Saturday, March 28, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sunshine (2007)

Way back in 1981, the Sean Connery/"High Noon in Space" sci-fi movie Outland was advertised with the memorable tag-line: "Even in Space, the Ultimate Enemy is Man."

A deliberate homage to classic outer space films from Solaris (1973) and Dark Star (1975) to Alien (1979) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Danny Boyle's sterling Sunshine (2007) might have done well to adopt the same slogan.

Because if you remove all the technical bells and whistles, the harrowing -- and amazing - - Sunshine concerns not the final frontier, but the yin-and-yang of the human psyche; the best and worst angels of our nature.

Just how far would you be willing to go to save the human race? To the surface of Sun? And where would that journey take you, spiritually-speaking? To an epiphany about yourself, or (like a character in the film named Pinbacker...) to the very heart of darkness itself? Would you curse the blackness and loneliness of space, or share in the glowing illumination and belonging of a radiant star...even if you knew such belonging was short-lived?

Set in the year 2057, Sunshine is the tale of Icarus 2, a massive spaceship bound for our Sun, and carrying eight fragile human beings aboard her. The international crew has been tasked with dropping a vast stellar bomb into the Sun in hopes of re-igniting the dying star before it fades out and leaves Earth a frozen, destroyed world. The entire human race hangs in the balance.

En route to the sun, however, as the ship enters a communications "dead zone," the crew of Icarus 2 intercepts a mysterious signal. The signal originates near Mercury, from Icarus 1, the first ship that attempted this mission some seven years earlier...but disappeared without a trace. It too carries a massive stellar bomb, and thus offers the crew of Icarus 2 twice the possibility of success on their critical mission. Though some crew members disagree with the decision, the captain of Icarus 2, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) orders a course adjustment on the recommendation of ship's physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy). Their mission: to secure a second payload.

What follows this fateful decision offers the viewer a terrific and terrifying glimpse of human psychology, of man both at his remarkable best and at his absolute worst. Catastrophic human errors jeopardizes the mission and yet egregious instances of human heroism - and selflessness -- bring the mission back from the precipice over and over. In one torturous, edge-of-your seat sequence, three crew members traverse a gap in space (between airlocks) with only one space suit between them. In another tense scene, one committed astronaut, Mace (Chris Evans) dives headlong into freezing liquid to re-start a computer mainframe. When he can't do the job at first, he goes back into the coolant. And when he still doesn't finish, he goes back in a third time...

On the opposite side of the equation is a man called Pinbacker who believes that if humanity dies, he will be "alone" with God. He believes, I guess, that there will be some sense of intimacy there, in that twisted relationship. That's the mission he's assumed, and it involves murder, sabotage and chaos. Pinbacker is consumed with self, while the survivors on Icarus 2 are consumed with saving the planet...and the species.

The battle between these opposing aspects of the human psyche goes right to the surface of the Sun itself...and beyond, into a beautiful, even transcendent metaphysical climax. And Boyle doesn't spare us any comforts on the trip. Characters you grow to love make agonizing sacrifices, face gory deaths, and broach a suicide mission with the dignity we all hope we would evidence if, by chance (or bad luck...), we found ourselves in their shoes.

I heard nothing whatsoever about Sunshine during its theatrical release in 2007, but the film is so good it certainly deserves to be lifted from relative obscurity and lauded by discriminating science fiction fans. Danny Boyle has crafted an intimate, haunting, immediate and utterly believable space movie here, one that is never cheesy, never trite, never less than totally involving (not to mention anxiety-provoking). And while you're watching be certain not to take your eyes off the screen even for a second, especially during one unsettling scene that creepily employs nearly subliminal (and highly-disturbing...) flash cuts.

Boyle revived and re-energized the zombie genre with 28 Days Later (2002), and Sunshine is strong enough that it ought to re-ignite the cerebral outer space film....if anybody sees it, that is. An aficionado of the genre will recognize and appreciate many of Boyle's tributes to genre greats of yesteryear too. The film's villain, Pinbacker, is named after Dark Star's Sgt. Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), and even the Icarus's mission -- deploying a destructive device: a bomb -- reflects that nihilist John Carpenter classic. Boyle's slow, majestic pans across empty and isolating (high-tech) ship corridors evoke memories of the Nostromo and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). The talking computer Icarus may be the Nostromo's "Mother" or 2001's HAL, and the steadfast focus on human psychology reminds one of Solaris (original or remake, take your choice).

