Futurestates, season 4 (2013)

I’ve written about Futurestates before, a digital-premiere collection of short, mostly unrelated science-fiction films. The fifth and last season debuted earlier this year, but I’ve only now gotten around to watching season 4.

I was a bit disappointed by season 3, but I’m glad to report that the next batch of episodes proved to be more consistently high-quality. (If you want to watch them, I’d normally guide you to the series’ website, which was well-designed and featured all the videos neatly arranged by season as well as background information, image galleries and behind-the-scenes documentaries. No more. In a misguided attempt to appeal to a hipper audience, the release of season 5 was turned into a cross-platform “event” that resulted in a monster of a website that’s hell to navigate (impossible, with some browsers) and has swallowed all the previous episodes. You can find a half-functioning mirror of the old website here, a list of the episodes from seasons 1 through 4 at PBS, or individually on YouTube.)

If there’s a bit of a trend in season 4, it might be a certain LGBT-friendliness in three of the seven episodes. That wouldn’t normally be significant enough to be remarked upon, but it’s striking compared to previous seasons, which featured a single episode somewhat about “gay issues” (“Beholder”, starring the much-more-famous today Jessica Paré) and, from what I can recall, no gay or transgender main characters.

“Elliot King is Third” rectifies that oversight with a cast made up of lots of transgender actors, revolving explicitly around the question of how people whose gender identity doesn’t fit their biological bodies are integrated into society. In this version of the very near-future, all citizens of the US are fitted with implants declaring them to be Ones (men, naturally), Twos (women) or Threes (neither, for people who haven’t got the money to fully transition). Ostensibly the idea here is to protect Threes from hate crimes, but in reality it results in their ostracisation. It also leads to social unrest because the religious right, fed up with having had to accept gay people, has drawn a line in the sand and proclaims to fight against perceived privileges of Thirds (like operations). About a third of the way into the film, this tension unloads in an apparently religiously-motivated mass shooting that prompts the main character to procure a One implant on the black market and pass as a man.

The episode has a slick look, is well-acted and opens up lots of intriguing questions not just about this world of the future, but also our present. I wonder if the story would have had quite the same effect had I watched it a year ago as opposed to now, after a year of news stories about transgender bathrooms, transgender teachers, transgender models, and Conchita Wurst. In any case, the discrimination angle (different forms of discrimination as well as different strategies of dealign with it) is universal and not just limited to transgender people.

An episode that seems somewhat less timely than in 2013 is “Refuge”, about a near-future United States engaged in a “cyberwar” in Iran. That seems less likely to happen today given the diplomatic disarmament in the negotiations about the Persian nuclear programme. Still, I liked this low-key, fairly naturalistic and, aside from the specifics, not really all that far-fetched episode quite a bit. Its main character is a young woman, a refugee from Iran and basically a model immigrant (she is getting a good education, works on the side, was a dissident in Iran but tries to keep a low profile in America). When some sort of government database is hacked by Iranians, all recent visas and asylum decisions are called into question and subjected to a (probably politically motivated) review. Likely to be deported, a morally questionable offer is made to the young woman not, as she’s first led to believe, because of her brains, but merely because she’s desparate and has a functioning reproductive system (she is to participate in what amounts to a medical surrogacy experiment). It’s an interesting short that implies questions about more than immigration policies, including possible discrimination against non-citizens, the exploitation of the vulnerable, and a view of women as wombs-on-legs (not just a fundamentalist religious view). The episode ends with a reminder to the lead character, as well as the audience, of America’s diversity .

Taking advantage of the poor is also a topic in “Hollow”, set in 2049, along with the evergreen sci-fi question of what consitutes human identity. The main character is a lesbian immigrant who, because of her origins, is only allowed to take crappy, low-wage jobs. Laid off at the beginning of the episode, there’s a comparatively lucrative employment offer waiting for her she is nonetheless reluctant to take. At a time where the web has basically shed all illusions of security (how interesting to watch this after Heartbleed) and privacy (ditto re: NSA revelations), the only way to securely store and transfer digital information is via a human brain. Being a neuro messenger pays well, but it’s not an attractive option for the non-desperate because of the side effects: people are certain to lose their memories of the last two years, and might lose much more if there’s a “spill” of the encrypted information outside of the “container” set aside in the brain.

