Spielberg's alien series fails to land

Spielberg's alien series fails to land

As successful as he has been with cinema, Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg has not always had the best luck with TV. Witness Terra Nova, the expensive, dinosaur-sized flop he produced in 2011.

But after alien-invasion series Falling Skies' solid run, he is back with yet another science-fiction show, Extant. The show's pedigree is bolstered by another Oscar-winner, Halle Berry. She plays Molly Woods, an astronaut who finds herself inexplicably pregnant despite being infertile and having just returned from a year-long solo space mission- and she already has a child she has trouble relating to. Her husband John (Goran Visnjic) developed a robot boy, Ethan, whom the couple "adopt" so he can learn to live with humans.

Add to that the Rosemary's Baby-type implications of having been impregnated after a close encounter in space (perhaps by an alien or the ghost of her dead ex-husband), along with the dubious intentions of the aeronautics company that sent her up there and you have several classic Spielberg themes: extraterrestrials, artificial intelligence and family drama.

Invariably, there is some recycling from other films, including Spielberg's own (an E.T. and A.I. mash-up, anyone?), but Extant will still scratch an itch for fans of classic sci-fi, especially those frustrated by the dearth of titles that meaningfully explore the philosophical questions about androids raised by writers Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

Not since the 2013 film Her, which had Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with an operating system, has Hollywood properly mined the themes of artificial intelligence, its consequences for society and what it means to be sentient.

Another plus: the special effects and production values in Extant (a word that will leave most viewers scratching their heads, with its meaning - the opposite of extinct - a rather cryptic reference to the grander theme of survival). Given the constraint of a TV budget, this is especially remarkable in the animation of the robotics and prosthetics. The show elegantly conjures up a near-future furnished by plausible new inventions (driverless cars and the like) and minimalist decor.

But after a suspenseful first episode that sets up all these meaty themes and plot threads, the narrative loses steam, especially as it detours into the hidden agenda of the company and the Japanese tycoon who owns it.

Berry does not help matters with a rather flat performance, showing little emotive range and practically zero chemistry with her onscreen husband and their cybernetic son.

Nine-year-old Pierce Gagnon puts her to shame here, playing Ethan to creepy perfection. He alternates between sinister expressionless and childlike innocence in a way that recalls the best demonic Damiens from The Omen films, with tiny flickers of emotion that keep you guessing as to how human he really is.

One hopes the show fixes these problems in time for its second season later this year.

Also in the recycling business is The Librarians, which plunders freely from the Indiana Jones and The Mummy franchises as well as its own trio of The Librarian TV movies from 2004.

Noah Wyle (ER, Falling Skies) reprises the role of Flynn Carsen, a "librarian" who safeguards an archive of mystical artefacts hidden beneath a public library in New York so as to ensure they don't fall into the wrong hands.

This time, however, he has acquired three proteges who will eventually take over his job of battling miscellaneous forces of evil, a fresh threat presenting itself every week in a sort of supernatural procedural.

And looking after them all is an ex-military former counter-terrorism expert named Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn), who is their mystically appointed guardian.

Her no-nonsense, level-headed approach is played off against Carsen's wisecracking flippancy, the latter underscoring the very light-hearted, goofy nature of this comedy adventure, which opens with him tracking down a demon-summoning opal stolen by the Nazis, and running into Eve as she tries to stop some terrorists with a nuclear bomb.

With his rapid-fire reasoning, Wyle's Carsen recalls Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes and other mystery-solving TV savants, except, of course, this is not based on forensic science or deductive logic. Well, how can it be, really, when Carsen's sidekick is an anthropomorphised sword named Excalibur, of King Arthur fame, which flies about making whimpering noises like a dog?

Like the long-running British sci-fi series Dr Who, which this borrows a lot from in tone, the special effects on The Librarians are kind of tinny- looking. But the idea, or hope, is that the audience will be young and/or entertained enough not to care about this or the clunkily preposterous storylines as they zip through various exotic situations and locales, a lot of them obviously green-screened.

However, it is heartening to see that the series also emphasises brain power when it comes to saving the day, with lots of clever-sounding historical and scientific facts dropped into conversation.

One caveat is that Wyle - who gets most of the good lines - will not be appearing in all the episodes.

It remains to be seen whether Romijn and the B-team of apprentice librarians (played by newcomers Christian Kane, Lindy Booth and John Kim) can pull it off on their own.

Book it

EXTANT

RTL CBS Entertainment HD

(StarHub TV Channel 509, SingTel mio TV Channel 318)

Premieres Tuesday, 9.55pm

THE LIBRARIANS

Universal Channel

(StarHub TV Channel 512)

Monday, 9pm


This article was first published on January 1, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

 

More about

Purchase this article for republication.

BRANDINSIDER

SPONSORED

Most Read

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.