Lost: Season 3

Lost Season 3Warning: this review most likely contains spoilers, depending on how much of the show you have seen. Read at your own risk…

The second season of everyone’s favorite Gilligan’s Island-meets-The Matrix drama left off with several unexplained questions and one doozy of a cliffhanger.  And though Season 3 addresses a precious few of the lingering issues, by the end we are left with even more unexplained riddles and lingering problems.  So much so that the show begins to walk a fine line between engaging drama and self-parody, as the near-ridiculous heights to which the drama gets ratcheted are sometimes too outlandish to be taken seriously.  But through it all is a solid yarn of character-based dramatic storytelling that keeps things from spinning entirely out of control, and keeps the interest level high enough to hold the interest of even the most impatient of viewers.

Whereas the first season was mostly exposition, introducing us to the characters, their backstories, and the island, the second season went a great deal farther into what was actually happening on the island.  We were introduced to the Dharma Initiative, the Hatch, the Others, and the mystery behind characters like the french woman was swept away.  But Season 3 takes things in a different direction, as the group of survivors is now fragmented physically as well as interpersonally.  Sawyer, Jack, and Kate are imprisoned by the Others, and the rest of the Oceanic 815 survivors get by as best they can without their leader while also trying to rescue their friends.  Much of the first several episodes deal with the Others, who become much more humanized and less like faceless evildoers.  In fact, if there is a theme to Season 3 it would be the pulling back of the curtain, as some of the mysteries about the Others are found to have perfectly normal and rational explanations.  Even the mysterious smoke monster becomes more understandable, and we learn of its limitations as well.

Lost: John Locke

John Locke, not taking "no" for an answer.

One reason the series has always worked well is that the dramatic tension is a natural extension of the characters and their situations.  In Season 1, we wanted to know who these people were and how they were going to survive.  Season 2 furthers this idea by introducing new conflicts and revealing more about larger issues like the Dharma Initiative.  But Season 3, partly due to the compressed time frame (the events of the entire season only span a few weeks’ time on the island), tends to fall back on some relatively cheap 24-like tactics to hold viewer interest.  Watching Jack engage in yet another shouting match with Ben, or having an endless stream of people being held at gunpoint unless so-and-so does such-and-such, or ending episodes with cheap cliffhangers tends to deviate from the spirit of the show.  It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and possibly a response to somewhat downward trends in ratings too. (The first episode of Season 3 had almost 19 million viewers.  By the end it was down to just under 14 million.)  What is a travesty, though, is the killing off of some characters, both long- and short-term, that started near the end of Season 2 and continues here as well.  Killing off a beloved individual just to up the ratings or stymie a case of writer’s block is cheap, and it’s sad to see Lost treading down this path.

One of the biggest issues I have with the show is how characters just never give a straight answer to anything.  It seems as though many of the conflicts, problems, and deaths could be easily avoided if Ben and his friends sat down with Jack and the survivors and calmly explained what in the world was going on.  Even the most simplest of questions are met with enigmatic answers followed by a quick fade to the title card or a commercial break.  I still trust that the writers know what they are doing, but there are a couple times when it seems like the reason Jack or Sawyer can’t get a straight answer out of Ben or Juliet is because the show creators don’t even know what’s going on.

Lost: Hurley

Remember Hurley's all-important "numbers" from Season 2? Neither do the writers of the show...

However, when the show gets it right, it really gets it right.  Ben emerges as one of the more complex and characters in recent television, and the exploration of what is really going on with the island becomes thoroughly compelling. Character flashbacks continue to add new levels of depth to Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, and the rest of the core gang, and Desmond’s penchant for predictions is pretty potent as well.  There is even one character who kicks the bucket right at the bitter end, but in a meaningful and perhaps even inspirational fashion.  The budget is clearly bigger than ever before too, which means we are treated to grandiose sets, large explosions, and a lot more sheer grandeur than before.  The downside to all this?  Some characters are left behind, and by the end of the season if we didn’t have the occasional group shot to remind us of the 40-odd people on the island, one would think the survivors were limited solely to a mere handful of misplaced good-looking mid-20’s SoHo dwellers.

