Bounty Hunters and Space Cowboys: Comparing Killjoys and Firefly

Killjoys and Firefly entered my repository of favourite TV shows in much the same manner. In both cases, I saw a few posters and heard snippets of plot. Judging from this incontrovertible evidence, I dismissed both shows—who had ever heard of a space cowboy anyway?

In both cases, however, I ended up grudgingly watching a mid-season episode at the behest of family members. I immediately realized the error of my ways, and feverishly watched the entirety of the first season.

Though I greatly enjoyed Killjoys, I couldn’t help noticing that my introduction to the series was not the only thing tying it to Firefly. Airing just over a decade after the unfortunate demise of the Joss Whedon classic, Killjoys shares many of Firefly’s characteristics. The premises are generally convergent—both follow a small cast of mercenary characters who take on any and all jobs (provided they’re paid well), up to and including smuggling bobble head geisha dolls.

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Mal arguing with Inara, Firefly

Both also make use of a space western vibe, featuring settings such as arid locales, small run-down bars that have hints of futuristic technology, and rural communities on backwater worlds. They have a similar political dynamic—a large interplanetary government oppresses and mistreats its rebellious citizens and colonists  (The Company and The Alliance).

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The Company, Killjoys The Alliance, Firefly

There is also a marked economic dichotomy between the citizens of rich, central worlds and the pioneer-like border worlds where the crew spends most of their time. With a few exceptions, both shows feature a very similar cast of characters. Because Killjoys has a smaller central cast, some its characters encapsulate more than one of the roles taken up by characters from Firefly.

There’s the unorthodox gunslinger captain with a traumatic past (Dutch and Mal).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Mal, Firefly

The loveable mechanic who can fix most anything (Johnny and Kaylee).

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Johnny, Killjoys

Kaylee, Firefly

The less intellectually-endowed soldier type (D’avin and Jayne).

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D’avin, Killjoys

Jayne, Firefly

There’s a character who has been neurologically altered by a shadowy government agency to be a nearly invincible killing machine when cued (D’avin and River).

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D’avin, Killjoys

River, Firefly

The humanized sex worker (N’oa and Inara).

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N’oa, Killjoys

Inara, Firefly

The devout priest who’s more than he seems (Alvis and Book).

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Alvis, Killjoys

Shepherd Book, Firefly

There’s the doctor who gave up a cushy life on a rich world (Pawter and Simon).

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Pawter, Killjoys

Simon, Firefly

The female action hero (Dutch and Zoe).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Zoe, Firefly

And lastly there’s the covert assassin who likes stabbing people and is a little bit weird (Khylen and Early).

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Khylen, Killjoys

Early, Firefly

Even some of the episode plots are congruent. This is especially remarkable because there were only fourteen Firefly episodes and Killjoys’s first season contained only ten episodes. Both feature episodes where the heroes are hired to protect a pregnant woman and her companions, who are looked upon unfavourably by their respective societies (a safe house of surrogates in Killjoys and a group of sex workers in Firefly). These companions turn out to be more capable of handling their own defense than either crew anticipated.

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Episode: “Vessel,” Killjoys

Episode: “Heart of Gold,” Firefly

There’s also the episode wherein the crew attempts a salvage mission on what appears to be an empty transport, only to encounter a gruesome surprise (“A Glitch in the System” and “Bushwhacked”).

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Episode: “A Glitch in the System,” Killjoys

Episode: “Bushwhacked,” Firefly

However, Killjoys and Firefly differ in one rather important aspect. Firefly was cancelled after less than a season, spawning a legion of disaffected fans. Killjoys, on the other hand, has been renewed for a second season. Both shows did not garner very impressive viewership numbers in their first seasons—Firefly, in fact, had a larger average audience by a significant margin. Given the shows’ multitude of similarities, the obvious question is, why has Killjoys been more successful?

The channels on which the series aired may have something to do with it. Firefly aired on the more mainstream Fox, while Killjoys plays on sci-fi specialist Space, which would (you’d assume) be mainly the domain of viewers who enjoy series such as Killjoys. Further, since Space does not depend on ads for revenue, lower viewership numbers are less of a problem. However, I think there are deeper reasons for the difference in success. Despite their similarities, Firefly and Killjoys differ in tone and in the relative importance of their characters to the world they inhabit.

