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Film
by David J. Skal

In the Queue

By this time, you've certainly noticed how streaming home video has claimed an increasingly large piece of the entertainment continuum. Whenever I review theatrical releases, usually at the eighteen-screen cineplex nearby, there are often fewer than five people in the house besides myself. On one memorable afternoon I had the whole place to myself. And while most adults are thankful to be spared ambient chattering and cell phone noise, it's all a far cry from the infectious camaraderie of the packed Saturday matinees of my childhood, and perhaps yours.

No doubt you've heard that streaming video services are spending unprecedented amounts of money on programming. In 2018, Netflix will be spending more than $1 billion on original content, and a significant amount of the total is earmarked for science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Among the current "Netflix Original" genre gems is The Ritual, duly praised in my last column while it was still making the festival rounds and justifiably wowing audiences. An unusually well-crafted monster-in-the-woods tale, The Ritual features an outstanding lead performance by Rafe Spall, and is well worth your time. Another impressive British effort not originally financed by Netflix, but shrewdly snapped up by it, is The Frankenstein Chronicles, a two-season, twelve-episode drama created by Benjamin Ross and Barry Langford. The series debuted on Britain's ITV Encore in 2015 and was originally slated to make its North American debut on the A&E network shortly thereafter. When that deal collapsed, the series went into a short, forced hibernation but has now, quite fittingly, come back to life just in time for the 2018 bicentennial of Mary Shelley's novel.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Frankenstein Chronicles is its refreshing refusal to feel or even look like a Frankenstein movie. It's shot largely on location with natural or minimally enhanced lighting and surprisingly little blood and thunder, its story unfolding more like a period police procedural than a Hollywood horror classic. No doubt a great deal of the visual ambience was driven by budgetary concerns, but it nonetheless imparts a verité quality that effectively serves to normalize the more fantastic elements.

The central character is John Marlott, an early nineteenth-century police inspector played by Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones veteran Sean Bean. Marlott queasily investigates a series of grisly murders in which body parts of dead children have been sewn together into composite corpses, which, after reading the provocative new novel Frankenstein, he begins to suspect had been briefly reanimated with the help of galvanic energy. He encounters Mary Shelley herself (an impressive Anna Maxwell Martin), the visionary artist William Blake (Steven Berkoff), and an inquisitive young journalist writing under the name "Boz" (Ryan Sampson), who, of course, is Charles Dickens, even if never explicitly identified. The story is cleverly contrived and entertainingly inventive, the action set against the tense debate in Parliament to pass the Anatomy Act of 1832, a law intended to undermine an out-of-control graverobbing underground, giving physicians direct access to the bodies of the poor for dissection and experimentation. Amidst the ghoulish controversy flourishes the real Victor Frankenstein of the series, Lord Daniel Hervey (Ed Stoppard), who plays a high-stakes game of cat-and mouse with civil authorities and the church.

So where is the Frankenstein monster of the piece? It's not really a spoiler to learn that the role falls to our soul-adrift lead character, Marlott, who is framed for murder and hanged, his head reinstalled atop a body mercifully free of a syphilitic curse that had grimly stalked him all through the first season. For no explained reason, the secret of life in season two depends on a serum derived from human hearts, not galvanic shock. Mary Shelley simply drifts away from the story, which is a shame. Also, the intricate storyline frequently needs more straightforward exposition and less of Sean Bean's wordless moping, which, for me at least, immediately conjured Kenneth Branagh's depressive turn as the haunted Swedish detective in the PBS import Wallender. The fault isn't that of Bean, who is a marvelous performer, but perhaps that of a network and producing team stretching a story to fit an arbitrary number of episodes. The tale might have been more effectively told in eight segments instead of a dozen.

The most satisfying Netflix entry so far has been the ten-part series Altered Carbon, created by Laeta Kalogridis and based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan. Hundreds of years in the future, reverse engineered alien technology has pretty much eliminated death, at least death as traditionally understood. Physical bodies are now essentially pieces of disposable outerwear known as "sleeves," one's consciousness and personality contained on a "stack," a mass-produced storage device inserted into the vertebrae at the base of the skull. As long as you safeguard your stack, immortality is pretty much a sure thing.

