Friday, February 26, 2010

Film Friday: Vanishing Point (1971)

Sometimes lousy movies are just plain lousy. Sometimes, they're lousy enough they actually become enjoyable in an odd sort of way. And sometimes, somehow, they hit on something that makes them fascinating. Vanishing Point falls into the last category. And interestingly, it’s what the movie doesn’t tell us that fascinates us.

** spoiler alert **

I first heard of Vanishing Point when Quentin Tarantino mentioned it in Death Proof. On the surface, Vanishing Point is a movie about a man driving a 1970 white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. He needs to be there by three o’clock the following day. As he drives along, he runs into some strange characters and is chased by the cops. In the end, the cops set up a roadblock and he slams right into it. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But it’s oddly compelling because it's filled with little mysteries.

For example, we know the man’s name is Kowalski, but never learn his first name. They even make a point of not telling us. We know Kowalski needs to be in San Francisco the follow day (when asked if he’s joking, he tells us: “I wish to God I was.”). But the movie never tells us why. In fact, we have no idea what is motivating him. All we know is he is a former hero-cop and a race car driver, who hit rock bottom after his girlfriend died in a surfing accident. But that was long ago.

As he starts out from Denver, he antagonizes two motorcycle-riding state troopers by forcing one off the road. But we have no idea why he does this. As the cops hunt him down, he’s getting guidance over the radio from Clevon Little, who plays a blind disc jockey named Super Soul. Super Soul plays a variety of songs from some soon-to-be famous people. For example, the first ever recorded material by Kim Carnes appears in this soundtrack, Rita Coolidge and David Gates (Bread) appear on screen as revival singers, and Big Mama Thornton performs some of the gospel music. Super Soul knows exactly what Kowalski is doing at every moment, even though there is no way he could know this, and again we never find out how or why. Finally, the big mystery. . . at the end of the film, the police set up a roadblock. Kowalski sees the roadblock but drives right into it killing himself. And he does it with a smile. Why?

That is what makes this movie so interesting. Who is Kowalski, what is motivating him, and why does he commit suicide at the end of the film? Who is Super Soul and how does he know what he knows? The film never tells us and we want to know.

There are many theories about Kowalski. Some argue that Kowalski represents the last free American -- which is why he has no particular name. This explains why he meets with hippies and bikers and other people who live outside of society. He is the archetypal anti-hero, who drives for pure love of speed and personal freedom, and the police are hunting him down because America is changing and freedom is ending. Coming out in 1971, against the social upheaval of the 1960s, this argument makes a lot of sense.

But there is more to consider. The movie is strewn with religious symbols and gospel music. Super Soul is more like a guardian angle than a disc jockey. And when the locals try to stone Super Soul to shut him up, it feels metaphorical for Biblical punishments. Further, Director Richard Sarafian says he intentionally made Kowalski appear “otherworldly” as he charges the barricade. Moments before the impact, a bright shining light appears between the bulldozers and lights up his face. That’s when he smiles. Many have interpreted this as the Biblical Rapture and his smile as the moment he is saved. Though, this interpretation is troubling as Christianity does not condone suicide.

Barry Newman, who plays Kowalski, speculates that the entire movie is an essay on existentialism and that Kowalski gives his own life so he can define his own life:
“Kowalski smiles as he rushes to his death . . . because he believes he will make it through the roadblock. To Kowalski, [the small hole between the bulldozers] was still a hole to escape through. It symbolized that no matter how far they push or chase you, no one can truly take away your freedom and there is always an escape.”
Others have speculated that he is suicidal because of the death of his girlfriend. But then why choose now and why choose this method of killing himself?

In the end, there is no answer, and that is the biggest part of Vanishing Point's appeal. Hollywood convention tells us that films may never leave big questions unanswered. But Vanishing Point disproves this. Humans are inherently drawn to deep psychological questions because we struggle to understand ourselves and we desperately want to know why others make these kinds of emotional choices -- and suicide is the most dramatic act a human can undertake. Leaving Kowalski's motivation unexplained creates an irresistible mystery that draws people in and keeps them thinking when the film ends.