Boyle utilizes these references and homages not as gimmicks or nudges to appreciative fans, but in the very manner Quentin Tarantino might: re-directing them for his own unique story, and making certain that they carry significance for viewers beyond their original context. For instance, any time a talking Computer appears in a science fiction film, we expect certain...things to happen. HAL, Proteus (Demon Seed) and Mother all turned out to be treacherous, after all. Boyle plays with that anticipation in a unique way (particularly in a scene that involves the captain of the ship and Capa embarking on a dangerous space walk). As for the Ridley-Scott-esque pans, these carefully-orchestrated shots serve to remind viewers of a few important things. First, of the technological nature of the shelter that houses this group of human beings; and secondly that -- in this case -- the haunted house in space is not one invaded by a nightmarish "outside force," a malovelent extra-terrestrial, but rather a monster direct from the human id; a flawed "man" not a "perfect" alien.

Sunshine is also highly reminiscent of the literary works of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), which are considered, to varying degrees, inspiration for films as diverse as Alien and Apocalypse Now (1979). As is the case in Conrad's works, Sunshine offers a tangible sense of place (the Icarus 2 could be the Nostromo or the Narcissus of Conrad's travels), and characters' fates are played out in a remote location (stellar orbit...) far from the lights of modern civilization. Another Conrad-ian theme, the Evil "Outside" creating an Evil "Inside" also finds purposeful life in the Boyle film. Pinbacker goes nuts because of the "loneliness" of black space, and also, perhaps, because of his religious upbringing. Those evils "outside" Pinbacker grow an evil seed within him; one that germinates on the long voyage to the Sun.

Long story short: Sunshine is the finest outer space movie since the little-seen, much criticized and brilliant Soderbergh Solaris remake of 2002. This is so because Sunshine is about us, not clones, robots or monsters. When Man finally reaches the stars, he may have to reckon with the clones, the robots and the monsters of space opera, but one thing is for certain: he will certainly have to reckon with his own psychology first.

Friday, March 27, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Twilight (2008)

Do you know the only time when a cliche isn't really a cliche?

The first time you encounter it.

When -- because of a viewer (or reader's....) relative youth, inexperience, or lack of knowledge base -- a story that is actually old and familiar is miraculously rendered new and fresh. It's a perception thing, I suppose you might conclude.

That's a relevant fact to consider when reviewing the film Twilight (2008), essentially a vampire-human Harlequin romance based on the best-selling books by Stephanie Meyer and designed -- nearly exclusively it appears -- for the specific age demographic of 13-16 year olds.

I'm about twenty-five years past that impressionable target audience, I should add for honesty's sake. This movie wasn't made for me.

But hey, I'm young at heart..

Anyway, given the deliberate youth-skewing approach, Twilight is no Let The Right One In, a haunting 2008 vampire tale concerning wasted youth, stolen lives and alienated adolescence. That (great) film boasts...nuance, subtlety, and a recognition of life's vicissitudes and defeats. By contrast, the James Dean-type undead characters of Twilight are really just...Abercrombie and Fitch-style, angsty poseurs.

Of course, Twilight isn't trying to be Let The Right One In either. That point requires clarity too.

My point is merely that if you haven't watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and specifically the Angel years from 1997-1999), if you haven't read the works of Anne Rice, and if you haven't seen Dark Shadows, Near Dark, Fright Night, The Lost Boys or Let The Right One In, Twilight may indeed seem new and fresh to you. I suppose, given that degree of "youth" (I was going to write "ignorance..."), it might even seem revelatory.

On the other hand, however, If you're old enough or curious enough to remember those productions (and no doubt countless others...), Twilight feels sort of old hat...and unnecessarily lugubrious. The romance isn't that affecting; the scares aren't that scary, and the characters are pretty callow and dreary. The pace is slow, the special effects are bad, and the narrative is but a long wind-up for the inevitable sequel. Even the look of the film is derivative: it cribs the visual palette from The Ring (2002), all foreboding fog and steely Washington State silvers.

Here's the thing, Star Wars came out in 1977, but was a pastiche of 1930s space adventures re-purposing an "old" story (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, etc....) in a modern fashion (with breakthrough special effects and a 1970s vibe). Raiders of the Lost Ark accomplished the same miracle in 1981, taking 1930s "cliffhanger" tropes and re-purposing them for a more realistic time. I could even discuss the romantic Titanic (1997), which re-told a story - essentially - that had last been dramatized in 1958's A Night to Remember, but did so with the state-of-the art effects.