Society is stratified along the lines first set forth in science fiction cinema nearly a century ago in Metropolis. The sybaritic rich, naturally, can shed their sleeves for any kind of physical embodiment they choose, including backup clones of themselves, or others. The lower classes take what bodies they can get, or be randomly assigned. On either end, novel possibilities arise. For instance, as long as his or her stack is protected, a wealthy "Meth" (that is, a Methuselan) who is murdered can reincarnate to track down the killer. Which is exactly what the titan of industry Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) sets out to do.

In addition to resurrecting himself, Bancroft revives the stack of a terroristic resistance fighter and formidable intelligence operative named Takeshi Kovacs to function as his private super-detective. Having been imprisoned in stack storage for 250 years, Kovacs is played by Will Yun Lee in flashbacks but primarily by ultra-buff Joel Kinnaman, prowling around with Terminator-like concentration. Most engaging among a cast of sharply drawn supporting characters is Chris Conner as Edgar Poe, the AI-based concierge of a Goth-clientele hotel called The Raven. The overall mood is hardcore hard-boiled, with each of the ten episodes titled after classic noir films of the 1940s and 50s: "Clash by Night," "In a Lonely Place," "The Killers," etc. While the production design is overly and unnecessarily derivative of Blade Runner—sidewalk steam, neon signs, endless rain and flying cars—the camera work and digital imaging nonetheless rival those of an A-list theatrical feature and, indeed, manage to run rings around the visuals of the overlong and overrated Blade Runner 2049, arguably better deserving the cinematography accolades (including an Oscar) that 2049 somehow managed to garner. Speaking of visuals, Kinnaman's impressively ripped action-hero torso is a special effect unto itself—the actor actually underwent thoracic surgery to enhance the look.

A billion dollars is a lot of money to spend, and inevitably not all of it can or will be spent as wisely as for Altered Carbon. Take the example of Duncan Jones's Mute. Jones received a BAFTA Award for his 2009 debut feature Moon, starring Sam Rockwell as a stranded lunar colonist. Following in 2011 was the equally well-received Source Code, a tricky identity-exchange tale headlined by Jake Gyllenhall. Expectations for Mute, which Jones spent more than a decade developing, were high.

Unfortunately, in concept and execution, Mute is a mess, the sad equivalent of a film not screened for critics, or, failing to find a theatrical distributor, abandoned directly to DVD. Where Moon drew considerable inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mute seems to exist mostly to show how much Jones wanted to imitate Blade Runner without having a story that needs take place in the future at all. Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is a mid-twenty-first century Berlin bartender rendered speechless by a childhood accident that severed his vocal cords, and which his Amish parents decided would be better treated by prayer than emergency surgery.

You heard right: Amish. But exactly why and when the culture might have returned to its country of origin is never addressed. Berlin, meanwhile, serves as an international outpost for all kinds of illicit dealings and intrigue, not unlike Hollywood's idea of Casablanca. Against a backdrop of Blade Runner-infused crime and decadence, Leo's girlfriend disappears, and Leo is forced to descend, Orpheus-like, into a hellish criminal underworld in search of her.

Now, the idea of Luddite-leaning religion flourishing in reaction to a world dominated by technology is a provocative science fiction premise, and I fully expected Mute to eventually fill in more details, but, alas, we never learn a thing. There's a great potential storyline in Leo's methodical cracking of the mystery without the aid of technological crutches. But that doesn't happen, either. Instead, the story veers off into a lopsided parallel narrative about two mercenary American surgeons, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), who provide repair work for occupational hazard traumas sustained by members of organized crime. Some of the surgery is on the futuristic side, if only to provide a thin semblance of science fiction. Cactus Bill is an AWOL military medic, who, rather like a character in Casablanca, wants nothing so much as new transit papers back home. You scratch your head wondering what kind of life a deserter is going to find in the States. In the end it doesn't matter, because Bill isn't just sleazy, he's a delusional psycho, and Duck is an active pedophile, and neither of them is headed anywhere except to grisly comeuppances at Leo's hands when their paths finally intersect. But the most disappointing thing about Mute is that there's nothing inherently futuristic about the clashing stories it wants to tell, but it all insists on dressing up like Blade Runner anyway.

Therefore, feel free to pass on the good news about Altered Carbon and The Frankenstein Chronicles, and don't forget The Ritual. But the less said about Mute, the better.

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