nightflyers

Nightflyers is a beautiful and ambitious ten episode series currently unfolding on SyFy. Unfortunately, while the show is visually striking it is extremely derivative, without the focus or attention to detail to be a proper pastiche.

***

The titular ship looks like a blend of inspirations from Alien, Event Horizon, and Silent Running. Various flourishes from Don’t Look Now, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, and Psycho are also pressed into service. It does not entirely gel.

Plotwise, we are confronted from the beginning with a plague, quarantines, overpopulation, genetic engineering, body modifications, murderous telepaths, first contact, memory recordings and memory wipes. Nightflyers is stuffed to the gills with details meant as world-building, but they lack the context and connections that would make them work. Instead, we end up with a fairly standard horror movie drifting serenely through outer space.

***

Based on George R.R. Martin’s novella (which I haven’t read, so I cannot make a comparison), the series is unsatisfying. Set in 2093, Nightflyers takes place aboard a colony ship whose captain has agreed to bring a scientific crew into an area of space known as the Void with the hope of making first contact with an alien species. Things, predictably, go wrong.

The science fiction aspects of Nightflyers are frustratingly mushy. Genetically engineered for space seems to mean stunningly attractive, grossly self-absorbed, and able to withstand high doses of radiation for up to four minutes. Cutting edge psychology appears to be cutting out any unwanted memories and everything attached to them. Memory recordings are a thing, even if you don’t want the memories erased. Computers appear to be just this side of magic. Which would all be excusable, if the characters were compelling.

Alas.

***

Three of the actors in this ensemble manage to breathe life into their rote characters. Maya Eshet brings a convincing vulnerability and wariness to her portrayal of the cyber-enhanced Lommie which made me want to follow her every twitch. Angus Sampson’s Rowan, the xenobiologist, resembles a heavier Tim Curry and comes across as both charmingly irreverent and deeply committed to the mission. And Sam Strike’s performance as the tortured telepath, Thale, conveys depth and layers to the character that the thin writing does not.

However, not all the characters fare as well. Eoin Macken plays Karl D’Branin, a scientist with an overstuffed backstory now leading a team toward possible first contact. I think he is supposed to be driven, but he comes off as kind of a jerk. As Dr. Agatha Matheson, Gretchen Mol spends entirely too much time asking everyone around her to just trust Thale. Agatha, conveniently, both the overinvolved psychologist responsible for keeping the dangerous telepath in check as well as Karl’s ex lover.

Rounding out the main cast, Jodie Turner-Smith’s Melantha is manipulative and arrogant and without any explicit purpose on the mission, David Ajala’s Captain Roy Eris is intense yet clumsily motivated, and Brian O’Byrne’s Chief Engineer Auggie is written in a way that makes his role in the storyline obvious.

There is no sense of a chance of getting to know these characters. They exist to get the plot from beginning to end, with a few not-terribly-surprising twists along the way.

***

In the end, Nightflyers is no worse than many other science fiction shows. But its unmitigated seriousness wears thin very quickly. Characters and story this self-important belong in a sweeping epic, not in derivative space-horror.

My opinion of Nightflyers is based on the five episodes released over the course of last week. I will more than likely watch the second five, as well, if only for completeness’s sake. I don’t actually dislike the show. Aspects of it are quite good. I simply don’t find enough there to grow attached to.

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.