And Buffy? Well, Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was nothing less than a watershed re-crafting of an entire genre, presenting the ultimate evolution of the "final girl" horror film archetype and defining high school as a Hell of monsters and ghouls.

In all these instances, that which had been old, familiar and cliched was rendered new (or at least new-seeming...) under the auspices of updated special effects, a fresh perspective or world view, and nostalgia, among other factors. I mean, I was no spring chicken when I watched Buffy (I was in my late twenties and early thirties when it aired...) but it wowed me with its audacity and the life it injected into old vampire chestnuts.

But if you'll pardon the pun, what new territory does Twilight...stake out? In what fresh way does Twilight tell its watered-down Romeo and Juliet tale? How does it add meaningfully to a century of vampire stories?

Human-vampire romances were the bread-and-butter of Moonlight from just a year ago, so that's not the new ground. I don't even have to reach back to Near Dark in 1987 to see that.

So does Twilight tell us something new about the very nature of vampires themselves? Not really. In fact, the narrative and universe here is highly reminiscent of Skinwalkers from 2007 (my review here.) In both cases, monsters (whether vampire or werewolf) must defend a human from a gang of evil monsters (whether vampire or werewolf); and in both cases the good monsters (whether vampire or werewolf) must control their "frenzy" and "urges" when in the presence of humans (their primary food group). Both films involve a family unit of "monsters" that must reckon with human beings and stick to their core "good" values in the face of adversity.

I guess I should get to specifics. Twilight is the story of young, extraordinarily-pale Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart of The Messengers). She has left behind Phoenix to live in tiny Forks, Washington, with her father Charlie, the local police chief. On the first day "at a new school," she encounters Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a smoldering teen idol who looks like the unholy love child of The Cure's Robert Smith.

Long story short (though it takes the movie fifty long and gooey minutes to get to this point...): he's a vampire and he's hot for Bella...perhaps because they use the same brand of make-up. Slowly, Edward introduces Bella to his family, a de-fanged bunch of "assimilated" vampires who don't kill humans and who think of themselves as "vegetarians." The daddy vampire is the local doctor, actually. And because vampires who play together, stay together, the Cullen clan often enjoys a family game of baseball - the American pastime -- on the weekends.

Unfortunately, a trio of non-vegetarian vampires blow into town and want to make a meal of Bella. The Cullens muster their considerable resources to stop the bad vampires, all just in time for the senior prom...which Edward and Bella attend together...

Twilight is so solemn about inconsequential things that it's silly, but again, that may be a viewpoint that comes only with age and a wide viewing experience. For me, the central romance isn't particularly affecting because it doesn't seem all that star-crossed or tragic. Instead of pointing out the ways in which Bella and Edward would eventually be separated by their natural differences (a direction which might give the story some sense of gravitas), the movie goes out of its way to make their romance seem like something well within the bounds of our normal experiences. I mean, Edward can go out in the sun (his skin looks like glittery diamonds...) without burning up; he can also control his appetites (drinking blood is apparently like quitting smoking in this universe...), and he attends high school. The vampires are so assimilated in our culture, in fact, that they come off as nothing but another ethnic group. So what's the fuss about? Is Edward "dead?" Well, if he is, he's having a good time. He's got a great house, and a terrific CD collection, after all...

The fuss should have been about the fact that if Bella chooses to share Edward's world, she would cut off future options. The ability to have children, perhaps (though the movie glosses over this eventuality.) But by making Edward's world so appealing, Twilight had me thinking we should all be vampires! It's kind of selfish for the Cullens not to turn everyone, isn't it? Wouldn't you like to be immortal...and hot? With a great CD stash? I bet Edward has a kickin' MySpace page.

Again, Twilight wasn't made for me and I know that. Is it a terrible film? No, not really. In fairness, it's about a C+ perhaps. In terms of 2008 movies I've reviewed on the blog lately, it's much better than Righteous Kill or the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, for instance. But here's the thing about Twilight that bothers me. Today's youth - today's sixteen year olds -- have some real built-in pop culture advantages that I didn't at that age. They have Netflix, the Internet, cable television, DVD collections and the like. Therefore they have the tools at their disposal that would help them see rather plainly that Twilight is derivative, dull and formulaic, not trendy, new and heartfelt.

It's one thing not to see a cliche because you're young and impressionable and haven't been around the block. It's another thing all together not to recognize a cliche because you're not looking hard enough; because you're incurious about that which has come before. Based on the film, I have to chalk up Twilight's popularity to just that: a lack of curiosity.