Though the main cast of Killjoys is often shown as being at the mercy of the higher ups of both their own bounty hunter organization, the Reclamation Agency Coalition (RAC), and the ominous anonymity of the Company, they also often wield a surprising amount of power. Dutch is easily able to negotiate a cancellation of the Company’s kill warrant for D’avin; she is also cleared of a number of charges on multiple occasions by both superiors at the RAC and a member of the Nine (the conglomerate of families which rule the central world, Q’resh) with whom she is in frequent contact. Dutch (and later D’avin) are also later marked out for a special RAC program involving human enhancement techniques.

The crew of Firefly’s Serenity, by comparison, were called “a bunch of nobodies” who are “squashed by policy” by managers at Fox. This was intentional—using the US’s civil war as a model, Joss Whedon constructed the crew to be a relic of a vast galactic civil war, wherein the Browncoats (synonymous with the grey uniformed Southerners of the American Civil War) were routed by the Alliance. This arrangement allowed the show to examine the psychological effects of the end of such a war upon the members of the losing side, and their subsequent search for new lives in their changed world. Given their defeated status, the cast has very little political pull (the latter events of the movie Serenity aside); the plot frequently revolves around the crew slipping through Alliance patrols, with the understanding that capture would lead to inescapable imprisonment.

The economic and legal status of the crews in both series are also at odds—every main character in Firefly (with the possible exception of Inara) is either dead-broke or wanted (as well as broke). The crew of the Serenity are also acknowledged criminals. Though they take on some legal employment, the vast majority of their jobs involve illegal activity. The threat of bankruptcy grounding the Serenity is constant (the fact that one episode is entitled “Out of Gas” is rather telling).

The Killjoys, in contrast, though complicit in some illegal activity, are legal employees of the RAC. According to Johnny and Dutch, Killjoys are paid quite well, and have relatively comfortable lifestyles when compared to the average citizen of the Quad.

These differences also manifest in the shows’ tones and central problems. Killjoys is generally a light, sci-fi action show. Though most episodes are loosely centered around a particular warrant, Dutch’s relationship to powerful and shadowy forces that are seeking to control the Quad underlies many of the events of the series. Dutch and her crew are involved in important events that alter the future of the entire system (e.g. the assassination of one of the Nine families and the bombing of Oldtown) and are presumed to play an important role in the political future of the Quad.

Firefly, though frequently comedic, has a darker tone (this was, if you’re wondering, also something Fox had a problem with—the network pressured Joss Whedon to make Mal “more jolly”). The crew’s main problems are related to money and/or personal, small-scale problems. Though Mal and company can be said to have altered the future of their galaxy in the Serenity movie, their potential for causing radical change is non-existent—the Alliance’s control is absolute—and they are generally uninvolved with larger political issues.

Overall, these differences are responsible for the success of Killjoys and the cancellation of Firefly. At least in the boardroom, Killjoys is a less risky, more mainstream type of show. Though it occasionally deals with contemporary issues (e.g. environmental damage and drug use), it is generally filled with mindless action, predictable plot sequences, and idealized characters who have secretly been groomed for a leadership role. Firefly deviated from this traditional structure to focus on unusual content (rebels who lost their cause and have no ability to nor intention of renewing the fight). Everything that made it one the best television shows of all time—everyday problems and ordinary characters who lack the predestination common in many speculative shows—made it unpalatable to the Fox brass.

-Contributed by Christopher Boccia

The Ship Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: A Review of Passengers

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This review contains spoilers!

In the realm of inferior movies there is a special category reserved for movies that are unsatisfactory despite their captivating and deceptively convincing trailers. Passengers is a new addition to this category, for despite its adrenaline-filled trailers that bombarded TV screens several weeks before its release, it leaves its audience with a bitter aftertaste that makes one think, “I could’ve written a much better space-romance than that.”

