I cannot comply.
-Jean the Ship's Computer
A ship heads off into deep space, some time in the middle of the twenty-first century. It carries a crew out to save humanity by finding an inhabitable extrasolar planet. The mission has been financed, in part, by concessions to entertainment. Earth receives transmissions, which have become the most-watched Reality TV show in history.
The crew have only one place to which they can escape; virtual reality programs where they experience adventures, recreate history, or just live second lives. Unfortunately, something has gone seriously wrong with the VR program-- and, it seems, the ship itself.
Fresh from his success with the re-envisioned Battlestar Galactica, Ronald Moore developed a new SF series, which found a home at the Fox Network. Or rather, the pilot episode did. Fox broadcast that on June 26, 2009, but have indicated an unwillingness to purchase the series. In being short-changed by Fox, Virtuality recalls Firefly and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In other aspects, the show takes from nearly every other noteworthy SF production in recent history, and piles too many plots onto a promising premise.
The idea of Virtuality, crossing SF with reality-tv conventions, shows potential. Likewise, once one cuts through the conflicting clutter of elements, one finds an intriguing, if derivative, story about virtual reality, the media, and humanity. Let's face it; this is where our leisure time is heading, and a few cautionary tales are in order. The film also boasts strong acting, high production values and impressive special effects. Unfortunately, they cannot save Virtuality from its flaws.
Moore breathed new life into Star Trek with his spin-off scripts, and turned the failed 1970s series Galactica into one of the most memorable SF shows in television history. Thus far, he seems to have trouble coming up with original ideas of his own. I recognize that naming the commanding officer "Pike" and giving the ship's computer Hal's eye could be considered homage. However, this show has tech and shots plagiarized from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a VR program that malfunctions with dangerous results, shaky camerawork, a score by Wendy and Lisa, and a homey dining room where the crew meet to discuss matters. The general premise, meanwhile, has been addressed in written SF, but that's excusable. Most mass-media SF imitates what has already been covered in print. Overall however, Moore needed to find a fresh look and unique elements for his show.
The story itself gets buried beneath the layers of subplot. Instead of hinting at and gradually introducing the various elements, he throws all of them at the audience. The results manage to be both over-plotted and slow-moving-- and they do not arrive at a conclusion. These results would have been troublesome enough if a series had followed; in a stand-alone, they are fatal. The script requires serious trimming, and development of what remains. The "Reality TV" elements, in particular, waste time. Too often, we are being told things that could be (and in some cases, were) better-told through conventional dramatic means.
And on the subject of reality television: the sort of disciplined, exceptional people you'd choose for an historic ten-year deep space mission are not the unstable drama queens who populate Reality TV. The ship's pilot, for example, would not be someone who, when a program goes wrong, starts casting blame, and when a friend dies, starts smashing things. To some degree, the show tries to address this problem-- but I'm still not buying it. The satiric angle-- the fact that these people are being manipulated for ratings-- clashes with the serious nature of the mission and the realistic, gritty look. The disparity, instead of creating drama, detracts from the show's potential.
Virtuality needed original, dynamic, and less clichéd characters, ones worthy of the actors. The Phaeton's crew breaks down as follows:
- Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Captain Pike, the fearless leader.
- Sienna Guillory as Rika Goddard the "over-sexed sexually repressed" space babe1.
- James D'Arcy as Dr. Roger Fallon the Genius who may not be on the crew's side2.
- Ritchie Coster as Dr. Johnson the tortured genius who often can't remember to act like a human being.
Clea DuVall as Sue Parsons the butt-kicking hotshot female pilot whose resemblance to Galactica's Kara Thrace is, I'm sure, completely coincidental.
- Omar Metwally as Dr. Adin Meyer, the... Hmmm... Well, I'm not sure if our space doctor is a stereotype, but neither is he memorable.
- Kerry Bishé as Billie Kashmiri the casually beautiful geek girl.
- Joy Bryant as Alice Thibadeau, the token Black crew member and female who regrets giving up motherhood for the space program.
- Belson Lee as Kenji Yamamoto the token Asian crew member3.
- Jose Pablo Cantillo as the gay guy who doubles as the ships chef but it also a brilliant mathematician who fails to realize there's no way the ship could possibly get to its stated destination in the allotted time, but it's tv SF, so who cares, right?
- Gene Farber as the other gay guy who doubles as the chef.
- Jimmi Simpson as the Creepy Mysterious Stranger.
I wanted to like this show. Moore has done some good things in the past, and television in 2009 lacks for a strong SF series. Certain scenes-- in particular, certain scenes in VR-- manage to be clever and affecting. Consider Kashmiri's hilariously geeky fantasy-- which suddenly turns into a horrifically disturbing nightmare. Virtuality's final half-hour engages the audience while remaining comparatively uncluttered. Overall, however, Virtuality gave me too much at once, and too little reason to care about any of it.
1. Quoted at Nicegirlstv.com
2. The tension between his roles as Reality-Show producer and ship's psychiatrist, while initially interesting, results in someone very like the annoying twit you knew in high school (and in some offices), who spreads rumors and incites drama. On a mission this important, the people would suss out what he is doing very quickly and (if they were as unstable as they appear here) blow him out the airlock at the first opportunity.
3. I recognize that referring to a character as a token may seem insulting, and that these (conspicuously underused) characters would likely be developed in the series Moore hopes to launch. However, with only this movie at present, Yamamoto is little more than the Asian guy and Thibadeau is the Black/woman. I think in 2009 we should've come a little further than Star Trek: TOS with regards to casting.