Monday, October 11, 2010

Extraterrestrial Nazis Invade the 1980s: V Is Smart Science Fiction!

The Good: Excellent use of ensemble cast, Wonderful characters, Great plot, Messages and themes.
The Bad: Nothing serious, though some aspects may seem dated.
The Basics: In the epic drama V, aliens come to Earth to exploit our resources until humanity gets wise of them and tries to combat their tyranny.

One of the complaints a lot of people have with science fiction is that it never seems real enough to them. People growing up on science fiction today have a good point. But in previous times, there were science fiction epics that were worthwhile, that bordered on drama because they were about people and compelling issues that were more related to every person than making movies filled with special effects. V is the perfect example of one such science fiction/drama outing. And thankfully it is now preserved on DVD.

Set in a 1980s that never quite happened, V finds reporter Mike Donovan covering a story of resistance fighters in South America when a huge extraterrestrial ship appears. It is one of fifty that appear over major cities worldwide causing a panic. The panic is stopped when the Visitors reveal themselves as human-shaped individuals who have come to Earth for a compound that exists here that they need for the survival of their planet and race. The Visitors offer to share their wealth of knowledge in exchange and are, for the most part, embraced by the people of Earth.

But some of the humans are suspicious, including Mike Donovan. Mike's assistant Tony soon finds cause; when the Visitors begin persecuting the scientific community, Tony reveals that a Nobel Prize winner has been somehow altered and is now signing paperwork with his opposite hand. This seeming innocuous tell seems to be the only definitive link to the strange behavior of several prominent scientists who reveal a conspiracy against the Visitors in the scientific community.

As the world turns on scientists, Dr. Julie Parrish realizes that the Visitors have something to hide and she becomes determined to figure out what their secret is. As scientists begin to disappear and the public persecution of them grows, Julie and her friend Ben Taylor team up to form an active resistance. As Mike Donovan becomes a wanted man, a whole town disappears, his mother becomes a collaborator and the world wakes up in a state of alien-imposed martial law where those who resist are killed. Or worse.

V has one fairly minor flaw and that is it's easy to look at the mini-series and say that it is dated. In one way, it certainly is. The characters - and there are many - are walking around in tight 80s jeans with poofy 80s hair. It's the 1980s. They make no attempt to disguise that. So, then, V becomes a piece of historical fiction as well as science fiction/drama. Anyone who can open their mind to that will be opening their mind to something quite extraordinary indeed, because this is a worthwhile film.

Outside that, the reason V endures is because it has messages that will always be relevant. V is about not surrendering our civil liberties, it is about the importance of the people and their responsibility to rise up and stop tyranny wherever it exists, no matter how sweet or kind the packaging may sell it as. These are lessons many of us could use refreshing on with the current political climate. The Visitors are tyrants and the resistance that rises throughout the film rightly observes that the Visitors cannot destroy humanity unless humanity gives up and allows them to. V is about fighting absolute power, even at the expense of one's own life. In V, the cause is the survival of humanity and the characters risk everything for the greater good.

The reason the Visitors fear the scientific community, of course, is because they are lying to the people of Earth. They are not what they appear to be in terms of appearance or motives. The Visitors, as Donovan learns, are actually reptiles hiding underneath suits of latex that allow them to appear human. This is a wonderful metaphor for their deceptive motives, as the way they sneak and eliminate their threats quietly, in the shadows, is very reptilian and equally concealed. And that's how true power maintains itself; killing the competition in the dark and quietly.

V has a huge cast because it has a wide variety of characters. They range from the rogue reporter Mike Donovan to the anthropologist Robert Maxwell. They encompass a thief on the streets named Elias Taylor to a Holocaust survivor named Abraham Bernstein and his family. And they are not all nice people: Daniel Bernstein is an ambitious youth who joins the Visitor's youth league and becomes a part of their military force, Eleanor Dupres - Mike's mother - is a wealthy socialite who sees the Visitors as a way to gain power in the world and Kristine Walsh rapidly becomes the mouthpiece for the Visitor's anti-scientist agenda and propaganda.

The highlights of the cast are Michael Durrell, George Morfogen, Faye Grant and Marc Singer. Durrell plays Robert Maxwell and the role gives him the chance to explore his range in portraying Maxwell as a cold scientist and a loving father. Durrell has a complex character and his acting is filled with a depth to support that character. Similarly, George Morfogen appears as a father who simply does not want to get involved. He realizes how deeply he is involved when he discovers he cannot speak freely in his own house. Morfogen uses subtle facial expressions and eye movements to capture the character's growing sense of wariness in a way that makes him seem very realistic.

But much of the acting comes down to the strength of Marc Singer, who plays Donovan, and Faye Grant, who plays Julie, by simple virtue that these two have the most airtime. Singer is charismatic and built in a way that makes us believe in the various physical acts he endures in the film. Grant does an excellent job portraying Julie as an intelligent, charismatic individual on the threshold of being a great leader. Her command of body language is particularly impressive throughout the piece and sells the viewer on her character in the various stages of development.

One of the beautiful things about V is that it is long. Writer/Director Kenneth Johnson rather wisely decided not to dumb down this story, instead opening it up and trying to encompass as many different perspectives and characters as possible in the four hours. V is a triumph of how good science fiction can be when it has a message and is not afraid to tell a story with strong characters instead of state-of-the-art special effects.

On DVD, V comes with a commentary track and a huge behind-the-scenes documentary which investigates just how ambitious the project was. It's informative and it pushes the programming up into perfect territory.

For other worthwhile science fiction television, please check out my reviews of:
Star Trek


For other television reviews, please take a look at the organized listing on my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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