The House Between 3.5: "Exposed"

Watch The House Between 3.5: "Exposed" in Web Series View More Free Videos Online at

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Director's Notes: "Exposed"

A bit of an odd scenario this week on The House Between, as the series rockets towards a finale. "Exposed" started out one way, and ended another way, in part because of shooting difficulties, setbacks and delays at our location. To be more specific: line dancing,

Regardless of the background details, "Exposed" remains a sort of "Man Who Cried Wolf" story. In this circumstance, that man crying wolf is my duplicitous alter-ego, Dr. Sam Clark. In "Exposed" Sam returns to the denizens with a handful of revelations, surprises and warnings. Given the group's previous experience with Sam, each person is understandably reluctant to believe his incredible tales.

Which may be bad for the denizens in the long run...

There aren't many genre antecedents or tributes to report this week (though I did have the incredible joy of crafting one special effects homage to Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants...). Instead, "Exposed" is almost entirely "mytharc" material that answers long-standing questions (and raises many more, based on my THB notebook of future episodes.directions/revelations).

“Exposed” marks the final series appearance of Sam and our recurring villains, the Outdwellers. Originally, I had intended not to feature the Outdwellers again at all this season, but I realized that they are an important ingredient of the overall story and that their two episodes (“Visited” and “Estranged”) are among the most popular with some fans, so it seemed right as we close down shop to have them appear one last time. This way, they have at least a token presence in each season.

As for Sam Clark, I always intended to bring the bastard back for more dastardly and deceptive behavior. In the original version of “Exposed’ he came back and pulled a nasty trick that was so believable, so shocking, it would have knocked your socks off. We didn’t film that...we ran out of time.

Anyway, “Exposed” moves fast, offers a dozen twists and turns, reveals a ton of secrets and then raises new, deeper questions. It leaves several characters shattered and hints at the upcoming final chapter. It’s not the story it started out to be, but it serves as an interesting “prologue” to our last show. It airs here tomorrow.

Guns, Gangs and Ultra-Violence

A few weeks ago on the blog, I had the pleasure of reviewing author Stephen Tropiano's exhaustive study of censorship and film history, entitled Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned and Controversial Films.

Now, by arrangement with the book publisher, Limelight (an Imprint of Hal Leonard), I can present readers of this blog an excerpt from the text.

I selected Chapter 4, sub-titled "Guns, Gangs and Ultra Violence" for the sneak peek. Among other things, this chapter gazes at the controversies surrounding such films as Bonnie & Clyde (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Here's the link to the entire chapter, which makes for fascinating reading. Again, this is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to readers interested in film history, and the history of censorship in America. If you like what you see, you can order the book through the Limelight/Applause site here.

Theme Song of the Week # 48: Logan's Run: The Series (1977)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crabtree Legal

Lee Hansen -- Travis Crabtree on The House Between -- is the subject of an exclusive interview over at the series fan site, Quantum Imprimaturs. I think this is Lee's first official interview on the web series, and it's very illuminating.

Here's a taste:

There seemed to be an effort in the second season to soften or “humanize” Travis. I see this in regards to episodes like “Populated,” “Distressed” and “Ruined.” What do you feel about this trend?

I like it in the sense that gives another dimension to Travis. That he isn't a two-dimensional character that is predictable. Travis and the others are human beings and John writes it like that to give the viewers something to reflect upon. There are little bits of Travis, Bill, Astrid, Theresa, Arlo, Brick and even Sange and Sam in all of us.

In “Populated” it seemed like Travis was really lonely, and just wanted to have some friends. What was it like playing a more vulnerable Travis?

I don't know if Travis was more vulnerable, but it was nice to see him have a little fun that didn't involve someone getting stabbed or emotionally hurt. Travis, in a way, was trying to recapture some of what he left behind, not knowing that Vitality summoned them to help fix the house and not cheer up Travis.

Monday, March 23, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starship Invasions (1977)

Just between you and me, I was an indulged child. Not spoiled, necessarily...merely indulged. One of my father's frequent refrains when I was growing up was "I wish I had a mother like you."

Didn't you just know it from seeing my toy collection?

Well if you didn't realize it before, you'll know for certain after I reveal the fact that my loving, devoted parents actually took me to the movies (older sister-in-tow) to see the Canadian-made disaster, Starship Invasions (1977) during its very limited theatrical engagement.

(LITTLE KNOWN FACT: Since I saw it in the theater with my entire family, the Muirs represented almost 90% of the film's entire box office return.)