Lost is still one of the best shows on TV, and its rich blend of science fiction, drama, and mystery remain almost as compelling as ever.  But a few cracks are beginning to show around the seams by the end of Season 3, and I just hope things improve a little for the next go-round.

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War of the Worlds (Video Review)

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Star Trek Enterprise: Season 3

It’s been a long haul for the Star Trek series.

The crew returns for another season of outer space escapades.

The crew returns for another season of outer space escapades.

The first incarnation of Star Trek, though its opening credits had a voiceover with William Shatner extolling the “five-year mission” of the ship, only lasted three seasons.  The first Star Trek movie barely made it off the ground, so to speak, but was popular enough to spawn a multitude of sequels (some of questionable quality).  Star Trek: The Next Generation revitalized the ailing franchise, though, and became the most popular syndicated television show of its time.  Its spinoffs, devoid of the imagination and human insight of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, foundered in concepts as well as ratings.  Deep Space Nine and Voyager were interesting, the former being much better in its twilight years than many people give it credit for, but too often relied on tired clichés and political wranglings set in motion by Jean-Luc Picard and company.

Enterprise aimed to reboot the series in the minds of fans as well as the general public, and spent its first two seasons adrift in a sea of high-minded but poorly-executed storylines that tried to capture the outrageously science fiction, yet uniquely human, essence of the original show.  Mediocre conflicts with Souliban, Vulcan, Klingon, and numerous other alien species, a smattering of half-baked character backstories, and a few ship-in-peril episodes thrown in for good measure, weren’t enough to raise the show to more than a mere curiosity for most Trek fans, and a last-resort DVR viewing for everyone else.

With season 3 of Enterprise, the creators must have smelled a bit of lemon on their hands, as they threw everything from the first two seasons to the wind and launched the ship, and the series, in a whole new direction (literally and figuratively) while setting up an Earth-in-peril plotline of epic proportions that spanned the entire season.  And while I applaud the minds behind the show for trying something new and different (effectively going for a fouth-down conversion on Enterprise’s own 10-yard line), the end result is another just-beyond-mediocre chapter of a show that once carried so much promise.

Xindi come in five flavors, two of which are named Insectoid and Aquatic. Can you guess which is which?

Xindi come in five flavors, two of which are named "Insectoid" and "Aquatic." Can you guess which is which?

The season begins with earth being attacked by an entirely heretofore unknown race called the Xindi.  A small probe burns a wide channel in Earth’s crust from Florida down to Argentina, killing 7 million people in the process.  Enterprise, having arrived back on Earth at the end of Season 2, is sent into the also heretofore unknown region of space called the Delphic Expanse–a stellar Bermuda Triangle of sorts from which no Vulcan ship has ever come back intact–to investigate the probe’s origins and stop any further destruction.

We soon find out that the probe was sent by the Xindi because they believe earth is going to be responsible for destroying their planet at some point in the future.  As such, all five species of Xindi band together to plan a pre-emptive strike against the humans, and ultimately ensure their own survival by constructing a giant circular weapon to blow up our planet.  The probe, you see, was merely a foretaste of the Xindi feast to come.

It’s clear that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the minds behind this as well as much of the other Trek spinoffs, had lofty goals in mind here.  And I appreciate the epic nature of what they are trying to do:  send Enterprise on a thousand-to-one-odds mission, into an uncharted region of space, to stop the planet from being annihilated.  But that sort of paper-thin cocktail napkin premise requires a massive amount of story in order to span an entire season, and too often the result is a plot that is mired in strange twists and deus-ex-machina resolutions that stretch the limits of credibility.  Even the basic idea seems like something out of an Austin Powers movie:  an megalomaniac wants to blow up the planet, and it’s up to one man ship to stop it.  Pardon me while I yawn.

Death Star? Borg ship from First Contact? No, this is WAY different. Its a Xindi Superweapon. Guess what it does? It destroys planets!

Death Star? Borg ship from First Contact? No, this is WAY different. It's a "Xindi Superweapon." Guess what it does? It destroys planets!

