Almost Human: Pilot Episode

That Fringe-shaped hole in your TV world is about to be more than filled with ALMOST HUMAN, a show that might just be the purest display of high-octane sci-fi ever to hit the small screen.

The pilot episode, penned by former FRINGE showrunner J.H. Wyman and produced by sci-fi uber-titan J.J. Abrams (FRINGE, PERSON OF INTEREST, REVOLUTION, SUPER 8, STAR TREK, STAR WARS), is a fiercely gritty introduction to the police procedural world in 2048. Cops are partnered with androids, and programmable DNA is the target of choice for the future-tech criminals they chase down.

Almost Human

The pilot accomplishes more than most first seasons. Wyman’s world-building is precise, deep and always on the fly. It’s a world of constant motion. This is kinetic sci-fi of the highest order. And it’s all driven by character and emotion, memory and loss; every piece of tech, every cool idea, is serving the story. Wyman’s great skill is to introduce us to multiple strata of the world, as well as our two lead characters: Kennex, the embittered cop struggling with the continued fallout of a mission gone wrong, and his partner Dorian, a “synthetic” who is programmed to feel. They both have something to prove, and almost certainly something to hide.

Their relationship is the cornerstone of the show; it all depends on their arcs, their dialogue, their chemistry. Wyman’s script does a stellar job making all this completely naturalistic, and the two actors, a fantastically grizzled Karl Urban and a smoothly assertive Michael Ealy, trade hard-bitten noir-ish lines with ease.

That combination of sci-fi noir and androids programmed to seem human unavoidably calls to mind the ur-text of this genre: BLADE RUNNER. To its extreme credit, ALMOST HUMAN is never derivative, but doesn’t shy away from the resonances either. Indeed, it richly plays with our expectations by giving us just enough to wonder if Kennex is as human as he seems (read EW’s excellent breakdown of this theory).

The sci-fi in the show serves the story entirely; and simultaneously the story couldn’t exist without the tech that drives it. That’s why this is pure sci-fi, the very best kind: emotion, action, concept, heart and character are all the same here.

It’s an outstanding pilot episode, one that holds a tremendous amount of promise for the rest of the season.

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Let Me In

When it was first announced that CLOVERFIELD director and J.J. Abrams compadre Matt Reeves would be writing and directing a US remake of the hugely well received Swedish vampire flick LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, initial responses were mixed to negative. The original had been so critically acclaimed, and was extremely popular. The consensus seemed to be, it’s unnecessary and doomed to be worse than the original.

The consensus was wrong.

Remakes of foreign language films are generally not seen to be necessary, in the eyes of purists. And the history of cinema is littered with weak remakes of powerful originals. But history doesn’t make the rules. The fact that it’s happened before doesn’t make it a necessary truth. It’s gone the other way too. With VANILLA SKY, Cameron Crowe’s startlingly original, multi-layered and visionary remake of the Spanish mystery-thriller ABRE LOS OJOS (Open Your Eyes), it was demonstrated that setting a story in a different culture can add all kinds of extra dimensions and layers, to create a richer, deeper, more complex experience. And if that doesn’t sway you to believe that remaking foreign movies can yield powerful, awesome results, I have two words for you:

THE DEPARTED.

It can, clearly, be done. Much in the manner of Shakespeare plays, we can look at movies and their screenplays as texts, open to reinterpretations that illuminate the time and place in which they are remade. It’s like anything: if it’s done well, it’s done well. Talent often makes arguments redundant. With a high level of creativity and vision, extraordinary things can occur (see also, BAZ LUHRMAN’S WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO & JULIET, and OCEAN’S ELEVEN).

When LET ME IN was released, it was clear that Matt Reeves brought several critical advantages to the party: a spare, minimalist yet heartbreakingly emotional writing style; absolute mastery of genre; and a true joy and love for great cinema. You really feel that last one in every single frame of this movie. Reeves loves great movies, and here he has lovingly constructed something truly unique and powerful. Every frame reveals his right-on intuition for gorgeous shot composition in complete service to the story. It’s such a gorgeously detailed film, but in such a streamlined way that it flows seamlessly.

It’s a key point to make: as rich and layered as this film is on some levels, it’s beautifully stark and simple on others — there is nothing superfluous in LET ME IN. Not a single second, element of a frame, moment of sound design, or word in the script.

It’s an emotionally and visually taut, tense experience. Reeves demonstrates throughout one of the key signs of a true master — he knows how to use stillness. This is at heart a quiet, meditative film, in the manner of the original story. But in Reeves’ hands, that stillness is not inert. It’s a lethal stillness that comes with the sure knowledge that when it’s time to strike, the movie’s gonna strike hard. Every frame of LET ME IN is poised, ready to attack. Part of the terror of the movie is never knowing when it’s going to happen. It’s like a black belt sixth dan martial arts master, making only the necessary moves to create devastating effects. It’s like Jason Bourne in that scene where he doesn’t move for five minutes then explodes into furious violence.

This is where Reeves’ sensibilities really come to the fore. Comics, horror and genre are all part of this movie’s DNA. There’s a subtle comic book influence deeply infused within the visual look of the movie, and a real affinity for horror. Reeves clearly had a larger budget than the original, but never before has money been spent so subtly or targeted so perfectly. When Chloe Moretz (who gives a remarkable performance to join her brilliant turn as Hit Girl in KICK-ASS) first shows us exactly what her vampire character is capable of, it’s utterly horrifying, thanks to expertly judicious use of special effects, framing and sound design.

In fact, I’d like to single out the sound effects. They’re fucking disgusting, but that’s how they need to be. Reeves does a remarkable job of balancing the lonely emotions with the savagery of the truth of what Moretz’s character is, and what she and those who bond with her have to endure. It’s true that these are truths contained within the original source material (the novel, then the first movie). However, Reeves’ script translates these elements and re-presents them in a new light. It’s a beautiful example of powerful, stripped-back writing.

Reeves’ version punches up the original movie, without ever trampling on it. It’s as reverent and respectable as it needs to be, without fear of pushing forward when necessary. It’s like a cover version of a song that takes over from the original. Like Jimi Hendrix did with All Along The Watchtower. In most people’s minds, that’s a Hendrix song, it’s his. Of course, Bob Dylan wrote it, which I guess in my example makes Reeves Hendrix and Tomas Alfredson Bob Dylan.

LET ME IN is a genre film of superior quality, with fantastic genes, that has become so much more than its potential. It’s beautiful, terrifying, haunting, poetic and thrilling, by turns, all at once, and in the way it lingers, and stays with you.

Call to arms: saving the Fringe universe

It’s time for a rallying cry to save one of the most inventive, emotionally rich, beautifully geeky and intensely genre-busting shows on TV right now: Fringe.

The show has risen mightily from its X-Files-esque beginnings, with an unorthodox FBI team working on strange phenomenon-based cases of the week. It has built a beautifully detailed, richly atmospheric and resonant architecture for itself as it heads towards the end of its third season. However, with Fox having moved Fringe to the “Firefly” slot on Fridays, and ratings slipping, the outlook for the Fringe-iverse may not be so positive: cracks may be appearing in the future of the show, just as reality is starting to fragment within the show itself.

The show has a core team of three, serving in the FBI’s “Fringe Division.” Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the uptight, fiercely intelligent and emotionally unflinching leader. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the man who was a boy from another universe and is now a troubled but fundamentally sincere and decent “special consultant.” He happens to be the son of the team’s resident genius, Walter Bishop (the legendary John Noble), a Harvard-based scientist who devised countless reality-defying experiments, spent 20 years in an asylum, and now struggles to connect his genius to the real world. These three, with the assistance of agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), report to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), the enigmatic senior agent with mysterious connections.

Fringe has grown in scale and ambition since those early days investigating unexplained and terrifying creatures and occurrences. Now, it deals with nothing less than the fate of our world, and that of the Other Side, the alternate version of our world, intimately tied to ours as the fabric of both begins to rupture and come apart. The details of that off-kilter alternate world are perfectly drawn, creating the same-but-different feel: for example, there is no such thing as coffee there, the Statue Of Liberty is cast in bronze, and airships float through the high-tech skies. With the conflict between the worlds played out like a war in the making, the show has built a powerful narrative momentum as the stakes are driven higher, and the emotional impact gets deeper, and more intense.

The show is geek heaven, with its critical recurring role for Leonard Nimoy as William Bell, Walter Bishop’s former partner (and founder of Massive Dynamic), and its immaculately chosen guest stars, including Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd, and Robocop‘s Peter Weller. The stories themselves have become more resonant, more richly emotional — feelings play an intense and devastating role in this show. It’s not just abstract science that fuels the tales of the two universes, it’s deeply powerful stories that tear at you with their implications. They are primal human stories: a father losing a son in one world, and stealing his alternate version from another; a love triangle between a man, and the two identical women from each side, told in the most emotionally devastating and real way possible; experiments on children to develop and enhance special abilities, dealt with through the lens of the disturbed, haunted adults they become.

But it isn’t all about darkness and fear. Fringe is one of the funniest and wittiest one hour dramas currently on the air. It’s a true stablemate to other such intense yet bitingly funny shows produced by Warner Bros. Television, including True Blood, SouthLAnd and The Vampire Diaries. They all share deep and compelling traits: they approach emotion, drama and humor with equally savage and sustained enthusiasm and energy. They are all derived from the minds of some of TV’s finest showrunners: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner & Joel Wyman (Fringe), John Wells, Ann Biderman & Christopher Chulack (SouthLAnd), Kevin Williams and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), and of course, Alan Ball (True Blood).

These shows share an emotional intensity, the furious whipping up of wild and hard-hitting narrative arcs, a beautiful awareness of genre and how to play with it, honor it, and transcend it. They all build worlds real and imagined, and they all push the boundaries of their creations.

Now one of them is in trouble. Maybe two, but SouthLAnd is discussed in other posts on this blog. This post is for Fringe. Because quality storytelling is important. Writing of this caliber must be supported. Great acting needs to be cherished. With its ability to filter emotional stories through “strange science”, alternate universes, and complex relationships, by playing with the tropes of TV sci-fi, Fringe is truly unique in its genre, and in the world of TV drama. It has a powerful engine driving its ideas, and its cast and crew is populated with artists and visionaries, beautifully executing the ideas in a manner that is always highly entertaining, intense, gory sometimes, emotionally powerful all the time.

John Noble, Anna Torv and Pacey himself, Joshua Jackson, do a tremendous job as the heart and soul of the show. They portray heartbreaking, hilarious, darkly complex characters: they have the richness of Shakespearean creations, filtered through the fast-moving, wisecracking lens of 21st century TV. Noble, Torv and Jackson are an essential, compelling team, with truly fantastic chemistry and comic timing, and dramatic, heartbreaking depth.

As they fight to save our world and the alternate world that threatens it, so the fans of Fringe must also mobilize to save the universes. Without regular live viewings, the show will slip through the cracks in the TV drama universe and disappear forever. Watch it, and it will endure.