Finally, interestingly, we actually know how this film would have turned out if they had answered these questions. In 1997, Vanishing Point was remade with Viggo Mortenson replacing Barry Newman and Jason Priestly replacing Cleavon Little. Unlike the original, this movie tells us who Kowalski is (including his full name) and why he wants to get to where he’s going (pregnant wife). Priestly also has no supernatural ability to see Kowalski, and instead spends the film spouting off anti-government militia-type opinions on the radio while arguing with callers about what is motivating Kowalski. The 1997 version stinks.

So maybe Hollywood should rethink this convention that says that everything needs to be explained. Perhaps, sometimes, what we don’t say is even more interesting than what we do?

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Re-Booting The Star Trek Re-Boot

The new Star Trek movie didn’t thrill me. Sure, as shallow summer CGI-blockbusters go, it was acceptable, but it wasn’t anything more than that. This movie had none of the depth and sophistication of the original episodes, nor did it have the essence of what made the characters so great. It was little more than Pirates of the Caribbean In Space meets Star Trek Babies, and I guarantee you this new franchise has at most two more movies in it before the audience loses interest in the big shiny explosions. But I’m not here to rip this movie apart. Instead, I’d rather talk about what would have made a better re-boot.

What kind of Star Trek reboot would I have done? For starters, I would want something that kept the original spirit, only updated it with a more intense story and better effects. It would need to be something that both the fans of the original could like as well as non-versed new comers. So why not start by taking a few of the better episodes, combining them, modernizing them, and adding a few twists.

Just as importantly, we need to keep what made the characters work so well (there is no way that any of these Star Trek Babies grows up to become the series characters) and it would be a nice touch to explain some of their idiosyncrasies. Finally, because it costs us nothing, let’s respect the series history rather than throw in a ridiculous time change cop-out (which still can’t explain why they’re all at the Academy together and suddenly the same ages).

I would begin with the incident mentioned in Obsession (gas cloud monster) where eager young, by-the-book Lt. James Kirk of the USS Farragut freezes up for a split second, leading to the deaths of several officers including the captain he idolized (Captain Garrovick). Kirk freezes because shooting the gas cloud would have killed his then-girlfriend (who is the science officer on the Farragut). When he freezes, it attacks the rest of the landing party and kills them. This gives us the question of whether or not Kirk can make the truly hard decision of sacrificing someone he loves to save others.

Fast forward several years. A no-longer-by-the-book, Kirk boards the Enterprise for the first time as Captain. He is replacing the very popular Captain Pike, which gives us a chance to see if Kirk can win over the crew.

Spock, who is already on the Enterprise, was Pike’s science officer and represents the voice of reason. Sulu, also already on board, represents the voice of Pike’s crew. McCoy comes on board for the first time with Kirk, but has not previously known Kirk -- he will be the voice of the audience. Also coming on board with Kirk, as second officer of the Enterprise, is Kirk’s best friend from Academy days. These characters will let the audience see Kirk’s actions being judged from different perspectives.

Kirk’s first assignment is to take a science team to the outer rim of the galaxy to investigate and cross over an energy barrier that rings the galaxy and seems to hold it together. The science team includes Kirk’s (now ex) girlfriend from the beginning of the film. She still pines for Kirk, but he has an aversion to her because of the bad memories of the Farragut incident. This gives us a potential romantic interest and lets us see how Kirk is dealing with his own past. Moreover, you can add the element of him trying to resolve the conflict between wanting a relationship but simultaneously believing that would interfere with his duties as Captain.

Kirk tries to take the ship through the barrier, causing the ship to become damaged (see Where No Man Has Gone Before). Several people die and a handful of people start developing strange ESP powers -- including the ex and the best friend.

