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Aired Australia – 21 March 2010
Aired USA – 17 November 2009

Although this week’s episode didn’t replicate the sphincter-clenching thrills of last week, it started to fill in some important holes for us, and also posed a few new questions.  Particularly, who is John May, and what is the fifth column?

When Erica’s former FBI partner Dale Maddox – the undercover alien who she almost killed in episode 1 – wakes up on the mother ship, it seems like her days are numbered.  At first he can’t remember what happened to him, but a fellow alien jogs his memory until he recalls the moment Erica ran him through with a sharp metal stake.  Dale immediately goes goggle-eyed at the thought of revenge, but his fellow visitor tells him that Dale won’t be killing Erica because she will make a very handy ally for the resistance.  As Dale struggles, the V pops a needle full of poison in his arm and whispers “the fifth column says hello” while Dale shudders and dies.  Oooh, the traitor Vs are even on the mother ship.

As we know by now, a number of undercover visitors – including regular character Ryan Nichols – defected to form a resistance movement some time in the past, and gradually joined up with earthling resistors, such as Georgie Sutton.  The visitor resistance was led by a bloke called John May, but we know nothing more than that about him so far.

It seems that the Anna and her 29 space ships full of visitors have made their entrance as the resistance is at its lowest ebb, its peak period having been some years before.  These traitors and their fellow human rebels are like the Eritrean insurgents in the late 1980s, pushed deep into hiding after years of futile resistance, suffering deep losses and facing an enemy that seems more powerful than ever.  But don’t worry – those pesky Eritreans fought back and ultimately won, and these rebels will do the same. Naturally.  This resistance movement, and especially its alien traitors, is one of the series’ most intriguing aspects.  Most alien movies and TV shows rely on a pretty simple narrative: aliens on one side, humans on the other.  In these scenarios, it’s not unusual to see the humans start to fracture and fight among themselves as the aliens pile the pressure on, but feuding aliens is almost unheard of.  Using the concept of traitors requires greater nuance: the aliens might be uniformly attractive, but they’re not uniformly bad.  So, sure: any human could actually be a visitor in disguise, but any visitor could be an undercover rebel.  Gold star for the creators.

The other insights in this episode relate to the way the aliens are going about world domination.  The Vs are running a slick PR machine, which gets a workout when a widow whose husband died in the kerfuffle following the Vs’ arrival wants to speak out against them.  Anna buttonholes the widow just before she is due to speak to an international audience.  She expresses her sympathy and bends the woman’s ear about the importance of harmony and peace.  We’ve seen Anna weep in front of the mirror as she practices the same speech moments earlier.  It’s the same standard fare that makes me wince when I hear politicians deliver it – sincere regret, deepest sympathies, all of that rubbish – so the scene seemed a little formulaic for my tastes.  It doesn’t get any better when the aggrieved widow subsequently tells the world’s media that the Vs have taught her about the importance of “hope” and “trust”.  I guess the writers get the point across: the visitors are very good at PR.  Nevertheless, they’re not quite up to the PR gold standard of Hill and Knowlton’s 1991 Iraqi-soldiers-ripping-Kuwaiti-kids-out-of-incubators story.  The writers’ persistence with this whole Obama mind-control theme remains the series’ only real weak point so far.  It’s just too clunky and obvious to be effective.

In the week’s other main developments, Erica is assigned to protecting the Vs, where she stumbles across a surveillance room showing hundreds of images which turn out to be coming from the lapels of the jackets worn by the visitors.  Because they have finally been given the green light to roam around New York, those cameras will soon be everywhere. And because the jackets are also worn by human “ambassadors”, whose number now includes Erica’s son Tyler (not that Erica knows it yet), the noose around Erica’s neck seems to be once again tightening.  Indeed, the episode ends with Tyler’s budding love interest – the visitor Lisa (Laura Vandevoort) – telling Anna, who she addresses as “mother”, that Tyler is the one.  Erica on one side, Tyler on the other. Bring it.

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Aired Australia – 14 March 2010
Aired USA – 10 November 2009

After watching Episode 2, I realise that I need not have fretted about my decision to commit a large chunk of my time to reviewing the entire first season of V.  This week’s instalment was an hour-long edge-of-the-seat thriller, even though no aliens or humans were harmed in the making of this program.

