’t an eye-catching and well-paced whirlwind mystery. It just lacks a general mainstream appeal compared to the other two shows.
Simply put, “Westworld” and “Legion” have more of a foundation to build upon and socially relevant themes that give them a superior edge over “The OA.” Furthermore, while all three shows represent different factions of science-fiction, “Westworld” builds a plausible connection between robots and society, something that is relevant to our very world we live in today. This social connection pushes the series created by husband and wife duo Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to the forefront of the expanding TV genre.
Nolan, who is famous for penning the films “Inception,” “The Dark Knight” and “Memento,” based “Westworld” on the 1973 feature-film with the same title. The film was the directorial debut of science-fiction author Michael Crichton, who wrote such best-selling novels as “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain.”
The updated TV show goes way beyond the movie, as is possible in a television series, growing the adult-playground concept that is Westworld and breaking the glass roof on fundamental questions involving the nature of artificial intelligence and how it can manifest itself for human experiences.
Casual TV viewers can dive into the 10-episode arc, which provides them with vastly intriguing plots, settings and duplicitous mysteries.
Starting from the shadowy man in black (played by Academy-Award nominated actor Ed Harris) and his torrent search for the ominous maze, to the malfunctioning oldest “host” (android human) in the park Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood); “Westworld” holds characters and settings that reel audiences in from the first second of the first episode.
This attention-grabbing saga is emulated by the caliber of acting found throughout each of the different characters. One of the many standouts is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays the parks founder and creative head, Robert Ford. Through Ford, Hopkins is able to portray a menacing, sympathetic, ruthless, kind-hearted and multi-faceted creator, whose reign on control push a plurality of character arcs to their conclusion.
There is one scene in which Ford speaks to the park’s operation leader Theresa (played by famed Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) that truly stands out. As they casually eat their lunch on a beautiful terrace in Westworld, the entire park freezes around their conversation and all the hosts look in on them. Ford smiles and his facial expressions, along with his dialogue, express his menacing and controlling hand on this and every situation involving Westworld.
Ford also allows spectators to empathize with him, done through his ties to the park’s mysterious past and to his demanding mentorship of the park’s head of programming, Bernard Lowe (played by HBO regular Jeffery Wright). Lowe’s patchy backstory and background allow us to naïvely follow his journey with Ford to its thunderous conclusion.
Furthermore, Nolan and Joy separate Lowe from others in “Westworld” through his use of symbolism. Bernard’s spectacles provide a key motif towards his narrative and provides an excellent example of the many layers held within “Westworld.”
Joining both Wright and Hopkins in their own respective mesmerizing performances is Thandie Newtown, who plays the android Maeve, the local whorehouse owner/manager in Westworld. Her progression from a passive almost placebo-like character, to one of independence, strength and fortitude is captivating. The audience becomes constantly surprised by her ever-changing manipulative moves and stares in awe of her sympathetic yet ruthless manner of obtaining whatever she desires.
One of the most talked about shows on HBO since “Game of Thrones,” viewers can buckle down for a fast-paced winding journey, leaving them with a satisfactory, yet still yearning, ending. Although it may not have many connections with the original film, the TV series allows fans to entrench themselves within the adult-playground world and its many players. Despite the fact that the series will not return until 2018, I am among many who are salivating for the next opportunity to visit “Westworld” and see the results of the mayhem the first season caused on the “fantastical” theme park.
While “Westworld” provides its audience with phenomenal characters and acting, “Legion” provides stylistic cinematography that would make even Stanley Kubrick jealous. The show is based on the X-Men comic book series with the same title and is helmed by FX’s showrunner and creator of the TV series “Fargo,” Noah Hawley. The original “Legion” comics have strong ties to the X-Men comic book series and film series, with “Legion” being the first live-action X-Men comic series to appear on television.
“Legion” follows the supposedly “schizophrenic” super mutant David (played by “Downton Abbey” regular Dan Stevens) as he learns to nurture his power and the demons, or a specific demon, that lives within him. FX’s program is hypnotic and Hawley’s use of 1960s furniture, sets, costumes and even dialogue allows him to establish his own interpretation of the vast X-Men universe.
This is apparent from the very first scene of the debut episode, where incomplete flashbacks show us how David has ended up in an insane asylum. However, things change when he begins to fall for fellow patient Sidney Barrett (played by FX up-and-comer Rachel Keller), which leads to a jaw-dropping incident at the asylum and David being launched into a surreal quest of self-discovery.
David’s adventure produces many entrancing settings that are built upon by the direction and visuals that occur throughout the eight-episode season. One specific scene where the antagonist (played by rising comedic actress Aubrey Plaza) slowly tracks down two victims is tantalizing, as the screen slowly rewinds time, moving the characters from color, to black and white, to the silent-film era. The haunting performance will provide chills to any person.