As the crippled ship heads to the nearest Federation outpost, things start to go wrong. First, they encounter the remains of an alien spaceship. During the next hour of the movie, Spock will slowly decode that ship’s logs. He will learn that the crew came under attack from both within and outside of the ship, and that the alien captain blew up his own ship, but they won’t know why until near the end of the movie.

In the meantime, strange things start to happen. They discover a ship following them on their sensors, but can’t get near it (like a sensor mirage). It’s like they are being stalked (see Balance of Terror). People also start to see visions of ghosts walking the hallways and hear things pounding on the hull. Soon people are hallucinating, with deadly consequences.

In this portion of the film, I would go for a level and style of horror similar to The Grudge -- uncomfortable and disturbing (a little shocking), but not gory.

As these events begin, the crew believes that they have intruders aboard. Then they start to think they brought something back from the destroyed ship. But as Kirk’s friends gain more and more ESP powers it becomes clear that they are manifesting these nightmares. Further, as their powers grow, they start “losing their humanity” as their powers corrupt their thinking. This lets you play with the “power corrupts” angle and the “fear drives us to do bad things” angle.

As these powers grow, they become increasingly menacing to the crew. Spock tells Kirk they cannot be allowed to reach a populated planet -- he also discovers that this is why the alien captain destroyed his own ship, so his ESP-enhanced crew would not be unleashed on a populated planet. At the same time, McCoy is working on a cure, but likely won’t find one in time.

Kirk is now facing THE choice -- egged on in multiple directions by Spock (“act now”) and McCoy (“give me time”). He can’t let his friends reach the nearest outpost, and he must protect his crew, but can he kill his friends in cold blood? That is the very issue Kirk could not resolve at the beginning of the film with the gas cloud.

In terms of adding a little action, as Kirk is making the decision, I would have the “sensor ghost” (now nearly fully manifested) finally attack the Enterprise. This would be the final trigger that pushes Kirk to make the decision. So does he kill them? Of course, because he’s Kirk and he makes those kinds of hard decisions. But if this is written well, the audience should not be sure until he does it that he will actually do it.

Then wrap it up with a speech about duty, and stressing that while space exploration is dangerous, it is in our natures to take risks.

The end.

I think this movie does a good job of keeping the spirit of the original, updating it, and creating a movie that is both challenging to the audience and yet accessible without being lost in Star Trek minutia. Also, this movie leaves the door open for all kinds of stories in the future because it’s character-driven and you can go in any number of ways with future scripts (kind of like the new Doctor Whos). By comparison, the reboot they actually made can only lead to more CGI action flicks.

That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Top 25: Romance Films You Should Know

Let’s talk about the top 25 romantic films you should know. Why? Because it’s Valentine’s Day and Commentarama loves you! What makes a film romantic? A romantic film pulls at your heartstrings. It gives you the warm fuzzies or the “Spock can’t die?” weepies. But most importantly, it’s about love, baby, love.

Romances began in ancient Greece as comedies, i.e. not-dramas. But it wasn’t until western Europe’s medieval period that romances came into their own. Not coincidentally, many of the conventions that we ascribe to romances today were created at that time. For example this period gave us the white knight stories and the noble sacrifice. The Shakespearean era added romantic mix ups and the star-crossed lovers. And the Jane Austen era finished us off with the cross-class romance, the couple who are already pledged to others, and the ugly ducking. With those final pieces, romances had everything they needed, and they’ve developed little since.

1. Gone With The Wind (1939): I don’t want to die, so I’m giving the mob what it wants. Yet. . . there are legitimate reasons this film belongs at the top of the list. With a stellar cast, an interesting story, and one of the most memorable lines in film, this film, one of the all time highest grossing films, continues to transcend generations. But even more importantly, this is the only film on the entire list that doesn’t fit into the conventions discussed above, and that makes it truly special. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

2. Casablanca (1942): Boy meets girl, Nazis invade Paris, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, girl is married to unappealing jerk, boy and girl make sacrifice for greater cause, boy keeps Nazis as parting gift. Described by many as Hollywood’s finest moment, this is THE movie for anyone who’s ever been dumped without a lot of explanation. It also contains the most famous line never said: “Play it again, Sam.” “We’ll always have Paris.”

