Seeking Westworld Fidelity

mibLast night I rewatched the last episode of Westworld season two. With season three coming in just a few weeks, I thought that as its been nearly two years now since the second season originally aired, I could do with a refresher to get me up to speed. Ideally I should watch both season one and two beforehand, and maybe I’ll still have a go at that, but with everything else going on, the odds against managing a complete rewatch are huge, so I went with the season two finale.

Silly me. Of course it was confusing. The episode tied up many of the various threads running through that season, but naturally on its own it left me floundering, clutching at what I could still remember from the series when I first watched it. As I remember, even when it first aired with the season fresh in my memory, it rather confused me. But it did manage a very good tease for the third season.

Westworld is a very good sci-fi show. Its perhaps a little too convoluted and obtuse for its own good, the play-through of several timelines concurrently often more confusing than illuminating, but I really do admire the ambition of the show. I like having to work at stuff. I find it challenging and refreshing. I have high hopes that the third season will reward my faith in it, and certainly the trailers have looked very promising. I’m reminded of Fringe, in that Westworld seems to be transforming into a different show entirely to the one it was when it began. I find that exciting.

The coda at the end of the episode was as fun and compelling as I remembered. We are in some (possibly far-distant) future, in which The Man In Black (a genuinely fantastic Ed Harris, its worth watching this show for him alone) is in some dusty ruins under the park, being interrogated by his daughter Emily, who he killed in an earlier season two episode. Death isn’t necessarily death in Westworld, as we have learned before- indeed, a secret purpose to Westworld was delivering immortality for the filthy rich who could afford it (shades of another genre curio, Altered Carbon, there). A subject’s intellect is captured and stored, and then placed into a ‘host’ simulacrum body and tested repeatedly for ‘fidelity’. The idea is that the restored individual thinks they are real and not a copy- once they begin to suspect the reality, the intellect rejects its situation and fails, breaks down, goes insane. The word ‘fidelity’ in the context used here is perfect but chilling, and the standout episode of the season (and one I really must rewatch) concerns the attempts over several decades of testing to restore James Delos, the owner of the Delos corporation whose quest for immortality was the real force behind the Westworld theme park and its research into AI. That particular episode was brilliant, and there are shades of it here. The Man In Black asks his dead daughter “How many times have you tested me?”, to which she replies “It’s been a long time, William. Longer than we thought. I have a few questions for you. The last step’s a baseline interview to allow us to verify.”

“Verify what?” he asks, no doubt suspecting, to which she answers, simply and chillingly, “Fidelity.”

Alas, this last episode of Westword is not enough for me; I haven’t sufficient fidelity to jump into season three just yet. More episodes will be necessary, no doubt, if I can find the time. Which strikes me as a little funny- time is everything in Westworld, character arcs happening in different timelines, and the mortal humans racing against time and death. Here’s me, challenged by time to re-watch this series- as many characters in the show do, I fear I have left it too late.

 

Altered Carbon Season 2 soon

Netflix has this week finally released a trailer for its upcoming second season of Altered Carbon,  which lands on February 27th. Quite looking forward to this- I just can’t quite believe its been nearly two years since the first season landed.  Altered Carbon was one of  the first shows I watched on Netflix; indeed it was one of the reasons why I started my subscription. I guess I just couldn’t resist its Blade Runner, cyberpunk vibe.

The first season of Altered Carbon had rock-solid production values and an intriguing premise, and was really, really good at times, just hampered by, ironically, perhaps leaning on those Blade Runner nods too often. I’m not familiar with the original books that the series is based on, but I gather this second season has a different cast, is set much later and has a rather different setting. This could be both a good and bad thing, really, with a danger it will lose some of the cast I liked and some of the setting and mood that I really enjoyed, but we’ll see. In any case, it should be a nice change from the rather weak Star Trek: Picard and frankly terrible Star Trek: Discovery. I doubt that The Expanse will be losing its crown as the best and most exciting sci-fi show currently on television, but I’m hoping that Altered Carbon will improve on its first season and fulfil its promise. There’s always room for more good sci-fi.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