As the space-romance begins, the viewer finds themselves instantly thrown into a tumultuous story aboard the starship “Avalon,” which is flying through space on autopilot, navigating cosmic debris and asteroids. It is one of these asteroids that breaks through the defensive shield causing the ship to “rock”—already a rather unconvincing plot detail considering that the ship seems to have flown seamlessly for 30 years—and wakes Jim Preston from his hibernation pod.

Considering this is yet another space movie featuring Chris Pratt, one might expect him to be somewhat akin to Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy: clever, quirky, quick on his feet. However, when creating Preston’s character, it is as though the producers forgot all these things, resulting in him being, conveniently, an engineer that lacks a personality. His role does not go far beyond attempting to break open the door to the command center and to ultimately assume roles as a welder, botanist, jeweller, and stereotypical I-will-save-the-world hero. The only backstory he receives is that he could barely afford the ticket, but decided to leave Earth in an attempt to start a new life.

After Preston struggles over the course of a year with being alone on the ship and even contemplating suicide, the movie comes to what is the biggest and most problematic aspect of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane. It isn’t so much the fact that Aurora is, like Preston, a monochrome character, or the fact that she’s yet another example of a writer who writes to achieve fame (and also happens to be from New York, and have a rich and well-known writer for a father). The problem is more in the way in which she appears in the plot.

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This is where the biggest source of anger and disappointment lies. The trailers present Passengers as a romantic story of two people who happened to wake up together and find themselves trying to save the spaceship, and in doing so, fall in love. In reality however, it is Preston who “wakes up” Aurora Lane by meddling with her hibernation pod.

Preston’s explanation for this is the inability to cope with his loneliness—his only other constant companion being the robot bartender Arthur—and despite how horrible his actions are, one can understand the motivation behind them. However, the way in which he specifically “chooses” Aurora—by accidentally coming across her pod, finding her attractive, looking up an interview with her and declaring that she is the woman of his dreams—raises eyebrows and exasperates.

This development overshadows the rest of the movie, and drastically changes the atmosphere. The viewer is put in the position of judging Preston’s decision. We’re left wondering when he’ll tell her, and then choosing sides when the truth comes out, and ultimately imposing a “final verdict” depending on which character’s side they choose.

However, even the morality issues of the movie are overshadowed by the scientific inaccuracies, despite the absolute frequency of the moral dilemmas. It is a movie that exasperates not only those of science and engineering backgrounds but even general viewers having some knowledge in the field. Examples, such as flying past a burning planet, catch the eye of an audience who know that in real life the ship would be pulled towards the planet by its force of gravity.

Other glaring errors in logic are difficult to forgive even in a sci-fi fantasy movie: scenes such as Aurora floating in a water bubble and not drowning, or Preston surviving a massive flame without even minor damage to his space suit. It goes without saying that some semblance of scientific law and common sense is appreciated. For this reason, scenes like the ending lose their sentimental touch, instead provoking a stream of questions like “wait, what is that tree growing on? And how are all these animals surviving?”

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The one positive of this movie, which can also be interpreted as a negative by some, is how easily it opens up the debate on morals and what constitutes romance (although the faulty science still looms in the background as another big topic of discussion). While Preston is easily criticisable for his decision to awaken Aurora, one can counter by saying that she got the adventure she was hoping for, a bigger one than spending a 240 days in hibernation flying to a space colony. The way the viewer interprets the movie is a demonstration of their thought processes.

The movie is viewed differently by different age groups. Teenagers and young adults might see it as a destruction of dreams and the snatching away of possibilities, similar to the way in which Aurora often accused Preston of doing so. Some adults, however, will argue that it is a movie that counters the ‘dream big’, ‘dream without limits’ ideology by showing that not all people can have their dreams fulfilled; a fact that is very much a part of reality and that which is still reluctantly acknowledged by the entertainment industry.

What I got out of this movie is that capitalism is scary, business comes first and foremost, and that if I were in the movie I wouldn’t get onto the Avalon even if they paid me. (Also that writers aren’t always weak and can actually swing sledgehammers or beat-up the jerks that ruin their lives.) Other than that, Passengers was a source of disappointment and emotional discomfort, with a bland storyline, shallow characters, a “romance” that is neither believable nor right, and an ending that makes one reach for a pen and paper and yell “I can do better!”