3. Pride and Prejudice (1995): Ok, I’m cheating because this was a miniseries, but rules were meant to be bent, and this miniseries brings Jane Austen’s classic novel to life better than any other version or remake. Pride is the classic struggle of two people who fall for each other despite initially disliking each other, and then can’t ever seem to get together because neither can express themselves -- though they are quite good at arranging the lives of others. Pride is one of the most copied works, as seen again in movies like Clueless, The Sound of Music and many others. “In vain have I struggled, it will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

4. An Affair To Remember (1957): Ranked as the most romantic film of all time by the American Film Institute, this Spock-weepy classic staring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr presents a true star-crossed lovers tale. Two strangers fall in love, despite being engaged to others, and promise to meet in six months to start anew. But things go wrong, as one suffers an injury, and fear of rejection threatens to keep them apart. “There must be something between us, even if it's only an ocean.”

5. Beauty and the Beast (1991): Am I kidding? A cartoon? Nope, not kidding. Show me a little girl. . . or a big girl for that matter, who doesn’t know this movie by heart? Beauty and the Beast is the classic princess fairy tale, mixed with a little Pride and Prejudice, a heaping dose of unrequited love and lovers' misinterpretations, and it plays on the idea that the right woman can turn a frog into a prince. “She’ll never see me as anything but a monster. It’s hopeless.”

6. Pretty Woman (1990): Pretty Woman is the most recent version of Pygmalion, later to become My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady, which I vastly prefer, could easily have taken this spot, but I chose Pretty Woman because of its more recent vintage and because it wasn’t a musical. This story embodies the modern version of the white knight tale, with Richard “Gerbil” Gere, the heartless corporate raider, rescuing Julia Roberts, the hooker with the heart of gold. This movie made Roberts into America’s Sweetheart, gak. “I want the fairy tale.”

7. Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994): The highest grossing British film up to that point, and the film that made Hugh Grant into an international star, this film follows Hugh Grant, who falls for Andie MacDowell after a one night stand. They keep running into each other thereafter at weddings and a funeral, each time with one of them engaged to another, until they finally put it all together. “The castle beckons.”

8. Ghost (1990): Ghost is the classic story of the separated lovers, with an interesting twist -- they are separated by Patrick Swayze’s death. Moreover, Swayze must work to protect his wife from his own killer. Add in the fact that he’s unable to tell his wife that he loved her until after his death, and this turns into one of the most memorable romance movies. This movie even makes Whoopie Goldberg likeable. Will miracles never cease? “Ditto.”

9. Titanic (1997): I found this cliché-riddled movie ridiculous, but it is known the world over. The highest grossing film of all time until Avatar, this film made Leonardo DiCaprio a star outside gay circles and it showed that nothing is more romantic than dying in a disaster after a gun fight. “I’m the king of the world.”

10. Dirty Dancing (1987): Here is one of the travesties of these kinds of lists. This is an ugly duckling story similar to Strictly Ballroom, but Strictly Ballroom is far superior on so many levels -- from the believability of the romantic interests, to the more sensual dancing, to the more intelligent humor. Yet, Dirty Dancing is on the list, and Strictly Ballroom is not, because it is more known. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

11. Princess Bride (1987): How can a movie that pokes fun at romantic movies be in the top eleven? Because it manages to create one of the sweeter romantic movies of modern times. Everyone knows this movie, and even kids are ok with the kissy parts. “As you wish.”

12. Say Anything (1989): Lane Meyer, er. . . Lloyd Dobler is the classic underachiever. He wants to date Diane, who is going places, like England. Soon they fall in love. But her father does not approve. Will Lloyd have what it takes to win the girl? We do know one thing, he’s got a boom box and a Peter Gabriel cassette, and he knows how to use them to up the ante for teenage stalkers everywhere! “What I really want to do with my life - what I want to do for a living - is I want to be with your daughter.”

