Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Cult-TV Review: Chris Carter's The After (2014)
In the 1990s, writer/producer Chris Carter had his fingers on the pulse of the modern science fiction and horror genres -- and of the national Zeitgeist itself -- when he created The X-Files (1993 – 2013).
That classic series dealt not only with the then-hot topic of alien abduction, but also with the more grounded issues of conspiracy, domestic terrorism, and the new-found place of genetic science (and DNA) in the law-enforcement/forensic process.
Carter’s second dramatic series, Millennium (1996 – 1999) was similarly trail-blazing. The Lance Henriksen series cast a critical eye on, among other things, affluent American suburbia at the turn of the century, and the secrets roiling beneath the gated, but otherwise seemingly placid surface. What was found there? Apathy, insanity, religious zealotry and facile delusions about “home security,” to name a few.
Having watched and admired Carter’s TV programs for many years now, I often describe the feeling underlying both The X-Files and Millennium as anticipatory anxiety.
At the time the programs aired on network television, the economy was booming, the middle class was thriving, and America was building, per President Bill Clinton, a “bridge” to the 21st century.
And yet, despite these undeniably positive augurs, both Carter series expressed a kind of swelling uneasiness about how things were going, the inescapable feeling that a storm was approaching, and that, furthermore, the signs of that storm were all around us…if only we had the insight to recognize them. .
Today, Carter’s latest production, the pilot for a series called The After, is available for your review at Amazon.com, and it’s plain once more that this artist’s greatest gift -- beyond his penchant for crisp, revealing De Palma-esque camera moves -- is his capacity to step back and cannily observe the prevailing winds impacting the culture.
Then, after noting these things, Carter reflects these qualities back at us in a science fiction or horror milieu. Essentially, he is a modern day Serling or Roddenberry, an artist who uses what many still consider “fringe” interests (like horror and sci-fi) to reveal aspects of human nature.
Coming now, long after the “storm” that overcame America last decade with the War on Terror, the appropriately-named The After is the book-end artistic work to The X-Files and Millennium.
It is a meditation not about an oncoming apocalypse, but, instead, its arrival. With the anticipatory anxiety background of The X-Files and Millennium perhaps in mind, The After suggests that the “storm’s” arrival was never a matter of “if,” only of “when.”
In other words, today is doomsday.
The world has changed tremendously since the 1990s, and there’s a lot more noise today, for one thing.
It’s noise from the net, social networks, iPhones and tablets, and other technological advances. There’s also a lot more partisan noise, rancor between and among Americans who view the world very, very differently.
On first blush, and after just one episode, The After seems to concern the ways that modern American life erects barriers that block cooperation and trust.
Again and again throughout the pilot story, technology acts as a barrier that slows down the (crucial) learning process during the onset of the crisis.
In brilliant, frightening and wholly unexpected fashion, The After also reveals the first chapter of a mystery about the force that may be behind this worldwide apocalypse. The nature of that force is uncertain. It could be spiritual, alien, or hallucinatory, but from the first chapter alone, we know it is terrifying.
“Something terrible is happening.”
The After follows Gigi Genereau (Louise Monot), an aspiring actress, as she auditions in Los Angeles for a role in an upcoming film. She doesn’t get the role, and doesn’t want the role that is eventually offered to her. She returns to her hotel feeling defeated, and plans to return home to her husband and daughter in New York.
But then things start to go wrong.
Along with a police woman, a clown (Jamie Kennedy), and a few others, Gigi becomes trapped inside the hotel elevator when the power unexpectedly goes down. She manages to escape with the others, only to end up locked in the hotel garage with a lawyer (Adrian Pasdar), and an escaped convict, Deed (Aldis Hodge).
Another escape is managed, and once outside Gigi learns that the whole world is undergoing some kind of catastrophic crisis.
This unspecified crisis has already overwhelmed government and local authorities. With phones and the Internet down, Gigi and the group of diverse survivors, attempt to find safe haven at a nearby mansion.
But dangers lurk outside, both from roving gangs, and from a “dark shadow” in the woods.
It’s not a matter of if, but when…”
I wrote above a little about the subtext underlying this pilot episode. Many times throughout the fifty-five minute production, technology acts as a barrier, trapping and snarling groups of survivors. The elevator breaks down. The hotel parking garage is sealed. The phones and Internet are down. Water faucets aren’t working. Food is spoiling in the refrigerator, from lack of power.
This is the total collapse of our entire modern infrastructure, and it vexes the characters because they have become totally dependent on modern conveniences, and on the safety (apparently) afforded by law enforcement, government, social media, and so forth. But the world has changed instantly, and for the most part, the characters can’t cope.
The pilot episode does an especially good job of expressing the idea of technology acting as a barrier, from frequent close-ups of Gigi’s phone, to imagery of characters trapped behind gates, or half-opened elevator doors. These shots visually symbolize the shock and panic associated with a catastrophic meltdown of Order. One spectacular and feature film quality shot featured in the pilot episode pulls back from Gigi to reveal thousands of people milling up, aimless and afraid, in a city square. The pull-back just keeps going, as the breadth of the chaos becomes apparent.
The characters in the drama are a diverse group, a group that reflects 21st century America. There are people of color, people of alternate sexual orientation, wealthy people, a “foreigner” and people from different regions (such as the Deep South) represented in the mix. All are viewed here by the other characters – at least initially – in terms of stereotypes.
In other words, what these characters know of their fellow countrymen seems to originate, largely from media stories about them. Again, the underlying notion is that in modern America, our sense of community is fractured or even imperiled by the technological barriers we erect; from the screens we perpetually gaze at. We don’t even know who are neighbors are, or what they are about.
What happens when those tablet or iPhone screens go dark, permanently?
When we face each other -- really face each other for the first time in a long while -- what do we see? How do we understand one other?
The After begins to explore this notion, and I’d like to see a series that follows up on the premise.
Since Carter is of the early initiators of long-form or serialized television arcs (along with JMS and a few others), it is intriguing to note the bread crumbs that The After drops in its pilot.
I don’t want to reveal them, for fear of ruining the surprise. But some mysteries concern, broadly-speaking, the reasons why these particular individuals should end up together, the idea of missing time (a policeman indicates that the apocalypse started a day ago, but this isn’t reflected in Gigi’s experience…), and the appearance of…well, something.
Along the way towards developing the enigma, we also get canny references to The Book of Revelation, and creepy high-angle shots that suggest the group of survivors is under the microscope of an all-seeing, malevolent eye. An earlier moment seems to presage this realization, as one character observes a helpless bee in a swimming pool, and sympathizes with its plight. We are no different, she suggests.
At this point, as I noted in my introduction, the dark force haunting The After could be alien, or religious, or simply supernatural. One thing is for certain, however: the shape that the force takes – or at least “reflects” back at the characters -- is a nice little shout-out to Millennium. But clearly, if The After goes to series, I’m going to have to indulge in some refresher studies on Scripture and study of religious iconography.
How all these pieces fit together is something I’d very much like to explore, and so I hope The After goes to series. The pilot is easily one of the best I’ve seen in years, since Lost in 2004, or Veronica Mars the same year, actually.
If you want to explore the questions of The After, visit Amazon.com and give it a go. In closing, I will simply state this: the pilot episode made me feel tense and clutched for the first forty-five minutes or so, and then, during the climax, that anxiety was supplanted by shock, and then the stirrings of real fear.
The monsters are here.