Still, the season does have its high points, and I must give credit where credit is due.  “Twilight” hearkens to one of the best episodes of any TV show ever, “The Inner Light,” and does a good job of showcasing the type of alternate-reality future that often goes over well in Trek mythology.  I appreciate the character development given to T’pol, as she struggles with a loss of emotional control through an addiction to a psychoactive chemical, but her romantic relationship with Trip is about as forced and unbelievable as they come.  “Similitude” and “Hatchery” delve into some moral choices that are the hallmark of good science fiction,  and E2 reminds me of one of the best TNG episodes, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” in both concept and execution.

What’s missing throughout this season, though, is the same thing that’s been missing since the inception of Enterprise: characterization.  After more than 70 episodes of the show, I still don’t have much of an idea of who these spacefaring crew members really are.  Hoshi continues to brandish her superpower of language translation whenever it’s required.  Mayweather dutifully embodies the straight-faced version of his Galaxy Quest counterpart Tommy Webber, but nobody told Mayweather that his counterpart was meant to be a caricature.  The list continues, and few characters are ever lifted beyond the base level of cardboard cutout.  One 20-minute episode of Arrested Development has more personality than the entire Season 3 of Enterprise, largely because these individuals exist as jobs that need individuals (“Weapons Officer,” “Engineer“) as opposed to individuals (“Smart but socially akward guy“, “Charismatic womanizer,” “Brilliant, overworked widow“) who hold given positions on the ship.

Tpol does get some decent character development too, but it feels a bit too contrived.

T'Pol also gets some decent character development, but it feels a bit too contrived.

Some attempts to flesh out these people are made, the most notable being Trip as he deals with his sister’s death at the hand of the Xindi when the probe attacked earth, and later, in an inexplicable breach of established characterization, falls in love with T’pol, as if to fulfil a “Show needs more romance” checkbox on a focus group feedback form. But most of the series is riddled with one-off attempts at characterization that exist in isolated episodes rather than being woven into the fabric of the show as a whole.

The ideas that show up throught Season 3 are impressive:  giant spheres constructed milennia ago that cause gravometric distortions throughout the Delphic Expanse, the various political wranglings of the five distinct Xindi species, and the moral choices that must be made by Captain Archer get into some pretty heavy territory. But too often the show sacrifices the essence of Science Fiction on the altar of fanciful CGI effects.

Here’s hoping the best for Season 4.

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Surrogates

Surrogates posterBruce Willis has spent a lot of his career kicking in doors, but I bet this is the first time he’s had to do it just to get his wife out of bed. Surrogates is a disturbing story of man kind’s dependence on technology and susceptibility to control by fear.  In the not-too-distant future, mid-Sunday A.D., 98% of all humans live vicariously through life-like robots. They lie in chairs that look like the offspring of a La-Z-Boy and a virtual reality entertainment center (“stem chairs”), and rarely leave their homes. Their work, and all other interaction, is done by their “surrogates,” androids connected to their brain stems.

You may, of course, choose your own “surry.” You can be whatever gender, race, body type, or hair color strikes your fancy. It’s sort of a universal Stepford Wives. You see what your surry sees, and feel what it feels (except the pain, of course).

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

Needless to say, the casting crew had their work cut out for them on this one, even by Hollywood standards, searching for enough perfect-faced, perfect-bodied people to fill out the future streets full of sculpted robots. These, of course, are to be contrasted with the recluses controlling them from home, who have really let themselves go. Willis plays Tom Greer (and his surrogate), an FBI agent whose wife refuses to even set foot outside her bedroom “in the flesh.”

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer has bigger problems, however, because early in the movie, what starts as a routine vandalism investigation (below), soon appears to be a double homicide – the first two homicides in the western world in several years. It seems that someone has developed a weapon capable of sending a signal through a surry that not only destroys the surry, but liquefies the brain of the user.

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

The initial theory is that this is subversive action by “Dreddies,” members of a colony where surrogates are outlawed. The Dreddies follow the leadership of  “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames, below), claim sovereignty over a small patch of ground, and spurn all advanced technology, using horses and buggies, and the like.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

In chasing his man, Greer narrowly survives, and has his surry destroyed. The FBI takes him off the case and refuses to issue him a new one. Now, for the first time in years, he must leave his home and track the killer (you didn’t really think he’d obey his captain and stay off the case?) with only his own weak flesh at his command. His investigation takes him first to the Dreddie colony. But is The Prophet what he seems? (I’ll give you a hint: I brought it up.)

