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The Titan

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In the mid-21st century, Earth’s biosphere is on its absolute last legs and mankind’s hopes hinge on the successful colonisation of other planets. Saturn’s moon of Titan is selected, and scientist Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) heads up a program to radically alter human volunteers to survive the incredibly harsh conditions there. One of his subjects is former pilot Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington). As the program continues and the changes wrought on Janssen become more and more radical, his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) begins to wonder if her husband still qualifies as human.

The outline of a potentially brilliant and provocative story of transhumanism is clearly discernible through the smudged window that is The Titan, a film that continually creeps right up to the edge of being interesting, but consistently refuses to take the final step beyond the mundane and predictable. It’s not a terrible movie as such, but rather a maddeningly routine one, committed to making the safest narrative choices even as it gradually transforms leading man Worthington into a hairless alien being – really, if you’re committed to reshaping your star into a little green (well, grey, actually) man, you might as well go hog wild.

The key problem is that the script, by Max Hurwitz, refuses to keep us in Janssen’s shoes, shifting our point of view to that of Abigail just as things are getting interesting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the more intriguing story here is that of a person dealing with their irreversibly changing nature. The Titan eschews that in favour of following Abigail as she investigates Collingwood’s fairly predictable malfeasance, relegating Janssen to the status of of a plot element rather than a character for large swathes of the film. His interior life gradually fades from our sight as the film progresses, until he’s as much a cipher to us as he is to the other characters – especially once his various surgeries and gene therapies cost him his voice. It’s interesting to contrast The Titan with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, which managed to keep our empathy and identification with both leads, even as it delved further and further into body horror.

The Titan is not The Fly, of course, but it is playing with similar ideas about the relationship between personhood, identity, and the body, so the comparison is a fair and damning one. No, this is another entry in Netflix’s seemingly endless string of mid-budget, middling-appeal sci-fi films they seem to be spending a lot of time and effort horse-trading for – consider it alongside Annihilation (absolutely worth your time), The Cloverfield Paradox (absolutely not), and the upcoming Extinction (anyone’s guess). The Titan sits right in the middle of the pack: well shot and designed, and sure to tick a few boxes for fans of the genre, but ploddingly written and not nearly as clever or provocative as it seems to think it is. Possibly worth a Sunday afternoon couch date when you’ve exhausted the more interesting options out there, but don’t go in expecting anything transcendent.

 
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Santa Clarita Diet Season 2

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Television’s perkiest zombie returns in the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, aka: the show where Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Whereas the first season was mostly table setting, demarcating our characters – chiefly affluent suburban husband and wife realtors Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Barrymore) Hammond – and their situation – chiefly holy crap, Sheila’s undead! – the second course expands the menu somewhat, serving up interesting character dynamics and beginning to lay out a background mythology that looks to be more detailed and involving than the pop culture’s default zombie lore.

This season is marked improvement over the first, which was no slouch itself, benefiting from a more consistent tone and having put all that set up behind itself. We’re in full-on story mode now. The show knows its central activity (looking for a cure while concealing Sheila’s condition and inevitable murders), it’s go-to gags (contrasting extreme gore against the pastel banality of suburbia), and its tone (upbeat cheerfulness stretched skingraft-thin over howling madness – that’s a tough needle to thread). Everyone involved is pushing in the same direction; uneven performances have been smoothed out, the stakes and buy-in have been established, and the overarching narrative is underway.

Not that Santa Clarita Diet is overly concerned with the big moments and sudden reveal theatrics that plague so many shows – instead, it piles minor complication upon minor complication until we and the characters look up and realise we’re hopelessly mired, overworked, under-rested, and a hair’s breadth away from snapping. It’s the old rat-race rigmarole of having to get to work, do the shopping, pick up the kids, make a dental appointment, do the laundry, make dinner, only with the added complication of clean the blood off the kitchen, get rid of the body in the freezer, and obtain the bile of a Serb. If it ain’t one damn thing, it’s another.