Plaza’s character was originally to be a male, but she was able to change Hawley’s mind due to her past work and a knockout audition. On behalf of the viewers, I want to personally thank Hawley for this decision. Her character, Lenny, combines humor with terror that will make a cult film like “Evil Dead” look passé. This showcases the diversity of acting held within Plaza and the expanding career she will have, going beyond simple comedic roles.
Stevens matches Plaza’s phenomenal acting as the protagonist David, even “guest-starring” as himself in one scene with his natural British-accent, calming down his mind in the mysterious astral plane. Somehow, he is able to play three simultaneous personas all within one character; a persona that is possessed, a persona that is a superhero and a persona that is a victim with a demented and twisted past. This allows viewers to both despise and love the character, while leaving them glued to their seats as they await his fate.
The show does an excellent job of building upon the vast X-Men media universe, while at the same time remaining a very intriguing stand-alone television program with a slight twist that focuses on mental health issues. I look forward to its return next year and will look to see if FX builds upon the unique cinematography, ties to the films/comics surrounding the X-Men and character development and backstory.
The last TV program included in the revamped science-fiction genre is “The OA.” The show is an original concept that examines the idea of near death experiences (or NDEs) through the story of a woman named Prairie (played by show co-creator and executive producer Brit Marling). After disappearing seven years-ago, she has returned to her home with the ability to see, despite being blind before her disappearance. She also has strange symbols carved into her back and refers to herself as the OA.
From the very start, Prairie/OA is on an ominous mission and seeks out five others, who turn out to be four socially different high-school boys and one of their elder female teachers (played by Phyllis Smith). As she recants her story to the others, they, along with the audience, are opened up to a mind-exploding journey which includes stops in human captivity, the multi-dimensional after-life and death itself.
Within this journey, Marling and the other co-creator Zal Batmanglij (who directs every one of the eight episodes) infuse bizarre motifs and symbolism in the after-life, along with displaying a strong group dynamic tethered to the protagonist. However, while the group dynamic and the story surrounding Prairie are fascinating, the individuals within the group are quite over-dramatic and lack real depth.
Some of that is not their fault, as the plot tries to push modern social issues into their lives that seem unnecessary. For example, one of the boys is transgender (played by newcomer Ian Alexander) and, while the 15-year-old puts on quite a good performance, one of his narratives is that his father has not fully accepted him.
We only get a brief view of this storyline and it seems to be added solely to dramatize this character and create a socially relevant theme within the show. Many other secondary characters have other social issues written into their stories, but they slightly distract the viewer from the main science-fiction story, recounted by the OA.
If the program is going to continue to add the sentimental element with minor characters, those characters need to have more credible stories and more screen time to help add authenticity. Yet, one of the better portrayals in the show is by the antagonist Dr. Hap Percy (played by renowned British actor Jason Isaacs).
Isaacs plays a devilish man, whose charms and whims snare victims into his merciless manner. He is a perfect fit for the villain and a perfect nemesis as Prairie sheds her name and identity to become the OA. The second season may prove fruitful if these two interact more than they did in this season, as their rapport is complex, difficult and spellbinding to watch.
Some audience members may be turned away from the show’s outlandish concept along with the early episodes’ slower pace. However, those who stick around will discover a constantly changing atmosphere, with a wide array of amusing characters and a bittersweet ending that may make you question everything you just watched. While it may not live up to the previous programs referenced, its future could provide a profound and truly original viewing experience.
With the foundations of science-fiction TV consisting of such groundbreaking shows as “Star Trek,” “The X-Files” and “The Twilight Zone,” many would argue that these three shows have carried on their historic tradition, and even improved upon it. They each touch upon different parts of the otherworldly genre and add their own signature through a multitude of elements. Whether it be character, setting, cinematography, plot or visuals, modern science-fiction TV has provided a solid standard for sci-fi fans of all medias and for the future of the genre itself.
- Cable Provider: HBO
- Length: 60-70 minutes
- Show Run: Oct. 6, 2016-Dec. 4, 2016
- Cast: Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, Jeffery Wright as Bernard Lowe, Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy, Ed Harris The Man in Black and Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay
- TV Rating: MA for mature audiences
- Review Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
- Cable Provider: FX
- Length: 60 minutes
- Show Run: Feb. 8, 2017-March 29, 2017
- Cast: Dan Stevens as David Haller, Aubrey Plaza as Lenny, Rachel Keller as Sidney Barrett, Jean Smart as Melanie Bird and Bill Irwin as Cary Loudermilk
- TV Rating: MA for mature audiences
- Review Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
- OTT Provider: Netflix
- Length: 31-71 minutes
- Show Premiere: Oct. 6, 2016
- Cast: Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson/The OA, Scott Wilson as Abel Johnson, Phyllis Smith as Elizabeth Broderick-Allen, Jason Isaacs as Dr. Hap Percy and Ian Alexander as Buck Vu
- TV Rating: MA for mature audiences
- Review Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars