Caprica

Caprica poster Alessandra Toressani

 

The recently concluded series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have. Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.

In an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobies) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download in May 1999, nearly a year before the series proper. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series, including technobabble like “Cylon” (a marketing term short for, we finally learn, Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even racial epithets like “dirt eater.” The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy, and one supposes we might later even see some of the “final five” Cylons from the original series (Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Michael Trucco, Rekha Sharma, and Aaron Douglas), who ought to have been running around in some form at this point in BSG chronology. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. Even the special effects are up to par with Galactica’s groundbreaking spaceship battles, although applied to spectacularly convincing digital cityscapes.

Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaCaprica, like Battlestar Galactica, holds that there are no Surgeon General warnings in space

But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines. It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from giving Battlestar Galactica a chance, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the pilot episode: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome).

But maybe this gender inequality makes a kind of sense. The real core dynamic between the two male leads makes for classic storytelling. Industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) invented a virtual reality playground called the Holoband, and has since turned to developing weaponized robotics. Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a crooked lawyer tied to an offworld organized crime syndicate that put him through law school, and further control him with threats. A terrorist bombing claims their daughters (and Adama’s wife), and the two men later bond over mutual grief, coffee, and cigarettes (like Battlestar Galactica, doctors and nutritionists many thousands of years in our past haven’t yet warned people about the dangers of caffeine and nicotine). The two men may be of different planets, races, and religions, but become bound by complicity in an act of industrial espionage that leads to a murder of an elected official (cast and costumed in thick glasses to resemble Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) from Blade Runner).

If one of the two had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica’s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two adult female characters are solely defined by their relationships with the men and/or kids in their lives. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.

Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of annoying child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of whiney teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica’s trio of kids, two die but unfortunately come back to a kind of immortality (if you only counted one, check out the deleted scenes available on the DVD edition).

Eric Stoltz, Paula Malcomson, and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaWait, there was a woman in Caprica? Let’s hope poor Paula Malcomson actually gets some scenes in the full series

The first 10 minutes pack in a massive download of important information, especially tricky for any viewers not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators, the inciting incident that motivated the entire story arc of the parent series.

We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying this civilization’s late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, ogling hot lesbians, making simulated human sacrifice, and squaring off in a fight club knockoff. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica’s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation co-opts a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out in public too? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants to enhance their virtual appearance, say, to make themselves younger, more beautiful, covered in fur or made of diamond?

The titular Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future before it is decimated in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new prequel series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Showtime series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that this is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire. The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the sister planet Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem modeled on the immigrant Sicilian mafia of 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to Capricanize everything else is his life: changing his surname to Adams and raising his son as a Caprican, all to the consternation of his mother.

Alessandra Toressani in Battlestar Galactica CapricaZoe, genius hacker, goes clubbing in The Matrix

This society’s most truly dangerous trait appears to be its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their secret representative Sister Willow recruits teen students from her exclusive private school. Zealous Ben (Avan Jogia), in turn, drafts Zoe and her friend Magda, and later stages the suicide bombing that claims the Graystone and Adama families. Ben was presumably being manipulated by Sister Willow (Polly Walker), who also had designs on Zoe’s brilliant computer skills that didn’t necessarily hinge on her remaining alive.

The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica’s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its controversial final episode (for the record, I loved its audacity). The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet’s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human). Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called over-egging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.

Speaking of, how could a luminary in the cybernetics business not realize his own daughter was a genius-level hacker? Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with a means of preserving the 100 terabytes of human data stored in the human brain, and complement it with 300 MB of digital detritus that person has left behind on Caprica’s equivalents of Google and Facebook: medical records, playlists, email, searches, social networking, etc. Her breakthrough allows Graystone to resurrect Adama’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 100 terabytes of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.

Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientific breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.

Note: the above is a revised, expended, and corrected version of The Dork Report’s original review of the DVD edition, published on May 17, 2009.


Official movie site: syfy.com/caprica

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This’ll Ruin My Day: James Cameron Goes Down the Digital Rabbit Hole in Avatar

Avatar movie poster

 

Avatar is the perfect distillation of all of James Cameron’s worst tendencies: an obsession with marines (while trying to have it both ways: worshipping the hardware and lingo, but casting them as villains), embarrassingly heinous dialogue (undercutting every dramatic moment with somebody droning flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina available for cleavage and wisecracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue people, anyway), a greater interest in technology over people (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war message contradicted by glorified slaughter and explosions.

If Cameron had a purpose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the latest technological breakthroughs, it seems to be an endorsement of violent protest. If so, the civilian population of Iran might find something of interest here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t happen to be green, in which case critics might be discussing the film in terms of current events instead of being distracted by the shiny special effects masking the soulless narrative and blank acting (with the significant exception of a very funny Giovanni Ribisi and especially Zoe Saldaña, who manages to make an impression despite not technically appearing on screen — as a conventional photograph, anyway).

Yes YesStory Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s sleeve for Yes’ YesStory on the left, scene from Avatar on the right.

The official Avatar talking points require mention of the sundry technological breakthroughs that come tethered to every Cameron film, mostly having to do with computers. The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) were relatively quaint in their utilization of models and stop-motion animation, but The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incrementally advanced computer animation techniques, for the first time fully integrated with live action photography. I clearly recall watching T2 with an audience gasping and applauding in amazement during a shot in which the liquid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) literally turned itself inside out. There’s nothing in Avatar to compare to that communal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audience oohed and aahed during the first 3D effects visible in the attached trailers (mostly for disposable kiddie movies like Despicable Me), but our eyeballs were already beaten into submission by the time the main feature rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long barrage of computer-processed flim-flam.

I’ll spend a paragraph on the positive: Steven Soderbergh, who previously collaborated with Cameron on Solaris, reportedly said after seeing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after“. It is inarguable that Avatar marks the tipping point in at least two key filmmaking techniques we’re certain to see even more of in the immediate future: 3D photography and virtual filmmaking (the congruence of photorealistic CGI with motion capture, basically a turbocharged update to the old practice of rotoscoping). The superlative 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and animated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a melding of the two). It’s more refined and subtle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, including U23D, Beowulf, and Coraline, all of which resorted to in-your-face showing off common since the early days of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Meanwhile, the motion-captured CGI characters are even more smoothly integrated with live-action photography than previous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that’s not even to mention the startlingly detailed and immersive computer-generated backgrounds and environments.

Yes Keys to Ascension Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’ Keys to Ascension on the left, Avatar on the right. As artist & filmmaker Dave McKean rightly opined on Twitter, “Roger Dean should sue!”

The other big talking point is of course its staggering expense. It’s hard to remember now, years after Titanic’s box office receipts broke records worldwide, but its $200 million budget was originally an object of ridicule and put the very existence of two vast corporations at stake (20th Century Fox and Paramount). Avatar inflates the accountants’ calculations to the insane level of circa $237 million, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writing) earned a billion dollars worldwide, a mere two weeks after release.

As guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait wisely predicts, 10 years from now Avatar’s special effects will be laughable, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the European conquest of America (more recently retold in Terrence Malick’s The New World and as SlashFilm notes, Disney’s Pocahontas) set in a sci-fi world seemingly stolen from the paintings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technology and years of production all for naught? It’s impossible not to compare this folly to the Star Wars prequels, made long after Lucas fell down the rabbit hole of obsession with filmmaking technology and no longer had anyone around him willing or capable to say no. This Dork Reporter happened to watch (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no substitute for good writing and acting. People will still be rewatching films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.


Official site: www.avatarmovie.com

Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and subtitles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now commonly found preinstalled on most computers.

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