The episode opens where the last one finished, with FBI agent Erica and Catholic priest Father Jack on the roof of a building, having escaped the alien ambush of their resistance cell’s meeting.  When they go back to watch the visitors clean up the carnage, they’re hunted down by one of the visitors’ high-tech nail bombs, which Erica naturally smashes into a million bits just before detonation.

The machinations within the FBI are what give this episode its fizz.  Erica’s FBI partner Dale Maddox was an undercover visitor, until she ran him through with a metal stake, so  it’s prudent to assume that the FBI is crawling with them.  What better place for an undercover visitor to be than in the FBI?  So it’s great TV when Erica walks the halls of her office the next morning and everyone is looking at her.  We’ve all been there: walking into a room and wondering ‘ is it just my imagination, or are they all looking at me? Do they know about that deep, dark secret of mine?’ Is Erica’s boss, Paul, a visitor or are his unfeasibly good looks just a coincidence? Are the members of the FBI’s Visitor Threat Assessment Joint Task Force visitors themselves?  That would make sense, kind of like drug traffickers running the DEA.

So, as Erica says to Father Jack: You. Can’t. Trust. Anyone.  Ah, music to our ears.  Bring on the fear, the paranoia and the painful deaths, although they’ll need to wait for another week or two, probably until Dale Maddox gets back on his feet. Turns out he’s recovering on the mother ship, ready to turn Anna in as soon as he wakes up.  Meanwhile the turncoat visitor Ryan Nichols – who was also at that resistance cell meeting – gets a call from another turncoat, Angelo.  Angelo tells Ryan all about Ryan’s fiancée to make the point that if he can find out so much about her, then the visitors can find it out.  So Ryan faces a choice: he can stay and risk his fiance’s life or, if he truly loves her, get the hell out and run for the hills. It’s good stuff.

The other enjoyable aspect of this episode is our first real glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain as we witness alien leader Anna discussing diplomatic wrangling with her handler, Marcus (Christopher Shyer).  She is patient and calculating, and when the over-anxious Marcus suggests that she not work so hard on seeming submissive for the Japanese, she replies  “You still don’t understand humanity”.  Hopefully as the series progresses we’ll see cracks in the unity of the visitors.  Perhaps not all of them agree with Anna’s diplomatic approach.

In other news (boom, boom), TV anchor Chad Decker finally grows a pair of balls and asks some hard questions about the visitors, before telling Anna that their next interview will be on his terms.  It’s like a fantasy where the snivelling Hollywood reporter finally lays down the law to the celebrity publicist.  And whose side is Chad on anyway?  When Anna tells Chad she’s disappointed with him for muddying their reputation, he tells her that the US government will feel more comfortable if it feels like it’s hearing both sides of the story, and that this will encourage it to set up diplomatic relations with the visitors.  When Chad’s prediction comes true, Anna is impressed.   PR at it’s best.

This episode has the essential ingredients you hope for in a series: it’s fast, well-written, well-acted and, above all, it leaves you hanging out for more.

Classic Movie Review – I, Robot (2004)

Spoilers are in orange.

Director Alex Proyas has genuine pedigree in the sci-fi universe, having ruminated on the question of what might be controlling us well before The Matrix came along (Dark City) and having directed one of the most enjoyable comic book movie ever brought to the screen (The Crow).

So it was reasonable to assume that Proyas’ handling of sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov’s revolutionary writing on robots would produce a cracking movie.  After seeing it, the only real question to ask is, what went wrong?

I, Robot is based on Asimov’s books of the same name, which envisaged a world where robots are ubiquitous and their service to humanity guaranteed by the “three laws of robotics” hard-wired into their brains:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov sought to explore these laws and to propose situations that would test the boundaries.  He sought ambiguity where there was seemingly noneI, Robot does enact one such moral dilemma – what should a robot do if two humans are in danger and only one can be saved? – but in the end this is an action film and the nuance of Asimov’s concept is excised because if it wasn’t, there just wouldn’t be that much action.

