When the production for this mini-series was announced I was very intrigued: even though I never read the book it’s taken from, I felt certain that anything deriving from Arthur Clarke’s work was bound to be amazing. Unfortunately the end result felt somewhat disappointing, even though I’m delighted by SyFy’s continuing drive to offer quality products to its audience: the reservations I’m going to list are simply a matter of personal preference.
There will be some spoilers in this review, since I can’t address my main items of contention without mentioning plot points, so read on at your own peril…
After a very disheartening prologue, in which we are shown a man, Milo Rodrick, moving through a devastated landscape, and saying he’s the last man on Earth, we switch to a time a few decades earlier: suddenly, massive ships appear over the skies of Earth and a voice speaks through every communication channel, urging humanity not to be afraid. The alien visitors, promptly named “Overlords”, claim to be there to offer a better quality of life: clean energy, cures for any known diseases, the end of famine and poverty, and so on – in exchange they ask that the people of Earth unite in a peaceful whole, renouncing conflict and any destructive technology. The speaker calls himself Karellen and says he’s the Supervisor for Earth, but he’s unwilling to show himself yet, since people would not be ready for this kind of revelation, yet.
Together with the positive, hopeful general reaction, the announcement also engenders a wave of suspicion and distrust, and with good reason: from the proverbial Greeks bearing gifts onwards, history and fiction have shown repeatedly that no one ever offers plentiful goods without asking for something costly in return. This kind of concern appears quite justified as the leaders of the anti-Overlords movement quickly find themselves marginalized and then wiped out almost overnight, and when – at the end of the first episode – Karellen finally shows himself, looking like every iconic image of the devil we are familiar with, it’s clear that something nasty is indeed going on.
Despite these intriguing premises, I found it difficult to get deeply invested in the story: the pace is quite slow and the characters appear more like useful talking heads rather than fully-fledged figures – with the notable exception of Karellen, played by Charles Dance. His portrayal of the alien Supervisor, and the ambiguous threshold he stands on between benevolent gift-bearer and inscrutable mystery is carried off perfectly to the very end, and it’s the chief reason I was willing to hold on for the whole run of the mini-series.
The other main characters are Missouri farmer Ricky Stormgren, chosen by Karellen to be his spokesperson; Perretta, a woman desperately trying to keep a hold on her faith while most of the world tends to forget it; and Milo Rodrick, a deeply curious scientist and the man speaking of humanity’s end in the prologue. All of them move under the same heavy pall of hopelessness hanging, more or less subtly, over the whole narrative – and in Ricky’s case that’s compounded by the way events make him into a sort of sacrificial lamb and chosen victim: since the story develops through their individual points of view, and we know beforehand that humanity is indeed doomed, I could not develop any attachment to any of them, because I was robbed of any chance of it by Milo’s own words in the beginning, a choice I found somewhat questionable, since it takes away the thrill of discovery from the viewers and dictates the whole narrative structure from the start.
As we observe the Earth entering a veritable Golden Age, where people are freed from strife, violence and illness, the doubts about the Overlords’ true intentions keep mounting until the momentous revelation: Earth is at the end of its life cycle, and the aliens’ task is to facilitate the transcendence of its children, but only them, into a sort of group consciousness. The decades of peace that humanity just enjoyed are a sort of parting gift, a last compassionate act toward a doomed species: Milo learns this after stowing away on Karellen’s ship, from which he’s returned to his dying home world – indeed the last man on Earth – to give the Supervisor an account of the end, and an impassioned plea not to forget Mankind. It’s a surprising development, considering that the clues seemed to point toward something more sinister and that literature and movies caused us to mostly expect the worst from alien visitors: still, I would have preferred to learn about it along the way instead of being subjected to the massive spoiler represented by the prologue. In my opinion, the revelation’s impact would have been greater.
Apart from that (as I already said, it’s a matter of personal preference), my other major issue with the story comes from the concept that a life devoid of hardships and trouble would kill creative drive and the need for religion. In the latter case one might find the foundation for this development in the existence of the aliens themselves: the appearance of these seemingly all-powerful creatures could certainly cause a massive crisis of faith even in the staunchest believers – the theme is not explored enough, however, so the question remains open. On the other hand, the often-lamented creative stagnation is not so easily justifiable: scientific research seems to suffer, mostly because of the restrictions imposed by the Overlords, and this is indeed plausible, while the failure of the arts is not. At some point, a character says that the lack of strife is equivalent to a death knell for artistic endeavors, and this does not ring quite true: in my opinion, removing obstacles like illness and hunger, for example, should free the creative impulses, not stifle them.
These controversial topics, despite not being fully explored, are the most interesting aspect of the mini-series, and I’d like to know whether they are present in the original work as well: sadly, the overall sadness and slowness of the screen version does not encourage me to go that way – not yet at least.