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Willis could have earned a lot of kudos for this film if he’d allowed the makeup department to make his human self ugly. It appears however, that his agent fought not to lower his image one bit. Everyone else is hideous, giving a realistic portrayal of people who haven’t shaved, showered or brushed their teeth for several days. Willis’ acting is passable. His most memorable scene is probably one where he begs his wife, through the eyes of her surry, (Rosamund Pike) to let him see her again (above). The best acting in the movie is probably done by Rhada Mitchell, as the blond, buxom surry of Greer’s homely (work) partner, Peters. I say this because this surry is taken over by several different people in the course of the movie, so she’s always switching characters. She also gets a scene where she runs at incredible speed through the street, doing flips over cars, and so forth. Which raises a question that the movie never resolves: if the streets are now populated with super-strong, super-fast robots, why are there still so many cars?

It’s hard to say more without spoiling a decent flick. I’ll just say if you like sci-fi, or crime stories, Surrogates is worth a look. Not a classic, but exciting, involving and thought-provoking.

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Heroes: Season 1

Here’s the story…

For a long time, people have been telling me and my wife about this show called Heroes.  “It’s kind of like X-men,” they would say.  Friends would tell us how good it was, how new and different and interesting it was, and how much we, being fans of Star Trek, Firefly, and sci-fi in general, would really enjoy it.  But we were always caught up in DS9, Enterprise, 30 Rock, or some other such show that found its way to our door or computer screen courtesy of Netflix.  Heroes sounded interesting to us, but never a whole lot more, despite the glowing reviews from so many people we knew.  Nevertheless, we dutifully placed Season 1 in our Queue and let it sit for months on end…

Ah, how things can change…

After moving to a new town, without any Netflix discs on our kitchen counter, my wife and I decided to take a stroll through our Instant Queue and see what might strike our fancy.  Sure enough, Heroes popped up, and we decided to give it a shot.  “After all,” we thought.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”

And oh, what a ride it has been.  Heroes has gone from odd curiosity to one of the best shows I can recall watching in recent memory, even though the end of Season 1 had several failed attempts to reach the bar that was set so high early on.  It’s an extremely compelling mix of sci-fi and personal drama, set against the modern, post-9/11 backdrop of New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a few other towns as well.  The plot of Season 1, revolves around a half-dozen or so main characters, each with his or her own struggles, trials, and backstory, who are slowly realizing they have powers and abilities that are, well, super.

Sylar, a brilliantly-conceived villain played impeccably by Zachary Quinto.

Sylar, a brilliantly-conceived villain played impeccably by Zachary Quinto.

What gets me about Heroes so far is how well everything is executed and realized.  Each character is intertwined in an epic storyline about saving New York from being exploded by a shadowy figure known only as Sylar.  After several episodes these individuals start to realize that they have powers and abilities such as flight, regeneration, time-control, and others, but don’t necessarily know how to control them or, more significantly, what to do with them.  As viewers, we know that each of these individuals will play a key role in saving New York, but we are unsure exactly how.  And neither are they.  In fact, each character has his or her own storyline that is, in most cases, entirely separate from the others.  It’s as if we are watching several entirely different stories slowly unfold, but it’s actually one story woven from a myriad of threads, of which we are only seeing bits and pieces at a time.  What I find remarkable about this type of multi-threaded storyline is that it rarely feels contrived.  The way in which characters do eventually cross paths seems entirely organic and believable–entirely the opposite of so many shows and movies wherein a cheap plot device is invented solely for the purpose of bringing characters and events together (worst offender of all time:  The Little Mermaid II.  The villain had been killed off in the first movie, but out of nowhere “Ursula’s crazy sister,” as Sebastian the crab shouts when she first shows up, comes to wreak havoc on the seadwellers).

The cast of Heroes includes a slew of veteran TV and film actors, the most surprising of which is Ali Larter, playing a role that is one of the most difficult in the entire show.  Milo Ventimiglia, well known for his role as Jesse on “Gilmore Girls,” turns in a very

Claire Bennett, a cheerleader who has no worries about being accidentally dropped.