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

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Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

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But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

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Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

What Counts As ‘Good’ Sci-Fi? Looking At Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow”

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I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a movie ‘good’ ever since this year’s Oscar winners were announced back in February. This isn’t because I was displeased with the movies nominated for Best Picture, or the men for Best Actor, or the women for Best Actress, not even the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey somehow received a nomination. No, I was drawn to the animated shorts section in support of Don Hertzfeldt, my favourite filmmaker, and his film World of Tomorrow.

As an avid fan, I have seen every film he’s ever made, whether wonderful or horrible (and I’m not ashamed to say that he’s had one or two duds). Yet, when I watched World of Tomorrow for the first time, about a week or so before the nominations were announced, I found something different from anything he’d done before: a sci-fi flick.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction from the bottom of my heart. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens three times on opening weekend and I am not ashamed in the least. However, when I watch a Don Hertzfeldt film, I expect to see less ‘galaxy far, far away’ and more ‘so deep I can’t even see you anymore.’ As an imaginative and angsty indie filmmaker, Hertzfeldt is more likely to deal with the ethical and moral issues of whether Han shot first than actually animate a blaster-burned, bug-eyed bounty hunter. And yet, the latter doesn’t seem so impossible after watching World of Tomorrow. Heck, we even get an appearance by a snake boy! (A Hutt maybe?)

I’ll keep my review short, as I’m obviously a little biased, and if you wanted a true review, you’d be on IMDb, so let’s not kid ourselves. In simple terms, if you and I are of similar mind and thought any of his other films were genius, this one will appeal to you. However, for the sake of most of the population who are unfamiliar with this man’s work, it is important to know a bit about his other films. Generally speaking, they’re always very introspective and character-driven, and deal with grand themes regarding the nature of reality or the human condition.

World of Tomorrow fulfills all of these criteria handily.

I have a few friends who would balk at my assertion that a film could be sci-fi through and through, yet still bear these stereotypical qualities of a ‘good’ film. Nevertheless, that’s what Hertzfeldt has made. The plot focuses on a girl named Emily, who is contacted by, and then transported via time travel, to her third generation clone in the far-flung future, who retains all of the memories of ‘Emily Prime,’ and thus is essentially the same person. You don’t really find anything more introspective or character-driven than that.

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Furthermore, as it runs its course, the film presents many philosophical quandaries via these two awkward protagonists, including but not limited to: What is love? What makes the world beautiful? What role does sadness play in being human? At what point will technology end our humanity? And so on. Themes don’t often get much grander than that in my experience.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you read that last segment with disdain when I implied it was surprising that a sci-fi film could be more than aliens and blaster rifles, and were screaming, “Yes, many do raise the same philosophical quandaries, you blithering idiot!”

I would agree with you (except maybe on the idiot part). However, society’s mark on me would not.

Did you know that a science-fiction film has never once won an Academy Award for Best Picture? Oscar history has been one of drama after hard-boiled drama scooping up the top prizes. Occasionally, a comedy will rise up an remind everyone that the world is not entirely terrible all the time, but science fiction, fantasy (with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), and other speculative genres are typically shoved into the categories of Costume Design, Visual Effects, or the ever-popular Sound Mixing.

It would be a sweeping overgeneralization to say that most people, or even most film critics, don’t take speculative genres seriously. But for the fans of such films, it often feels that way. We are often relegated into a ‘nerd’ culture that the media clearly sees as painfully other, comical, and even downright silly. Watch a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory if you have any doubt.

But maybe even that is putting aside the issue too easily. It’s very simple to blame the mainstream society that has clearly ‘othered’ us nerds for our nerdy misfortune. At some point, we need to ask ourselves why our speculative films are viewed with such disregard.

“Don’t judge a book by its movie,” is a phrase I hear getting thrown around a lot lately. If we can’t respect our own movies, how can we expect anyone else to? This is not to say that we should blindly love every movie adaptation of our favourite book (I’m going to be honest, the movies based on the Percy Jackson series sucked), nor do I mean to focus solely on adaptations.