Anyway, this was the disco-decade era of Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), I was in the second grade, and I loved with a passion everything outer-space related. Movies, TV shows, books, toys, name it.

My parents supported me in my obsession with the final frontier and so -- when a movie titled Starship Invasions landed at the local theater -- we hopped in the car and went to see it. My parents didn't check reviews, they didn't hem and haw. We just went...

Alas, the movie had barely begun before my enthusiasm and anticipation drained away. The first scene involved a pudgy Canadian farmer being abducted by aliens in funny black hats.

Once aboard the alien ship, the hick (who resembles Elmer Fudd...) was seduced by a naked alien siren, and my Mother was poking my Dad in the ribs with increasing concern. "Ken...Ken!!" What kind of movie was this?

Well, in short, Starship Invasions is a terrible, rotten, stinky B movie. Even as an eight year old kid, I recognized that fact almost immediately. Still, it was awesome that my parents took me to see it...

Written and directed by Ed Hunt (no, not Ed Wood...), Starship Invasions stars a slumming-it Christopher Lee as Captain Ramseses, the nefarious leader of a cabal of renegade aliens and captain of a flying saucer that resembles a hubcap.

As Ramseses explains to his dedicated crew early in the film, their sun is currently experiencing "a dangerous phase" (no, not puberty...) and might explode at any moment. In fact, Ramseses wears a big boxy alarm clock device on one wrist to monitor the sun's status.

When it flashes red, that means his sun has just gone supernova...

What's so funny about this scene, besides Christopher Lee's slow, precise enunciation of the word "super nova" (apparently for the hard-of-hearing in the audience...), is that he is delivering exposition to his own people, who would surely know by the time they reach Earth in their flying saucer, that their planet is in jeopardy and their star unstable. And really, wouldn't it be more helpful if Lee's clunky watch warned him that the sun was soon going to go nova, rather than telling him after the fact?


With his own world threatened, Ramseses needs to find a new home planet on which to hang his silly black hat. Following the abduction of the fat, dopey farmer and the extraction of Elmer Fudd's "sperm cells" (yuck!) by the super-hot naked alien woman, Ramseses declares that humans are actually the parent race of his own species. Still, he's going to kill them all and take the planet.

To commence his evil plan, Ramseses lands his saucer on Earth, at the underwater pyramid base of the "Intergalactic League of Races." The peaceful aliens working there declare "all peace to you, galactic brother" as a common salutation, and work peacefully to safeguard "the civilization, progress and evolution" of worlds like Earth, according to their "Galactic Treaty."

But Ramseses will have none of these namby-pamby ways. After visiting a "Relaxation Room" where he gets to choose between companionship with a sexy redhead, a blond or a brunette (like he's selecting frigging ice cream flavors...), Ramseses kills all the aliens on the base, and prepares to launch "project genocide."

That brilliant plan entails an alien saucer shooting a minuscule lightning ray at Earth, one that spurs a "suicide epidemic" among the humans (as announced on the cover of TIME Magazine...which is tastefully decorated with an illustration of a slit wrist...).

Only, the death ray also sometimes spurs homicide too...thoroughly mucking up the issue.

Only one friendly alien saucer survives Ramseses' vicious betrayal, but is damaged in a battle of the UFOs. The crew thus seeks out human scientist Allan Duncan (Robert Vaughn), to help repair the craft. Duncan is a family man and dedicated UFO expert, one who believes that flying saucers are "damaging" to human self-esteem because they point out that others "are more advanced" than "we are." Allan recruits his friend Malcolm -- who happens to be a computer expert -- and together they board the alien ship to fix it up for battle with Ramseses. The survival of the human race hangs in the balance...

Although Starship Invasions works hard to accurately reflect the details of the UFO abduction experience by featuring alien medical exams (and alien curiosity about human reproduction...) as well as the concept of missing time, the movie remains unintentionally hilarious. For instance, when plotting to take over the underwater alien base base, Ramseses and all his fellow aliens from the Planet Alpha (in the Orion Constellation) arm themselves with tiny little "finger guns" that slip over their digits and are attached to the wrist by old-fashioned, curly telephone cords. Excellent!

Furthermore, Christopher Lee and his cohorts did not have to learn a stitch of dialogue for their scenes together, because no dialogue was recorded. Instead, all the dialogue involving Lee as Ramseses is "voice over" only, and then described in the story as ESP communication between the aliens. This is either inspired or ridiculous. Or both.