Claire Bennett, a cheerleader who has no worries about being accidentally dropped.

strong performance as Peter Petrelli, the gifted but troubled central character around whom much of the storyline revolves.  A Japanese comic-book-loving man named Hiro (get it!), played by Masi Oka, lends some much-needed lighthearted relief to a show that is often very dark and dripping with blood-soaked themes of betrayal, revenge, and murder.  There’s even an extended appearance by none other than George Takei near the end.  The villain Sylar, though, is a triumph of writing and good storytelling:  for the first third of the season he is a being, a presence, shrouded in mystery and darkness–much like the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Alien.  His motives, his backstory, and his raison d’etre are slowly and carefully revealed throughout the course of the show so that by the end his sinister plans are even more horrifying than when he was only a shadow.

Near the end of Season 1 it becomes apparent that things will not wrap up neatly, as I had hoped earlier on, and several holes are deliberately left open for follow-up storylines in Season 2.  While I understand the desire to grow and nurture the seeds of a franchise, I actually felt a little cheated at the end of the season–expectations

Noah Bennett.  Hmm...I wonder if his first name carries any symbolism...

Noah Bennett. Hmm...I wonder if his first name carries any symbolism...

had been set, endgames had been established, and things were thrown into the mix that had no bearing on earlier, well-established plotlines.  Superfluous characters started showing up, most namely a shapeshifter who also has the entirely gratuitous and never-utilized ability of (I kid you not) engaging in online AIM chats using only her brain.

Still, Season 1 of Heroes does a good job of establishing a very compelling set of characters all woven into one brilliant, if at times poorly-realized, plot of epic proportions.  With loads of homages and out-and-out references to comic books, science fiction movies (my favorite being when Hiro, in utter disbelief of the weight of what lies before him, borrows a quintessential exclamation from “Back to the Future”), and classic hero/villain tales, it is a far deeper and more mysterious show than it has any right to be.  Morpheus once offered Neo the chance to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, and in Heroes we have a rabbit hole that is far deeper and more complex than anything I have seen on TV in a long time.  A very long time.

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Firefly: The Train Job (S01E02)

Mal: Now, this is all the money Niska gave us in advance. You bring it back to him. Tell him the job didn’t work out. We’re not thieves. But we are thieves. Point is, we’re not takin’ what’s his. Now we’ll stay out of his way as best we can from here on in. You explain that’s best for everyone, okay?
Crow: Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn’t matter where you go or how far you fly. I will hunt you down, and the last thing you see will be my blade.
Mal: Darn.

This is one of the quintessential episodes of the short-lived but brilliant show Firefly, and one of the best episodes of any science fiction show in recent memory.  While the premise of the show (an old-fashioned train robbery) is engaging in and of itself, it’s the way that Joss Wheedon, the TV show’s creator and the director of this episode, introduces his characters and lets them play within the tapestry he has imagined, that truly hook the viewer and set the tone for the series as a whole.  I often tell people that Firefly is sort of like what would happen if there was a TV show about the adventures of Han Solo–the Solo who shoots first, that is.  And the above dialog between the show’s hero, Malcolm, and one very nasty henchman, perfectly capture the mix of determination, heroism, and (provided you have seen the episode) humor that has eluded so many TV protagonists in recent memory.

Firely is also often described as a western in outer space, and with the backdrop of a train heist, and a cast of ragtag scoundrels living life by their own rules, it’s easy to see how one would arrive at this sort of conclusion after watching The Train Job. Interestingly, Wheedon had originally intended to use this as the true pilot episode, and the character introductions feel much more natural and organic than in the substitute pilot demanded by FOX. So much characterization is packed into the 40 short minutes of The Train Job that I think Aaron Sorkin would even be jealous. But far from just introducing the characters, they each find a way to contribute to the show (save for River, the young girl whose past is hinted at and spends most of the episode practicing emo stares in the corner). We get hints that “shepherd” Book is more than he claims to be, see many sides of the illustrious Jayne, and even get a peek at a budding romance between the ship’s mechanic and doctor. But it’s the final minutes of the show, when the fearless take-no-prisoners Captain Mal demonstrates what Faramir in Lord of the Rings would call his true quality that we see how special these characters, and the who show, really are.

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