My point is that speculative films should contain the things that made us fall in love with these genres in the first place. To beat on Percy Jackson again (sorry Chris Columbus, but you peaked with Harry Potter), I loved the books because they could weave crazy magic and monsters with characters, themes, and situations I could actually care about, whereas the film was pure consumerist fluff.

In a world where commodification is everything, the artistry that comes with the massive imaginations of speculative writers and filmmakers is quickly getting sucked away.

This, in essence, is why I was so pleasantly surprised to see World of Tomorrow nominated for an Oscar. Yes, consumerism puts more and more pressure on filmmakers to produce speculative fluff that will make you eat popcorn and feel good, but this film, and other films like it (I could probably write a complete rant on The Martian) show what can happen when filmmakers care more about the quality of the story they’re telling than the size of the explosions.

Perhaps sci-fi needs to get a little bit more down to Earth in order to reach for the stars again.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

Remember To Save What Keeps Us Human: Looking At “Childhood’s End”

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Childhood’s End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In the twentieth century, Clarke was considered to be one of the three greatest science fiction writers, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

The story that has stood the test of time for over sixty years. Now, after various failed attempts (Stanley Kubrick once tried to make it a movie, and the BBC did a radio adaption in the 90s), Clarke’s favourite of his own novels has reached the small screen thanks to the efforts of Matthew Graham and the Syfy channel.

But does the adaption live up to the source material? Well… yes. Many of the things that made Clarke’s writing great are alive and well on screen, yet so are his weaknesses. Some deviations from the source material don’t seem to hurt, but neither do they improve the story much.

Let me explain myself.

This show perfectly adopts the atmosphere that Clarke was once so famous for. There is a real sense of scale and power to Childhood’s End. When you are told to believe that the events of the show are affecting the whole world, you really believe it. Clarke’s novels always gave an impression of size and, just like in the books, when spaceships appear in the sky above Earth in the show, you really get a sense that they are vast. His ideas have enormous scale, and that scale is represented perfectly in the series.

Unfortunately, like Clarke’s books, the characters aren’t quite as impressive as the world they inhabit. Yes, they serve a purpose, and can be charismatic and cool, but you never quite invest in them the way you should. Character development takes a back seat to the grander, more fascinating story being told. As a result, it’s hard to care about the characters’ complicated relationships.

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Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren

However, credit must still be given to Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren for giving what otherwise is a bland and tired trope some charisma and weight. In addition, Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodericks manages to pour in some good emotion, and the wonderful Charles Dance as the alien “supervisor for Earth” Karellen turns out to deliver an absolutely stellar performance.

But like I said, characters are a secondary feature. The story and its ideas are what sells.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky. The human race is told not to be afraid. A peaceful alien invasion proceeds, with aliens titled the Overlords now watch over the skies of planet Earth. They have decrees that it’s time for the world to become a utopia—but at what cost?

The book is split into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Similarly, the show is split into three two-hour long episodes titled The Overlords, The Deceivers, and The Children. Though the names are changed, the focus of each episode mostly correlates with the novels’ plots.

The Overlords begins with an ominous flash to the future, in the ruins of a post-apocalypse, where a man named Milo stumbles through the wreckage of a city and claims to be the last living human being.

With that to hang over us, we are thrown back in time to our present-day Earth, with the arrival of giant spaceships in the sky, and the grumbling tones of Charles Dance introducing himself as Karellen. Karellen proclaims himself to be the supervisor for Earth, and he has come to pull humanity into the future by ending war, poverty, starvation, and every other blight on Earth.

The Ooverlords choose a farmer (though in the book it was a UN secretary) named Ricky, a calm, self-assured, almost painfully all-American boy as their liaison. Ricky is periodically brought to the Overlords’ ship. Karellen advises him, and there is slowly a real sense that the two have become friends. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the show.

Together, they end war, pollution, famine, and slowly transform the world into a better place. There is some resistance to the Overlords, but it is quickly defeated. During this time, a young wheelchair-bound boy named Milo is shot through the heart. A beam of light comes down from the sky, and  Milo is suddenly alive again and able to walk. Milo then tells an old man who he shares a friendship with that he wants to grow up to become the first person to see the Overlords home planet.