At the centre of it all are Barrymore and Olyphant, who are just killing it this season. Barrymore’s chipper and cheerfully homicidal Sheila is, of course, the main focus here, and its always fun to watch her try to conceal the fact that she is clearly loving being an undead cannibal (real talk: if a cure is found, will she take it?), while Olyphant continues to deploy comic gifts that could hardly be guessed at during his previous tenure as a tough guy in Deadwood and Justified. His ability to convey almost constant near-panic while maintaining a semblance of outward composure is remarkable.

The returning – which is to say, surviving – supporting cast are all in fine form. Liz Hewson as daughter Abby and Skyler Gisondo as professional dork Eric get a little more room to move on their own, with Abby becoming a kind of rebel hero at high school after she scones a bully with a lunch tray, while Eric continues to try and fail to be helpful. Andy Richter remains a perpetual thorn in the side as Sheila and Joel’s self-centered boss, while Natalie Morales is on hand as eccentric sheriff’s deputy Anne to crank up the tension whenever it needs cranking.

We also get a few new faces, some of which remain uneaten, including Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson as a ruthless rival realtor couple, and old Deadwood hand Gerald McRaney as a retired army colonel who may hold clues to Sheila’s contagion.

Santa Clarita Diet remains a consistently funny, weirdly amiable watch. For all that it deals with murder, cannibalism, and lashings of gore, there’s something nice about seeing a family sticking by each other through thick and thin, even when their matriarch is using a human heart as a stress ball. There’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment, which is not something we get to say often. If subsequent seasons can maintain this level of quality, we’re all in.

 

 
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Veronica

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Known for his work on the Rec series, in Veronica director Paco Plaza turns his attention to the story of the titular fifteen year old, played by newcomer Sandra Escacena. After dabbling with a Ouija Board during a solar eclipse, Veronica summons something that follows her back home and duly terrorises the teenager and her younger siblings (although not the other teenage participants who also used the Ouija Board, which seems odd). With their mother working late at night in a cafe, the fatherless children are left to their own devices, and Veronica as the eldest is responsible for making sure that the day-to-day of family life flows as it should.

Conceptually the idea of children stranded in an apartment in Madrid with an unknown monstrous entity should be enough to spark a real sense of claustrophobic horror. Two of the most unnerving films made transform the humble European flat into a true nightmare – Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976, both directed by Roman Polanski) find sinister shadows, scary neighbours, and narratives of bleak psychological horror in every inch of heavily populated inner city buildings. Sadly Veronica appears to eschew the real potentials for terror, and while the film could have explored the alone-in-the-city feeling of the apartment, it never really pushes the vulnerability of the protagonists as much as it could.

Instead, the movie relies on more conventional jump scares and comparatively unsurprising narrative twists. While the presence of a chain-smoking, blind nun known to the school children as Sister Death locates the film in the dogma of religion, the sister warns that through her actions Veronica has forgone the world of God – “God has got nothing to do with it. Leave Him out of it” – but the ramifications (and implicit horrors) of such theological and metaphysical debates, especially in a genre which spawned films such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), are never fully explored.

The film has been heavily promoted as the ‘scariest film ever’, but that seems remarkable considering what a grab-bag of cliches it is. According to the closing credits (and much online chatter) the film is based on real events, but a cursory glance at news sources suggests that the film is perhaps a loose adaptation inspired by the story of Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro, who died in a hospital several months after playing with a Ouija Board and after experiencing “seizures and hallucinations”. In Veronica the youthful cast deliver effective performances, but despite this, and an undoubted understanding of the genre by the filmmakers, the film never reaches anything like genuine fear. In the final eventuality, the horror of a teenager struggling to protect her younger siblings in a world devoid of adult protection, and seemingly abandoned to evil, should make the viewer experience terror, instead it makes you wonder who the hell said this was the scariest film ever made.