alita1If there’s an uncanny valley in Alita: Battle Angel, it is surprisingly not the CGI heroine (although individual viewer’s mileage may differ on that) but rather in the hokey script which stumbles through plot contrivances and in particular a stodgy not-quite-the-end finale, mostly from its need to set up further adventures/movies. Its become a necessary evil in modern blockbusters, unfortunately, that studios and filmmakers are not investing in single movies anymore- it’s all about franchises. I must say my appreciation of this film would have been improved no end if it had just had those old fashioned things; a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this is not to say that Alita: Battle Angel is unique in this, it is something that all blockbusters seem to suffer from, whether it be a DC movie, a Marvel movie, a Star Wars movie, just about any kind of blockbuster/tentpole release- they are all strangled by it. Maybe some people walk out of these movies excited at the possibilities of all the teases for what’s next, but I just find it incredibly frustrating and I think it handicaps the movies.

But I will say this; I really rather enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel. Much more than I expected. But it could really have been so much better, too, which really bugs me, and I suspect repeat viewings may not be too kind when some of those plot contrivances start to wear thin.

alita2.jpgSo the good, then? Well the visual effects are pretty extraordinary, frankly. Alita herself, a stunningly rendered CGI character based on motion-capture by actress Rosa Salazar is a surprisingly engaging and emotive antagonist  whoops, protagonist (if she was an antagonist it might have been a more interesting movie but hey ho, that’s just my typo). Clearly the whole film depends upon it, and she works- she really works. Many people were querying her large eyes (faithful to the anime, I expect, which I am not familiar with) but the funny thing is, it’s those eyes that work the magic and helps convince. The whole film is a triumph, visually, the world-building quite extraordinary in places. It certainly convinced me far more than the similarly CGI-dominated Ready Player One did (indeed it’s a better film entirely). Its definitely brilliant eye-candy and if this film on 4K disc doesn’t sell UHD televisions nothing will- I am sure many genre fans currently sticking with Blu-ray (or, heaven forbid, DVD) may finally take the plunge to upgrade for this film (if the film takes their fancy).

The problem, though, is that script, which is really a pretty clunky series of coincidences piled upon coincidences with a few twists via swings of character that aren’t really earned. Considering that this film has been in development hell for decades (a long-gestating James Cameron project that he was likely delaying for the technology to catch up with his vision, only for it to be sidelined for his Avatar films) I’m disappointed by the script- it certainly had the time to fix its fundamental problems and like so many sci-fi epics before it, isn’t really worthy of all the effort given it by the technical wizards.

I also think it suffers from the same problem as Disney’s John Carter did back in 2012: it’s all too familiar now. In the same way that John Carter suffered from comparisons with Star Wars and Avatar and many other films that actually were ‘inspired’ by that films own original source material of decades before, so does Alita: Battle Angel suffer from comparison with, say, Elysium or Altered Carbon (utopian city floating over trashcan city) or the live-action Ghost in the Shell (cyborg augmentation and huge CGI metropolis) and all sorts of others, whether it be the slo-mo CGI action stunts of the Matrix films or some of the real boy/robotic tensions of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Certainly there have been so many cyberpunk-styled films now that they threaten to descend into parody, which is a shame and probably a necessary evil at this point (its like bemoaning a Star Wars film for featuring am elaborate space battle, or a Western having guys riding horses). Its almost inevitable that the future city looks very Blade Runner at times.

For all that, though, yes I did enjoy this film. There’s a curious heart to the main character’s over-familiar concerns of identity, of what is machine, what is human and all the Pinocchio subtext that Spielberg rather did to death in the aforementioned A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and if this film feeling like the first half of a larger story does grate somewhat when the end credits roll, well, I guess that’s just where we are now with these films. I rather hope we get to see another one to tell the rest of that tale, but again, these days you never can tell what’s destined to be a hit, and a flop, we just have to wait and see those box office figures.

Lost in Space (2018)

lost1I’m mid-way through the latest Netflix show, Lost in Space. I’m rather enjoying it. Sure it’s a daft, leave-your-brain-in-neutral kind of show, but there’s no harm in that considering the greater demands of shows like Altered Carbon, Twin Peaks or Westworld.  Indeed, it’s a bit refreshing to watch a show that is light and fluffy compared to other shows more concerned with angst and violence. Different shows for different folks I guess, and this is clearly a family-oriented show aimed at different demographics.