 Everything is wonderful, but as Karellen continues to stay in the shadows, Ricky becomes more frantic and paranoid as to why his alien friend won’t reveal himself. When Ricky finally catches a glimpse of his friend, he decides that it’s better that the Overlords go unseen. Then, after fifteen years on Earth (fifty in the book), Karellen reveals himself to the world.

Cloven hooves for feet, horns, bright red wings, and fiery eyes—Karellen looks like the devil.

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Charles Dance as Karellen

Episode two, The Deceivers, might be the weakest of the three episodes. This is not the fault of any particular element. Episode two must deal with the consequences of the first episode while setting up for the finale. That’s a lot to do, and its storyline is hindered by some sub-par new characters. While we are invested in Milo and Ricky, it’s hard to care about the new Greggson family and their seemingly possessed children. Meanwhile, when Ricky falls ill from exposure on the Overlords’ ship, it simply seems like a way to continue to include him now that his role has been fulfilled. Milo is still fascinating as the only human to still yearn for answers, but he’s mostly just waiting around to take the spotlight in the finale.

The quality of episode three, The Children, is somewhere between the two preceding episodes. Ricky’s inclusion seems pointless, though with some nice beats, and the Greggsons’ story continues to be annoyingly flat. Their deaths in the climax occur without any emotional resonance. We simply don’t care about these people.

Nevertheless the Greggsons do serve a purpose. They help show that, though humanity has reached utopia, it has done so by sacrificing its imagination and its culture. The world may be perfect and free from all evil, but it’s a dull perfection. This is contrasted by the small community that rejects the Overlords’ help, and lives as the humanity of days gone by, in which culture, creativity, and scientific inquiry are seeping back in. They are also included in the series because their child, Jennifer, grows to possess psychic abilities, linking her to all other children and showing the eventual fate of Earth.

It’s Milo who takes the final spotlight however. As a man who grew up wanting to be a scientist, he is distraught to find that scientific inquiry on Earth is dying, and he’d like to know why. Milo believes there is a time distortion that occurs when the Overlords travel from their world to Earth, so he hides aboard their ship, thinking it will be a forty days journey between worlds.

Milo is awakened on the planet of the Overlords, and it is there that their true purpose is revealed to him before he is taken back home. He was wrong. As Milo stumbles through the wreckage of the Earth, eighty years after he left, we are finally back where we began.

As the Earth crumbles around him, Milo asks Karellen to save something, anything of Earth culture, so that it may survive them. Karellen obliges, and as the Earth vanishes from the universe, music remains.

Music floats in space as a symbol of the culture and creativity that once was the human race.

Childhood’s End is by no means perfect, nor is it an exact replica of Clarke’s great novel. The inter-human relationships fall flat, to the point that I didn’t even bother to mention some of them here. But the story is as beautiful and fascinating as it was on the page, a story that I’ve only partially spoiled here—if you’d like to know it all, go watch for yourself! The love and attention payed to Clarke’s story has resulted in six hours of television that are definitely worth watching.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Ex_Machina – I am become Death

Somewhere in the wilderness of Alaska there is a house, and inside that house are four people. At least one of these people is not human, but a robot. Over the course of a single week, the occupants must determine if this robot is a living, thinking thing, or just an illusion of consciousness.

This is the barest plot description possible of Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina, a film with an incredibly tight cast including only four actors (only three of whom have speaking roles) who appear in only a single setting throughout the film. The film is not only entertaining, tense, intelligent, and beautifully shot, but it might also just be the best philosophical movie about robots since Blade Runner.

In the not so distant future, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee of Bluebook, the biggest and most powerful internet search engine in the world. When Caleb wins a company prize, he is flown out to the secluded mansion of the company’s founder and CEO to work with him on a mysterious project for one week.

Once he is let into the vast, urban-style house, he meets Nathan (the wonderful Oscar Isaac). Nathan is the genius who created Bluebook when he was a child. He is an eccentric, mysterious, and slightly threatening figure. Other than Nathan and Caleb, the only person in the house is Nathan’s maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who does not speak.