And so we begin with our hero, Del Spooner (Will Smith), being called to the scene of the apparent suicide of Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the founder of the world’s biggest robotics company on the eve of the rollout of its new robot model.  Of course, we suspect foul play and it’s not long before we have a suspect in the form of Sonny (Alan Tudyk), who is of one of these new-generation robots.  From there, it’s a short hop to lots of hair-raising chases and all sorts of conspiracy theories better left out of this review.

The character of Spooner is similar that of John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) in the middling 1993 futuristic thriller Demolition Man: a cop hopelessly out of step with the times (it’s 2035), who wears old shoes, listens to old music, rides a motorbike and refuses to embrace new technology.  Luckily for the film studio, Spooner (like Spartan before him) thinks the greatest age in history was ours and likes to live his life as if it’s 2004: roll out the latest model Converse sneakers for gratuitous product placement, people!  Being a technophobe, Spooner is suspicious of robots and suspects that they will eventually find a way to circumvent the three laws and start menacing society.

The copying of Demolition Man is only one example of the egregious cannibalisation of sci-fi whizzing past us at break-neck speed:  funky European automobiles (Minority Report), a wise old lady baking food in her kitchen (The Matrix) and dreaming robots (Blade Runner) to name a few, all of which is tolerable if we feel like the film is standing on the shoulders of giants.  Alas, it rarely rises to their belly buttons.

The performances of the supporting cast are generally tepid but, to be honest, there are few humans with significant roles in this film.  Most of them are consigned to rehashing the same, tired old clichés of hard-nosed police boss, (Chi McBride) obsessive corporate captain (Bruce Greenwood), enthusiastic young hero-worshipper (Shia LaBeouf).

The biggest cliché of all is Spooner’s love interest, Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan), a high-level scientist who is a workaholic and a woman, meaning that she is thirty-something and childless.  Hollywood should meet Dr Fiona Wood some time.  She’s also white, so it is fated that her relationship with Spooner will not go beyond mutual admiration.  If you want to see a black man and a white woman getting jiggy, well you’ll just have to rent a Spike Lee film.

This film is evidence that when you give an innovative, daring director a lemon, it’s probably still going to be a lemon once they’ve finished with it.  Alex Proyas has made his name by taking risks, by making us believe that crazy ideas – a man turns into a crow to avenge the killers of his girlfriend, aliens kidnap people from earth and place them on another planet to study them – are credible; therefore, it’s no surprise to me that he cannot pull off a film about something fairly rudimentary (robots gone bad!).  Innovators are usually the worst people to handle straightforward, uncreative projects.  In more recent times, see Ang Lee squeezing the life out of The Incredible Hulk.  In addition, Will Smith is not Proyas’ kind of star. He is forced to brood and sulk when he’s best at strutting and cursing.

A more fundamental problem with this film is that the baddies are robots.  Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones proved that lifeless protagonists (in that case, a whole army of clones v a whole army of droids) produce a lifeless movie and that point is reinforced here.  An essential trait of a baddie is his or her fallibility:  the baddie may be incredibly hard to kill, may be stronger than our hero, may be surrounded by many similarly endowed baddies but in the end, the baddie fears death or capture.  A robot feels nothing, fears nothing, cares for nothing.  And so when Spooner is driving through a tunnel and being set upon by a platoon of leaping, menacing robots, we may ooh and ah at the explosions and we may fear for Spooner’s safety but we scarcely even notice the fact that these robots are being disposed of one-by-one.  Proyas may have summed up the vacuousness of these protagonists best when he shows one of them disappearing under the wheel of a truck in a shower of sparks, his face entirely expressionless.

With genuine tension lacking, the last part of the film attempts to explore the three laws in more detail and the result is something between lip service and a detailed thesis.  Without giving too much away, imagine that a room-full of lawyers got a hold of those seemingly iron-clad laws and thought of a whole bunch of ways in which they didn’t properly apply.  Chaos?  Of course.  In fact, the film comes alive in the last 30 minutes with large-scale scenes of rioting and violence accompanying the sudden dissection of the three laws. These final scenes seem like an after thought, but I couldn’t help thinking that they made the better basis for a movie, and that the first 70 minutes should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Score:  45/100

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TV Series Review – V, Episode 1

Aired Australia – 7 March 2010
Aired USA – 3 November 2009

Aliens have been visiting Hollywood backlots for a good 50 years now, so we action/sci-fi fans get a little shiver down our spines when a fresh new concept comes along. And Hollywood producers get so excited that they flog it to death and then remake it at the earliest opportunity. Hence V, the blockbuster 1983 series and the 2009…erm…cult classic? We’ll see.