It's also rather amusing that the humans of Starship Invasions are not convinced of the reality of UFOs, since aliens of all persuasion make no attempt to hide themselves or their crafts. Saucers brazenly strafe highways and fields in broad daylight, glow by night as they hurtle towards heavily populated cities, and even crash into skyscrapers. Saucers land in suburban backyards too, and on city streets at the foot of public buildings.

The piece-de-resistance in Starship Invasions, however, may be the ludicrous scene set in a grocery store. Here, Duncan's young daughter, Diane, is affected by the alien suicide ray and takes out her pre-adolescent rage...on a helpless tomato in the produce aisle. For years after this movie, whenever my sister and I visited a supermarket produce row together, we'd eye the tomatoes venomously in honor of this moment...

Most of the film's flaws stem from a low-budget or poor execution, but the script is no great shakes in the logic department either. Specifically, a League saucer is shot down by the U.S. military in one scene. Early in the scene, it is established that the aliens aboard that endangered craft can view the military radar room on their view screen. But they do not detect it, apparently, when a missile was launched by the very crew they were just observing. Not paying attention?

The dialogue is pretty lame too. Even the telepathic dialogue. To hear the immortal Christopher Lee bellow the line "we need a human female" via ESP is a camp hoot. I also liked the entreaty from Duncan's wife (Helen Shaver) that she needs more togetherness with her occupied man. "I'm interested in UFOS too," she says, "but we've got to have time to ourselves." Words to live by, indeed.

Pretty much everything about Starship Invasions is textbook dreadful. From the ridiculous android "costume" (which looks appears to be a snowsuit glued to a welding helmet), to the movie's creepy obsession with inter species sex ("so...they shined a light on you and put you with a naked woman?" a police officer asks the fat farmer incredulously...), everything about this movie just...reeks.

But, of course, I had to see it again for nostalgia's sake. I first saw Starship Invasions long, long ago -- in 1977 -- and now I've finally seen it again, in 2009. I mentioned to my mother yesterday that I was planning to watch it last night, and she remembered the details of the movie chapter and verse. I asked her if she wanted to see it again, for old time's sake. Her answer was a polite shake of the head. "No."

She'd already indulged me once, I suppose. And where Starship Invasions is concerned, once is definitely enough.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Man on the Street"

So, this is the Dollhouse episode that's designed to knock our socks off, engage our minds and hearts, and launch the mythology of the fledgling series into the stratosphere.

My reaction? Well, allow me to quote Joss Whedon's own knowing words (from his sharp, clever teleplay for "Man on the Street"). He has indeed "played a bad hand very well."

What I mean by that remark is simple. Conceptually, Dollhouse is intriguing, cerebral and creepy in a good way. It boasts some social relevance and pointed commentary (about the way our society views women; or even the human body...). But emotionally, the series doesn't resonate yet. It's as hollow as Echo herself. Or, to put it in the phraseology of Boogie Nights: the series is good technically...but it lacks passion.

It seems to me that Joss Whedon is giving his absolute all to make a flawed series (and premise) worthy of his participation; worthy of the lineage of the Whedonverse (namely Buffy and Firefly). To that end, "Man on the Street" does indeed help the situation. It's a better-than-average installment, judging by the episodes so far. It's a good episode. It indeed opens up the "mytharc" of the series, revealing that there are at least two "double agents" working the situation (one against Penikott's character, Ballard, one working with him...). Also, this episode makes the important notation that there is not merely one dollhouse in operation but over twenty worldwide. And that though their business may be "fantasy," they have a darker purpose.

This is indeed fascinating and tantalizing stuff; an epic opening up of the Dollhouse saga that grants it a sense of urgency and importance. And I enjoyed these elements. A lot. But in the end (unless Echo is herself operating outside of her imprints as the double agent inside the dollhouse...), she is still a "Buffy" (a larger-than-life hero) who doesn't even know she's having an adventure. She doesn't remember last week's episode. She doesn't remember the lessons of last week's episode. Thus she can't grow. Or learn.

And where's there no learning, there can be no emotional attachment. Yes, yes, Whedon is giving his damn finest effort, playing a bad hand exceptionally well, but he's still crippled by a difficult, if not impossible premise that limits the emotional availability of his great lead (Dushku as Echo).

If you read this blog on a regular basis you know that I'm a huge admirer of Whedon, so it gives me no joy to point out just how problematic this series is. Even a good episode like "Man on the Street" doesn't quite get the job done. Not the way Buffy did. Or Star Trek did. Or X-Files did.

But to quote Boogie Nights again: I'm going to keep trying if you keep trying, Joss Whedon. I'm going to keep watching...