The concept is reminiscent of the Keanu-Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and the short in general feels a little derivative and predictable. It’s visually pleasing, though, with fitting use of special effects and even an animation sequence. The sexuality of the lead character is taken as a given rather than made into an issue, which is notable in and of itself. Her relationship to another women, a flighty white bisexual, is very much at the centre of the story, though, and this aspect of the film was quite well done even if unfortunately the lead actress isn’t particularly strong here.

For the next short, we’ll stick with immigrants (a popular issue, it seems). In the future depicted in “Promised Land”, the US has been ravaged by climate change, driving gas prices over 10 dollars per gallon. A single father’s only way to survive is to hunt and capture illegal aliens. The twist: the “immigrants” are refugees not from Mexico or some other country, but from the United States of the even farther-out future, where even birds and trees are a rare sight.

The main characters here are the father’s rebellious teenage boy, who is reluctantly dragged along a bounty hunt, and a captured young woman he is supposed to guard. While the acting and other technical merits of the short are okay, there is a second plot twist that doesn’t work at all. It’s designed to tie “us” and “them” closer together, but ends up feeling unnecessary and forced and inviting unfavourable comparisons to the similarly-themed “Tia and Marco” from season 1.

Speaking of things that don’t quite work, “The Living” is the worst of this batch episodes, despite clearly trying. The lead character is a government doctor who comes to a refugee camp not to help the people there, but to harvest the organs of an older man injured in one of a rash of earthquakes afflicting the US. It’s perfectly legal: the government hasn’t deemed the man eligible for medical care, so he can either suffer until he dies or sell his organs so his family can leave the camp.

The episode tries to cram a lot of detail into the shortest running time of the season, thus short-changing all of them: The doctor is gay, not popular at the camp, he was traumatised by a previous quake and he’s conflicted about his job; the old man’s daughter is transgender and briefly suggested to be a potential love interest to the doctor; there are apparently no white people at the camp; young people at the camp have nothing to do, which leads to crime and/or other stupid behaviour. All of that makes the story overstuffed; add only partially-good acting and a strange open ending (and not in the good way) and you get an episode with potential but a lacking execution.

“Return to Elektra Springs” is another story where the main change is a series of natural disasters, though this one may be more obviously explained with climate change. In the very near future, a gigantic wave swallows the West Coast, forcing a retired scientist and his young son to flee so they can get to the boy’s mother in the hills of Colorado. Their road trip foreshadows the expected development in the broader United States: first there’ll be rationing of gas, then a breakdown of government, and then an increasing reliance on help provided by other people and pre-industrial methods of travelling and surviving. The theoretical urgency of the couple’s flight is contrasted with the mellow pace at which the story actually unfolds. It feels weird, but is probably meant to signify how society will have to slow down after such a disaster would make a continent-spanning civilisation unfeasible.

It’s no accident that the main character is a scientist. He used to have “dangerous” ideas about “free energy”, ideas repressed by a nefarious government and moneyed interests. His trip makes him see the necessity of restarting development (a return to “Elektra Springs”, get it?). The adult actors are fine, the several child actors tolerable, and I like the low-tech vision of the future. It’s just a pity that the episode has to so clearly advocate for “unorthodox” (read: pseudo-scientific) DIY means of energy production. Two thirds of the accompanying behind-the-scenes video are dedicated to giving an actual crackpot a paltform to talk about “free energy” and its suppression by “the men in black”.

The best of these short films strangely is the one that strays farthest from the mission of Futurestates. “Children of the Northern Lights” only briefly pays lip service to some kind of future problem. It’s implied (but never stated) that Earth has an energy crisis, and two astronauts have gone into outer space to look for new energy sources. One collision with an asteroid or something and a crash landing on some sort of celestial body later, one of the explorers is apparently dead, with the other soon to follow if he can’t replenish his spaceship’s fuel supply.

From here on, the episode evolves into a 70’s throwback science-fiction film with more than a touch of horror. The lead character has an encounter with (truly) alien life and gets to ponder his humanity. It’s all very retro – costumes and sets are minimal and charmingly low-fi and old-fashioned -, but in a good way. The short also benefits from its comparatively long running time, at over 25 minutes, really allowing the excellent actors to establish its mood.

Now that I’m finally done with this season, I can hopefully tackle the next one much sonner than a year after release.

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