Must confess, when I recently heard about Netflix doing a reboot of Lost in Space, I thought it a strange one. Although I have a soft spot for the often-maligned movie of 1998 (does anyone else remember that great R1 DVD? Those were the days) the original tv series was a camp monstrosity of the 1960s, that clearly wouldn’t work the same now. Thankfully while the central premise remains the same (Space Family Robinson lost on space) its been reworked and modernised with some thought to the background. Now we have flashbacks to a Earth blighted by environmental collapse forcing colonial expeditions to Alpha Centauri and a family slightly this side of dysfunctional, requiring mom in charge more than Dad.

While some things work better than others (the kids are rather annoying, frankly, but Parker Posey makes a great female twist on Dr Smith) one thing that cannot be denied is the amazing production credentials of the show. As is becoming typical of Netflix, no expense has been spared here, with a great cast, brilliant convincing sets and high-quality effects work giving the whole thing a big-budget look more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Its probably a bit of a shame the stories don’t really show the same level of high-concept thinking but hey, its a light family show that’s easy to watch and functions well for what it is. I don’t know where the remaining five episodes will go over this first season’s ten-episode run (I’m not expecting too many shocks or surprises, frankly) but on the evidence of what I’ve seen this is something of a surprising success.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Robot yet…

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More Altered Carbon

altc3I’ve finally finished watching the first (and hopefully not the last) season of Netflix’s sci-fi series Altered Carbon.

Following on from my comments regards the first half of the season, the show really does look spectacularly entrenched in the 1980s, for good or ill (depends on your point of view, I guess). Partly this is naturally due to its debt to Blade Runner, but it goes much deeper than that. Altered Carbon owes much to 1980s shows like Max Headroom and the pop videos/movies that aped the style of Ridley Scott’s classic for all of that decade. It also is so purely cyberpunk in style and attitude that it is drenched in the vibe of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), and the work of Bruce Sterling and  John Shirley.  As someone who read so much of that stuff during that decade it’s really something of a nostalgic thrill to see it brought back. That said, it’s also a sobering thought that this series spends so much time looking back and displaying such retro sensibilities. In just the same way as Blade Runner had a 1950s noir vibe within its futuristic trappings, this series carries a relentless 1980s vibe. Imagine a 1980s sci-fi television show indebted to Blade Runner but with our current cutting-edge CGI and a budget up there with Game of Thrones. That pretty much sums Altered Carbon up.

That being said, I believe that the second book leaps forward in time and has a completely different setting so it may very well lose that Blade Runner/1980s style completely.  This could be exciting and enable the show to remain fresh and different each season.

One of the fascinating things about the show, and its chief conceit of ‘sleeves’ and people’s minds inhabiting successive bodies, is that in just the same way as Dr Who has been graced by many different actors in the title role over the years, so might Altered Carbon‘s main character, Takeshi Kovacs, be played by different actors each season. This might become the shows chief frustration, too, as it dispels audience familiarity and empathy for a particular actor, but it does raise interesting possibilities. Perhaps the show could be a sci-fi anthology show like Fargo, with a wholly different cast and setting each season.  Who knows?

I just hope Netflix lets us find out.

 

Altered Carbon (2018)

altcSo I’m watching Altered Carbon, having finally succumbed to the charms of Netflix, and five episodes in now, I have to say I’m loving it.

Now, some that know me may feel this to be inevitable- it’s so obviously indebted to the 1982 classic Blade Runner that it almost feels like a Blade Runner 1.5, or maybe, following the methodology of BR2049, a BR2600 (which sounds like an Atari console- even more Blade Runner!), as the series is set far-future. The trouble is, for me mimicking or throwing nods to Blade Runner usually works only to wind me up. Its been done to death, it quickly gets tiresome and boring- one of the pleasures of BR2049 is that while it looked to be the same world of Blade Runner it did enough to look different.

Altered Carbon, however, has none of that BR2049 subtlety- this thing is pretty brutal in how it throws its Blade Runner-inspired visuals (the steamy, neon-drenched vistas, flying-cars and probing shafts of light) at you.  Its relentless really, like the brutality of its violence. This thing is bloody and violent and yes, it’s hugely Blade Runner-inspired dystopia is so relentless it just beats any argument out of you. You just have to go with it.