Between black-out drinking and a confusing sense of humor, Nathan expresses that he needs Caleb’s help to prove that he has created artificial intelligence.

Enter: Ava (Alicia Vikander). Each day, Caleb is to have a conversation with Ava in order to perform a Turing test, the measure of whether a machine exhibits intelligence convincingly, as though it has consciousness of its own.

Ava’s body is made of glass and metal, but her face appears to be flesh, as if it were a completely human face. Even at first glance, Ava’s inhumanity is clear. But this doesn’t discount her status as a living thing. Both wise and naïve, Ava exists as an adult with an adult’s body and understanding, but apparently without experience. She is instantly likable and sweet, but a little unnerving.

Caleb asks her questions, Ava answers. Ava asks her own questions, a surprised Caleb answers. Nathan watches through cameras.

As the movie progresses, the house begins to experience power outages. Through silent tension, the feeling begins to grow that something is not what it seems to be. Ava concurs. When a power outage occurs during one of Caleb and Ava’s sessions, she takes the opportunity to tell Caleb not to trust Nathan. He is not his friend. As Caleb falls in love with Ava, and is disillusioned and unnerved by Nathan, he plans their escape.

I am not going to delve much further into the plot of the movie, because if you haven’t seen it, then you deserve to experience what happens yourself. Instead, we should examine two complex themes explored in this movie.

One issue of the film is female objectification. When you squint, this movie is literally about two male characters objectifying and dehumanizing a female character. Nathan comes from a twisted yet familiar brand of misogyny. To him, Ava is not a person. He acknowledges that she is a thinking, feeling being with wants and needs of her own, while simultaneously refusing to treat her as such. Nathan keeps Ava locked up in the basement of the house, studying her like a rat.

Nathan admittedly has no intention of keeping Ava alive. He tells Caleb that he is going to destroy her and create a newer model, but that he wants to keep the body because it’s a “good body.” Although he is responsible for creating her mind, to Nathan, Ava is only a body. In a disturbing conversation, Nathan tells Caleb that Ava’s body was designed to be sexually capable.

Caleb, on the other hand, displays a type of misogyny that is not often acknowledged. He’s the “nice guy,” as summed up when Ava directly asks him if he is a good person, to which he responds, almost glibly, “Yes.”

Caleb thinks he is there to rescue Ava from her captor so that she can be with him. He is capable of acknowledging that Ava has thoughts and feelings of her own, but he is incapable of thinking of her outside of his own context.

He thinks that Ava exists, but that she exists for him. Caleb is the archetype that appears in so many romantic films. He is a shy, smart, twenty-something pulled out of his context. A pretty girl smiles at him. So what if she is trapped in a box, and he is her only outside contact, and that if he doesn’t think she’s human enough she will die? She smiles, she belongs with him. Caleb is the personification of men who hit on women in the service industry, whose job encourages them to appeal to their customers. He instantly falls in love with Ava. By extension, he automatically thinks she must also be in love with him. He wants to free Ava, but not for herself. He wants to free her for him. In the end, Caleb thinks of Ava as a person no more than Nathan does.

The other great theme of this movie is deification.

“I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” Caleb quotes American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, when he and Nathan discuss why Nathan has decided to create artificial life. When he tells Nathan that making AI makes him like God, Nathan smiles, and thanks Caleb for calling him God.

Nathan wishes to create. He wants to do this just because he can. He uses his search engine company to collect information from the whole world to create the technology inside Ava. But that’s fine. He’s God; he’s above the little people. Caleb is his angel sent from heaven to test the mortals, and Ava is Eve, the woman who decides that existing is simply not enough, and she wants to be free.

Or Ava is God, something beyond humanity, a new creature birthed out of the belief that such a creature might exist.

But then, is Ava alive? Is to be human to be embodied in an organic flesh body, possessing a mythical soul? Or is consciousness solely electrical impulses fired through the brain? With all of these questions and more—including beautiful cinematography, haunting performances that include a disturbing scene of Caleb starting to doubt his own humanity, and a somewhat ambiguous ending that will leave viewers pondering the implications of what this all meant— Ex_Machina is simply put the best science fiction story about robots to come out for a long time.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

What does Mars tell us in The Martian?