13. When Harry Met Sally (1989): Ok, full disclosure -- I hate this one. I’ve never see two less appealing people. . . they should have been hit by a train. Harry Sally follows two shallow, self-centered jerks over a twelve year period, and it introduces concepts like “the high maintenance girlfriend” and the “transitional person.” Oh goody. “Can men and women ever just be friends?”

14. The Philadelphia Story (1940): This one is listed at No. 5 on the AFI’s list of romantic movies, though I see it more as comedic than romantic. Still, this sharp-witted comedy provides plenty of romantic sparks as socialite Katherine Hepburn’s wedding plans are complicated by the arrival of Cary Grant, her ex-husband. At a time when the Hayes Code blocked any mention of extramarital affairs, Story was considered one of the best comedies about “remarriage” -- the 1930s/1940s substitute for affairs.

15. While You Were Sleeping (1995): Along with Speed, Sleeping launched Sandra Bullock’s career, and didn’t do too badly for Bill Pullman either. Sleeping is a mistaken identity story involving the perfect girl who is mistaken for the fiancé of a man in a coma. She meets coma-boy’s family and falls for his brother, Bill Pullman. But when coma-boy wakes up, the jig is up. Disgraced, Bullock goes back to her sad, sad life. Will love conquer all? “I want you. . . not to be unhappy.”

16. Shakespeare in Love (1998): This clever comedy deals with the forbidden love of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). With an amazing cast that includes Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench, this movie delivers both a hilarious take on Shakespeare and a parody of many of his works, and a touching star-crossed lovers story. This is perhaps the one movie that best encapsulates the entire Shakespearean era version of romance. And any move that makes cold-fish Gwyneth Paltrow seem human deserves to be on the list. “I love you, Will, beyond poetry.”

17. You’ve Got Mail (1998): A famous instance of product placement, AOL was a remake of 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, where two letter-writing lovers don’t realize that their sweetheart penpals happen to be the co-workers they can’t stand. AOL updates this concept for the internet age. Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as competing book store managers, this film also was heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice. “You’ve got mail.”

18. Sleepless in Seattle (1993): Before they managed competing book stores, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan remade An Affair to Remember without the complexity. . . forget the disability, eliminate Hanks’ wife with extreme prejudice, and cue the compliant, cute kid to reflect the single-parent environment of the 1990s (and to give the easy seal of approval to Ryan). “Destiny is something we've invented because we can't stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.”

19. Notting Hill (1999): Hill is a serviceable romance except for the twenty-minute smirkoff near the end, which significantly raised my tolerance for violence. Hill brings together smirking heavy-weights Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts under the guidance of the same writer as Four Weddings, to give us the highest grossing British film since Four Weddings. This tale of two people who don’t fit in each other’s lives but decide they can’t live apart revived the sagging careers of both smirkers, and showed that formulaic pabulum continues to sell. “Look at me, I’m smirking.”

20. Officer and Gentleman (1982): There were a series of romantic films that were huge about 20 years ago, but which seem to be slowly fading. This includes The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Love Story, but the best of this group appears to be An Officer and a Gentleman. Richard Gere woos Debra Winger as he goes through aviation officer candidate school. This one ends in the iconic scene where Gere walks through a factory to find Winger as the UAW applauds. “I got nowhere else to go!”

21. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997): In this tale of unrequited love, Smirker Roberts and her college buddy Dermot Mulroney agree that they will marry if neither is married by the time they turn 28. But at 27, Mulroney tells Roberts he wants to marry Cameron Diaz. . . for some reason. This of course convinces Roberts that she really loves Mulroney. Thus, she must pretend to be the dutiful maid of honor while secretly trying to sabotage the wedding. “This is my one chance at happiness. I have to be ruthless!”