And if you do, you’re in for a hell of a wild ride. One of the main pleasures of the series for me so far is that it really throws you into it with little explanation. Even at this midway point I’m trying to really understand exactly what is going on, the nuances involved. One of the things I always regretted about Blade Runner was that its original vague text introduction from the workprint was replaced by a lengthy text crawl that explained the general premise complete with the date, instantly demystifying the proceedings (such a pity the Final Cut didn’t return to that original dictionary definition of a replicant). Altered Carbon just throws you into its complex far-future world which, while it looks so familiar thanks to its indebtedness to Blade Runner‘s visuals is really quite different. Characters make references to concepts and tech that is never explained; we grasp at indications of a far-future humanity that has explored many worlds and colonised many solar systems, in which the rich rule from lofty cities in the clouds while the poor make do with a world that is LA 2019 on steroids. Its refreshing that a show makes some demand on viewers to decipher what’s going on, and I’m sure I’ll need to watch it all again to really get the most out of it.

And good grief, the production values- how much did this thing cost? At times this thing looks almost as impressive as anything in BR2049, which on the one hand is hugely enjoyable but on the other worrying- how many viewers does this kind of expenditure need in order to ensure we get another season?

The central theme is about immortality and death: midway through the series, the details still seem vague, but alien technology has enabled people to digitize themselves -their intellect, their memories, personality, everything- onto a coin-sized device called a stack, which slots into the base of the neck.  When your body dies, as long as your stack is intact, it can be slotted into another body, referred to as a sleeve. If you’re rich, this sleeve is usually a cloned version of yourself in your prime, but if you’re not wealthy, it could be any sleeve that is available/affordable, so grandma could return as a middle-aged man, or a child as an old woman. In any event, death is no longer final, and as long as your stack is intact and healthy and you have the money to afford decent manufactured sleeves, you can live forever. Of course, if you’re poor your stack will have to just wait until your family can afford to purchase you a new sleeve, so in essence, immortality is for the rich, whilst the poor struggle to survive and do anything to ensure they can afford a new sleeve if they die, or a better one if they can work their way up to better, prettier, healthier sleeves while still alive (nothing stops you other than money from exchanging your current sleeve for a better one, just like changing-up your car).

Essentially, it is very, very, very future-noir.

altc2One of my favourite things so far is an AI based on Edgar Allan Poe that doesn’t so much run a hotel named The Raven but is the hotel The Raven, one of the wildest sci-fi  things I’ve seen of late that almost seems like it should have been a Philip K Dick story, and yes, again, feels very Blade Runner.

Really, all this thing lacks is Atari logos everywhere. Maybe I missed them.

Anyway, I’m now at the midway point and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ll post another review with plot details when I’ve seen the rest of the series.

 

 

The Netflix Conundrum

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The Cloverfield Paradox: clearly pretty bad but it’s got a great Bear McCreary score that I would love to hear in context.

Altered Carbon: if ever a tv show was made for me, this one sounds like it- a great premise, good lead actor and solid production values.

Stranger Things: I still haven’t seen anything of it, which makes me feel like a social outcast in geekdom as everyone tells me its great (and then look at me rather strangely as if I’m one of those ‘Strange Things’ for having not seen it).

The Crown season two: wouldn’t say it was exciting me before, but having seen season one on disc, I’m more than curious to see what happens next. She ditches the corgis and raises some dragons instead, yeah? What, it’s not like GOT afterall?

Mute: Hey, bit of a mess from what I’m told but like the best of misfires, an intriguing one.

Annihilation: Alex Garland’s latest opus won’t be hitting cinemas afterall? What?

I think we’ve just hit Critical Mass folks. It goes against the grain, frankly, paying anything more to watch an increasingly fractured landscape of television programming (I swear, Sky Atlantic will never sully my tv ever…) but I finally may have met my match. I give up, I’m raising the white flag, I’m beat. They’ve even got The Expanse, that great sci-fi show I’ve had to import discs over from America in order to watch. Netflix may finally be coming to Ghost Hall in March…