Futurestates, season 3 (2012)

Futurestates is an interesting experiment. Technically, it is a television series: it is ultimately funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (an entity that finances the production and distribution of content for public television and radio, including PBS), and its instalments are referred to as episodes. But these episodes aren’t shown on TV, at least not at first. Some of them premiere at film festivals, but the majority debut online, and they’re designed from the outset for online and mobile device viewing. They wouldn’t fit into a traditional television grid, anyway, since their respective lengths vary wildly (between 12 and 25 minutes, as of season 3).

Futurestates is an anthology show, which has consequences for its consistency: there isn’t any. Characters, cast, and crew are replaced every episode, which makes for a bit of a wild ride when watching several in a row. In essence, the episodes are mostly unconnected short films tied together by a common, very general premise: every one of the up-and-coming independent writer-directors asked to make one of these films was told to take an issue in the news, extrapolate it, and make a film about how that topic might be dealt with in the future United States (hence “Futurestates”). Over the course of three years and three seasons, topics have included robotics, genetically manipulated food, overpopulation, illegal immigration, climate change, vaccination, pollution, virtual realities, extreme partisanship, gentrification, and digital obsolescence.

I first heard of the series’ existence by accident: one of the first-season episodes was embedded below an article about a screening of Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre (1972). I had nothing else to do, so I watched what I probably thought at the time was a new Herzog short film. It’s not; “Plastic Bag” was written and directed by Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani, and utilised Herzog only as a voice actor. Regardless of authorship, the film is quite brilliant: ugly and beautiful and haunting and humourous all at the same time. It’s one of the most memorable short films I’ve ever seen. Three seasons later, none of the other “episodes” have come close.

That’s not to say that all the other short films are bad, because they aren’t; many are intriguing enough even if they never transcend their independent film roots quite like “Plastic Bag” does. I don’t know whether all filmmakers really receive exactly the same amount of money (specified as $35,000 in an article about the second season), and have since 2010. If they do, it’s fascinating to see how differently the directors use the money, with some films looking and sounding very polished and professional, and others… not. Some of the films feature competent acting (sometimes from familiar faces, like Castle‘s Jon Huertas, Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré, and Party Down‘s Martin Starr), some don’t. Some of this may be a matter of taste, I suppose; anthologies rarely appeal to everyone with every single one of its segments.

Season 3, which premiered in April and May of this year, is in many ways more of the same: thematically diverse and brimming with ideas, even if the execution is sometimes lacking. Take “The 6th World”: it posits a future in which Native Americans have returned to political and economic relevance, and a manned flight to Mars hinges on their cooperation with a company that produces genetically-altered plants (which provide oxygen on the space ship and crops for Mars). It’s an interesting concept with potential to explore dichotomies like spirituality vs. science, letting nature take its course vs. playing god, tradition vs. progress, and racial resentment vs. a need to go forward together. That potential is wasted; the filmmaker very obviously takes sides early on, and everything after that is trite and predictable. It doesn’t help that an amateur was cast in the lead role, and boy does it show (I can’t say that she plays the lead character, since the film doesn’t have characters, only plot devices).

I’m pretty sure (with the caveat that I haven’t seen the earlier shorts since they came out) that the hokey Indian fantasy is my least favourite among the episodes by a wide margin because of how transparent it is. Some of the other shorts also don’t really manage to come together, but none of them have the distinction of being infuriatingly sanctimonious while failing basic filmmaking quality control. “Charlie 13”, also from the third season and dealing with a vaguely benelovent dictatorship in a gated community, is more conventional than I expect from the series and also rather predictable in its blandness, but it’s more competently put-together and has obvious potential for improvement even if the general story and characters remained unchanged.

My favourite of this batch of episodes is probably “Laura Keller – NB”; the “NB” stands for “non-breeder”, and it’s a designation the main character has drawn in a lottery that governs which women in an overpopulated world will be allowed to bear a child. The short follows how Laura Keller deals with her unwanted, but not entirely unexpected status. It communicates subtly and effienciently what the world of this future looks like while keeping its characters realistic and grounded. The film manages to convey a rawness and a real-ness of emotion that many big-budget feature films never realise no matter how much money they throw at the screen.

“Life Begins at Rewirement” is also a standout, if only because season 3 seems a bit weaker overall than the other two (the number of mediocre episodes probably isn’t any higher, but there are fewer episodes in the season, giving each of them more weight). Many of the better Futurestates shorts are ambivalent about the future, steering clear from dystopian nightmare visions in favour of something more realistic and complicated. “Life” follows this trend and almost overdoes it, depicting a future in which the major problem of what to do with an increasing population of increasingly older seniors has been solved without any apparent side-effects. In the end, the film is more interested in its central relationship between a son and his elderly mother than it is in exploring the world it briefly sketches, and that’s fine. The film is just open enough that questions about the morality of the “solution” remain lingering in the background, there for any viewer to think about if he or she wants to.

I don’t know what the future holds for Futurestates. A fourth season, which I would welcome despite my misgivings regarding individual episodes, has not yet been announced (though that may not mean anything, since season 3 wasn’t officially announced until shortly before its release). The episode number has decreased every season, and an ambitious side project (high school lesson plans designed to help teachers use the films in class) never really got off the ground post-season 1; both are presumably a sign of budget cuts. As of this writing, all 28 shorts are still available to stream on the Futurestates website.


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