22. The English Patient (1996): How can a movie with the talented Ralph Fiennes, the beautiful Juliette Binoche, Mr. Pride Colin Firth, and two Jesuses -- Willem Dafoe and Jurgen Prochnow -- go wrong? I don’t know, but this one bored me to tears. . . not Spock-tears, but tears none-the-less. Maybe you liked it better than I did, many people apparently did. Enough in fact, that it makes our countdown. “Why are you so determined to keep me alive?”

23. Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001): Yet another Pride and Prejudice adaptation, this one centers around a woman who works in the publishing industry, where she fantasizes about her boss until she meets a lawyer she can’t stand (Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. . . again). He thinks she’s a fool. So naturally, they need to fall in love. This film is mostly famous for capturing the angst of single-women in the 1990s. Avoid this one if you have a Y chromosome. “Bridget Jones, wanton sex goddess, with a very bad man between her thighs... Mom... Hi.”

24. City of Angels (1998): Angels is a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, in which Nicolas Cage gives up being an angel so he can be with the ill-fated Meg Ryan, a surgeon who is anguished by her inability to save one of her patients. “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it.”

25. Breakfast at Tiffanies (1961): Breakfast gives us Audrey Hepburn’s most memorable role as she plays the naive, eccentric gold digger Holly Golightly, who seems afraid to fall in love. “Well baby, you're already in that cage. You built it yourself.”


Again, these are not necessarily the best romantic movies, but these are the ones you should know to be conversant in our culture. If you want a couple of great ones that aren’t on the list, try the Korean My Sassy Girl, which I’ll review at some point. Or, surprisingly, try Jet Li’s Hero, a martial arts film centered around a very strong love story. Or how about WALL-E, a touching romance between two robots? I’ve been told Until the End of the World is pretty good too.

Thoughts?

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Friday, February 5, 2010

TV Review: Caprica (2010)

Set 58 years before the remake of Battlestar Galactica (“BSG”), Caprica is the story of two families. One is the Adama family, with the focus being on Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), the father of future Galactica commander William Adama -- William is a young boy at this point. The Graystones are the other family. Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is the inventor of the Cylons. All in all, I’m not thrilled with the show and I think it has serious problems going forward.

** spoiler alert **

The story begins with the death of Graystone’s daughter and Adama’s wife and daughter in a terrorist bombing on a train. The terrorists are a militant religious fringe that believe in “the one true god” instead of the pantheon of gods that are generally accepted (though largely ignored) by the vast, vast majority of people in the colonies, of which Caprica is a member planet.

After losing his daughter Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), Graystone, a talented cyberneticist with a huge military contract to build the first combat robot, inserts an avatar of his daughter (kind of a mental imprint) into his robot’s meta-cognitive processor. This robot, a “cybernetic life form node”. . . “Cylon” for short, becomes the first Cylon. Because of this blending of Zoe and robot, the show intersperses images of the Cylon robot and Zoe, and we watch her reaction as lab techs respond to the robot, unaware of her presence. From there, wackiness ensues.

At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I do not like or respect Ronald Moore, the show’s creator. The man has serious issues. In several interviews, he’s stated that he believes characters should suffer and he would never allow characters to redeem themselves with their actions or to have happy endings (excepting, of course, studio demands). This was on full display in early BSG, where his characters entered a downward spiral with no end -- a downward spiral completely inconsistent with the human experience apart from a few true, manic depressives. Also on display in BSG was his creepy relationship with women. He claims to like “strong” female characters, but they always seem to end up cruel if not sadistic, corrupt, and with strong hints of lesbianism. His male characters fare no better, tending to be self-absorbed, pathetic alcoholics and whiny, über-wimps.

I also do not respect the way he used cheap marketing tactics to gin up interest in BSG -- he has admitted since the show ended that the changes he made to character races and genders were done purely to outrage fans of the original show so they would tune in. What’s worse, as a story teller, I think he’s a coward. I will admit that he flashed moments of brilliance in BSG, but he was always too afraid to take those moments as far as they should go. For example, (1) he started to toy with the idea that the Cylons, who are extremely religious, were the good guys; (2) he gave us a Starbuck who came back from the dead, (4) he gave us terrorists, out of control death squads, and a mutiny, and (5) he gave us Baltar, who started building a massive, twisted cult. Each of these was a moment of brilliance. Yet, in each instance, he dropped the story lines right before the hard choices had to be made, often relying on the age old hack-writer's tool of des ex machina to solve his storyline problems.