 

 
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Marvel’s Jessica Jones Season 2

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Following on from the events of Season 1 (and last year’s The Defenders, barely referenced), life goes on for Marvel’s resident superpowered private sleuth, the titular Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). Of course, the past is never too far away in this series, which makes the processing of trauma its key concern, and so the hard-drinking, poor-life-choice-making Jones must now deal not only with the ongoing PTSD born out of her enslavement by the horrifically evil Kilgrave (David Tennant), but fresh mental wounds opened up by her breaking his damn neck in last season’s climax.

She does, however, have plenty to distract her, thanks to her messy life and career. Indeed, the first few episodes of JJS2 throw out a number of seemingly disparate plot threads and character arcs that will doubtless cohere by the final episode in true hard boiled/film noir fashion (this season really leans into its noir influences, up to and including dry voice-over narration and moody sax on the soundtrack). A paranoid, overweight speedster wants protection from mysterious forces that may or may not be threatening him (he knows he’s not well – “With great power comes great mental illness,” he quips). An arrogant, high class PI (Terry Chen) wants to buy out Alias Investigations for the prestige of having a superhuman on his staff. Neighbour-turned-assistant Malcolm (Eka Darville) is bucking for more responsibility, while bestie Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) deals with a multitude of issues, from professional ambition to romantic drama to the continued oppressive presence of her toxic AF mother (a deliciously vile Rebecca de Mornay).

There are a lot of balls in the air to keep track of, but in terms of plot the season is definitely canting in the direction of the past, specifically what would be termed Jessica’s “super hero origin story” in a lighter series that could stand including such a trite descriptor. It turns out her powers are the result of being experimented upon by a shadowy black science outfit called IGH in the aftermath of the car accident that killed her parents. She has no memory of the period, but events conspire to force her to look inwards and backwards.

Not something she’s particularly good at – what sets Jones apart as a female protagonist is how incredibly flawed she’s allowed to be. She’s a self-destructive alcoholic who engages in dangerous sex and is absolutely loathe to turn her incredible powers of insight and deduction inwards – so, of course, that’s exactly what the series forces her to do. Krysten Ritter has really settled into the role since her first outing back in 2015. With a character like this, whose demeanour is predicated in prickly abrasiveness and snarky patter, there’s always a risk of drifting into affectation. Ritter give her layers, and it can;t be easy portraying the inner life of a character whose standard operating procedure is to pretend that inner life doesn’t exist.

Incredibly, Ritter isn’t the MVP in the acting stakes thus far – that honour goes to Carrie-Ann Moss, whose icy lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, has been a frequent flyer in the Netflix MCU properties but here really gets to shine. A medical and professional crisis shakes Hogarth’s normally rigid self-control and, what do you know, it tuns out that she can be just as self-annihilating and reckless as our eponymous heroine – she’s just normally better at hiding it. Moss is flat-out fantastic as a woman coming to terms with the fact that, for all her wealth, power, intelligence and sheer will, she’s vulnerable to things completely outside of control.

Understanding the limits of control is one of – if not the – major thematic concern of Season 2. For all that it deals with PTSD, abuse, addiction (Oh, Trish), the casting couch (Trish again), common across the board is the notion that characters are grappling with their frustration over their lack of control over their lives, or else learning to draw strength from understanding what they do have influence over. It’s all very Stoic. The past is set, the actions of others are difficult to change without conflict, scars are permanent, diseases are indifferent, and entrenched power structures and covert conspiracies alike grind ordinary people to dust, but knowledge and mastery of the self is a goal worth fighting for – and the only real goal attainable. It’s a smart and logical extension of the first season’s explorations – don’t forget, what made Kilgrave such a compelling and terrifying villain was his ability to take away that self-mastery from anyone.

So far (the first five episodes were released to critics for review purposes) season 2 lacks a singular villain of such narrative power, but this is, let us not forget, a mystery, and some confusion and murkiness in the early stages is to be expected. What makes Jessica Jones great television is its thematic coherence – it knows what its about, more so than any other Marvel series on Netflix or off. If the new season manages to carry that forward through to the final episode, it’ll be one for the books.