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4 Stars Movies TV

Modern America is born out of lawlessness and chaos in David Milch’s Deadwood: The Movie

What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.

The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.

Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie

There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.

The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos. But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.

The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).

The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.

When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.

One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.

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3 Stars TV

Before the Fall: The Caprica SyFy Series Premiere

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 Caprica
Caprica, 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 Caprica
Wait, 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 Torresani in Battlestar Galactica Caprica
Zoe, 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.