So, we begin with the “visitors”, as the aliens call themselves, making a conspicuous arrival on earth and proclaiming that they have come in peace to do what those in the international aid industry call a “technology transfer”. The visitors need water and “a mineral commonly available on earth” and offer in return lots of fun gadgets that Apple hasn’t invented yet. Then we learn that the visitors’ arrival is not really the first contact. They’ve been living among us for years, inhabiting invariably hot bodies and preparing for the day when they take over the earth. As the hot people always do.

When our visitors arrive, they come in huge ships which settle over 29 of the world’s major cities. Actually, 28 plus the pyramids, which the visitors of course constructed 4500 years ago and are probably just checking in on.* The sequence is not so much an homage to Independence Day as a blatant rip-off, but with a smaller budget and a much smaller screen to show it all on. As they peer upwards at the ships, the masses in the streets look as underwhelmed as we are. It’s not a promising beginning.

The show begins to pick up as we witness the visitors’ first days on earth through the eyes of five people: FBI Agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell) and her oversexed teenaged son Tyler (Logan Huffman), young priest Fr Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch), wannabe TV anchor Chad Decker (Scott Wolf) and banker with a shady past Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut).

Erica’s work tracking terrorist cells drives the story. She notices that terrorist chatter on the internet falls silent when the visitors arrive, which I thought was a clever touch. There is one pocket, however, which starts chattering like schoolgirls, and we soon learn that it’s a resistance cell which has been fighting the visitors for years. When she infiltrates the cell, Erica meets Fr Jack, who’s also come along undercover as a civilian. Fr Jack’s main role in the series is clearly to let us explore the effect aliens might have on religious belief, because those little green fuckers aren’t in the bible. Hollywood seems to have missed the email reporting that most Americans worship in evangelical churches these days, so Fr Jack’s a good ol’ preacher with a dog collar. Nevertheless, his discussions with his fellow priest provide some philosophical ballast to the first episode as Fr Jack, the young cynic, is challenged by the old idealist determined to believe that the visitors are all part of God’s plan. Also at the meeting of the resistance cell is Ryan Nichols, who turns out to be a lapsed rebel, and so we have our good guys – Ryan, Fr Jack and Erica – ready to fight the good fight.

On the other side of the ledger are the visitors – led by Anna (Morena Baccarin) – and their human enablers, principally Tyler Evans, who quickly falls for one of the hot young visitors, and pretty boy Chad Decker. Chad’s going nowhere in TV land until he catches a break by sticking up for the visitors in a doorstop interview and is rewarded with a one-on-one encounter with Anna. From there his career skyrockets.

Like any sci-fi show, V sets itself up as a commentary on modern society, and so far it’s not a very good one. The lowlight comes when Anna, on a roll from a wave of positive publicity, promises to start up free healing clinics, ensuring “universal health care”. (If she can do it without adding to the budget deficit, maybe the Republicans will even jump on board.) It’s been said that the show is a critique of the Obama administration, but Anna’s preferential treatment of Chad Decker could just as easily be mimicking the Bush Administration and its close relationship with Fox News. The visitors have been here for decades, long before Obama came along, exploiting positions of power to  instigate disasters and start unnecessary wars, so George Bush and Tony Blair are aliens too! Whatever their aim, the producers should stick closer to the core of the show, which is obviously an alien-human smackdown. Or at least that’s my view.

Despite the weaknesses, there was enough in the second half of the pilot to suggest that this show has legs. If it can lose the simplistic allegories about US politics, its exploration of hope and change could be worth watching. But the most promising aspect of the show is the same thing that apparently made the original series of V great – a mismatched battle between a huge force of occupiers and a small band of fanatical resistors. As long as they lay off the Iraq War references.

* OK, so the pyramids are in Cairo, but they’re way on the outskirts. It would be like the mothership going to New York and hovering over Staten Island.

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