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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Harsh Realm – Cincinnati (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Cincinnati finally gives Terry O’Quinn something to do.

Despite the fact that O’Quinn is credited as a series regular on Harsh Realm, he has appeared about as frequently in the first nine episodes as he did during the equivalent episodes of Millennium. With his “and…” credit at the end of the opening title sequence, it felt like O’Quinn might be forgotten by the show. His face might appear on posters and propaganda, but he was not going to play a particularly dynamic role in the events of the first season. After all, Hobbes is trying to assassinate Santiago; there are reasons why the writers would want to keep them separate.

Walk softly, but carry a big stick...

Walk softly, but carry a big stick…

Nevertheless, Cincinnati is a story that unfolds from Santiago’s perspective. Hobbes and Pinochio play a major part in unfolding events, but they largely reacting. The bulk of Cincinnati concerns a conflict between Santiago’s forces and the Native American population of Ohio. When a military strike goes horribly wrong, Santiago is forced to survive on his own terms. He infiltrates the eponymous city and sets about furthering his own agenda with ruthless efficiency.

A lot of Cincinnati is pure nonsense; the plot is barely held together by contrivance and coincidence, hinging on a final twist that manages to be both obvious and completely unearned. At the same time, it is hard to hate an episode that is carried by Terry O’Quinn and offers the actor a chance to sink his teeth into a juicy part.

It's all in ruins...

It’s all in ruins…

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The X-Files – First Person Shooter (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

On paper, this should be a slam dunk.

X-Cops was an incredibly risky and experimental episode of The X-Files that really pushed the show in an unexpected direction. The idea of crossing over into Cops was strange and surreal; it seemed like a gimmick that could backfire spectacularly. How could an episode of The X-Files adopt many of the identifiers and signifiers of Cops while still managing to tell its own story? It was a risky proposition, but writer Vince Gilligan and director Michael Watkins managed to pull it off, producing a definite highlight of the seventh season. (If not the final three seasons.)

Game on.

Game on.

First Person Shooter is a similarly ambitious episode, but one that should be a much safer bet. While it pushes the show outside its comfort zone in terms of setting and concept, it does not stray too far from the basic X-Files template. It is written by outsider writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox, but could logically be seen an extension of their superlative script for Kill Switch. In fact, Kill Switch wasn’t even the show’s first “killer artificial intelligence” story; Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had written Ghost in the Machine as the series’ eighth episode.

On paper, First Person Shooter is ambitious without being entirely unprecedented. Still, the script bends the show too far out of shape. The episode seems to warp and distort the series around it. Despite the fact that First Person Shooter contains far more of the trappings and structures of The X-Files than X-Cops, the episode feels far less comfortable in its own skin. First Person Shooter plays almost like an episode of The X-Files filtered through a lens of unreality; it feels like a textured wireframe model of an X-Files episode, wandering lost in the uncanny valley.

Game over.

Game over.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Hollow Pursuits (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Hollow Pursuits is another demonstration of just how far Star Trek: The Next Generation has come in its third season. It’s a show comfortable enough with its cast and setting that it’s willing to look at the Enterprise from a completely fresh angle – to examine what it must be like to work on the Enterprise in the shadow of Geordi and Riker and Picard, getting none of the glory and making none of the decisions.

Hollow Pursuits is the first time we’ve really seen a dysfunctional member of the Enterprise crew, with Dwight Schultze showing up as Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Reginald Barclay. Barclay is a character unlike any the franchise had produced to date, and Schultze is incredibly charming in the role. It’s no wonder that he went on to become one of the franchise’s most loved guest stars, recurring several times over the course of The Next Generation, popping up in Star Trek: First Contact and even visiting Star Trek: Voyager a few times.

Straight to the point...

Straight to the point…

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