Yet, BSG had several things going for it. The first season was virtually unwatchable with the characters basically running around whining and acting like depressives at a two-drink minimum funeral, as they re-enacted each of the original BSG episodes while Moore did interviews disparaging the original show. But over time, he stumbled into ideas that gave the story interest: the realization that some of the humans were actually Cylon agents, the discovery that there were hidden Cylons (who did not know they were Cylons), the discovery that Ellen Tigh was not human, the discovery of Earth. These moments of brilliance and the tension they created made up for the whiny moralizing (like BSGs thinly veiled support for the Iraqi insurgency against US troops), the failing story arcs and the unrealistic, unpleasant characters.

Further, BSG benefited from some great acting: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Grace Park, James Callis, and Michael Hogan all turned in stellar performances. And, most importantly, Tricia Helfer gave us a Number Six who was dangerously psychotic, wildly passionate, and absolutely compelling.

Why do I bring this up? Because Caprica has none of these benefits. In place of the compelling, manipulative and unpredictable Number Six, we have Zoe (Torresani), an erratic, monotone, dark-haired version of “save-the-cheerleader” Hayden Panettiere. She’s a poor replacement because her character just doesn’t have the range that Number Six did, nor am I convinced that Torresani can hold a candle to Helfer screen presence. By the same token, Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction) just doesn’t have the ability to carry off either a believable scientific genius or a grieving father. He’s more of a moody lab tech. The subplot involving young William Adama’s indoctrination into the mafia doesn’t seem all that interesting either: "gee kid, here's how you break a window. . . ho hum." As for Joseph Adama, Esai Morales is a weak trade for Edward James Olmos, and his character seems to have little more to offer than being the hot-blooded foil to Stoltz’s Doctor Thorazine. . . if they ever end up on screen together.

I am concerned about the plot as well. Whereas BSG was able to offer all kinds of mysteries and surprises, all central to the plot, Caprica seems more like a show that gave away the big surprise in the opening act and is now scrambling to remind you how surprised you were. What is left to reveal or to present a mystery? Nor are the intrafamily or interfamily dynamics very interesting. The show is set up to create tension between the two families and within the families, but the families don’t seem to be on an equal footing, they are bound together only by the thinnest of bonds, and they don’t necessarily interact. And the intrafamily relationships seem non-existent -- apparently, some of the characters are married, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell which. So while this is where the writers will likely look for drama, it seems like it’s going to be a stretch.

The world they’ve created isn’t all that exciting either. Whereas BSG followed the golden rule of unveiling slowly and keeping people wanting more, Caprica showed us their entire world right out of the gates. . . and it wasn’t all that interesting. Indeed, their world seems like a stylized 1950s with an incongruent mix of 1990s technology and far future technology, with a few taboos thrown in to shock the audience (like the nod to Hollywood’s new cause du jour polygamy).

Right now, I just don’t see the compelling characters. I see no story arcs that will keep you guessing. I see no drama or twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat. And I see little else to satisfy your sense of wonder. The themes are well trodden (racism, the pros and cons of religious extremism, power corrupts) and, even worse, the writers don’t seem to be offering anything new.

There are also strange moments you need to overlook to enjoy the show. For example, how does the Cylon, an eight foot tall multi-ton robot, escape the lab and go visit a friend of Zoe’s without anyone noticing? And why don’t the lab assistants seem to care that the robot appears to be psychotic and out of control?

Now, I could be wrong? It could be that the writers have something very different planned than what they’ve shown so far, but based on what I’ve seen at this point, Caprica made an ok short story, but has little to offer going forward as a series.

I guess we’ll see.

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