This post contains spoilers.

THE MARTIAN illustration
Illustration by Shayla Sabada

Imagine this: you are stranded on a distant planet without water, food, internet access, your smartphone, or even other humans. What crosses your mind first? Of course, you want to survive. Maybe your goal is to find a way to reconnect with the Earth, or perhaps you’d prefer to settle down in this foreign land and crown yourself as its first ruler.

Matt Damon does both in The Martian, a sci-fi adventure blockbuster brought to you by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. Weir’s first novel was self-published in 2011, and soon topped the Kindle sales chart. Well-researched yet fantastical, Weir blends real science and fiction without sacrificing either one for the sake of trying to be more entertaining.

On the eighteenth Martian day, or sol, of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from the rest of his team, the other members of which are forced to evacuate the planet when it is hit by a sudden sand storm. While everyone on Earth (including NASA and his teammates) presumes that he is dead, Watney wakes up the next day impaled by an antenna in his abdomen, finding himself to have been abandoned. Being left behind on Mars might suck for many reasons, but Damon’s character doesn’t drown himself in self-pity. Instead, he decides to ‘science the sh*t’ out of every single resource he is left with on the Red Planet.

The next NASA manned mission to Mars is four years away, which means nobody will notice Watney until 1460 Earth days later. It is frightening, but the good-humored and strong-willed Watney does not just curse Mars and then cry until he cannot breathe. Thankfully, the astronaut was a botanist back on Earth, and he manages to cultivate four hundred and something sols worth of potatoes using his own feces and the universally scarce resource that is water. Meanwhile, Watney has to figure out how to regain contact with NASA and find a route to the spot closest to the landing site of Ares IV in the hopes that he will be picked up and brought back to Earth. Thanks to Watney’s super-brain, he translates his scientific knowledge into creative engineering, which ultimately saves his life.

Despite Watney having devised a comprehensive plan to keep himself alive on the Red Planet, those four hundred sols are riddled with frustration and uncertainty. Watney’s courage and endurance are tested as he struggles to overcome the volatility of Mars.

How should he positively deal with the decompression of the airlock on the habitat which blows up his shelter and kills all his crops inside? When the crew returns to Mars to rescue Watney, how can he ensure his vehicle achieves the necessary altitude to intercept the spaceship?

Undoubtedly, one could very quickly get discouraged in such situations. However, Watney is the poster-boy of human ingenuity, and his cool-headedness and optimism are qualities that audiences should take home with them. He does not beat himself up for miscalculating the amount of heat needed to create water by burning hydrazine rocket fuel (OK, well, he does—for like one or two seconds). He even jokes that he has colonized Mars, because he cultivates crops on its soil. Weir’s character lives up to the idea of “Keep Calm and Carry On” brilliantly.

Loneliness is hard to cope with, but Watney keeps his mind active on Mars by recording daily video logs. Scott shrewdly grants the video logs the dual purposes of allowing Watney to explain complicated scientific ideas in plain language while also giving the audience a chance to get a closer look at the intimate side of the character.

Besides recording what he is going to do next, Watney complains about the poor musical taste of the mission commander (played by Jessica Chastain) while blasting her old-school disco music collection in the background during his recording. This is just a little comic relief, which gives you a break from feeling bad for the poor guy.

Regarding the purpose of the recordings on a broader scope, they show that it is important for us as humans to learn how to cope with loneliness. Watney learns this incredible lesson, but we all do not get a chance to experience what he goes through—nor do we want to.  Not everyone can dance with loneliness classily, and if you can, that is truly an amazing ability. Human beings rely on the need to belong, but who knows when you will have to be all alone. The movie conveys that coping with loneliness is also a vital survival skill.

The Martian is not a typical Scott movie in terms of its cinematography and script (I had expected the story to be more devastating, to be honest), nor is the movie a typical disaster sci-fi movie. You’re sure to become infatuated with Damon’s charisma during the video logging, and be prepared to get yourself into the nostalgic mood when Gloria Gaynor’s disco dance number “I Will Survive” plays in the background.

-Contributed by Michelle Luk