They tasked an emerging-media company “to reboot the series as an immersive, next-generation project. For the first time, it utilizes a shared storyworld between each of the individual films, a rich backstory, and an immersive web experience across multiple online platforms to tell a larger story. The goal was to experiment with a new narrative form and a nonlinear storytelling structure, yet allow each of the films to still stand on its own.” The success of the latter goal is debatable (I’ll get to it further down), and that of the first, well…
It’s true that there was now a social-media component. I didn’t have time to watch all the videos in one go back then, but I did follow the roll-out of the complementary and anticipatory material that began in March of 2014 on the series’ YouTube channel, a new tumblr and its Twitter account (sacrificing everything else that had been on there previously). The tumblr embedded some clever marketing ideas (such as a future take on an unboxing video) and the occasional news item from outside sources with relevance to the season’s shorts, and the Twitter handle tried to both lay out the backstory (Evelyn Malik, a future female version of Bill Gate or Daniel Graystone, reaches back into the past to warn us from something bad happening that affected/is going to affect her personally), engage people in a conversation about relevant topics (with meagre results), and retweet news articles about those topics. For an experiment, that aspect of the new season wasn’t really very revolutionary or curated with much enthusiasm; the tumblr stopped posting new content within two months, and there hasn’t been a new tweet since late 2014.
In May of 2014, then, the new Futurestates website was launched, purged of all previous content (I’ve previously complained about that) and curiously non-mobile-friendly. Its design may look at first glance like it encourages non-linear viewing of the various stories, but the numbering and the arrow buttons suggest a preferred order. Still, the season’s biggest innovation was intended to be the interconnectedness of the short films, but in execution, that’s also the biggest drawback. Because they’re supposed to “stand on [their] own”, they can’t properly reveal their common backstory except in bits and pieces, and those bits and pieces never really gel into something coherent.
Partly that is because the chronological placement of the shorts in regards to each other and to the Malik character is mostly not made explicit. But it’s also because the episodes are fundamentally different from the ones in previous seasons. They’re less complete stories and more glimpses into individual lives in a single future which is more realistic and less far-fetched than previously, but the videos are also less pointed, less focused on a particular issue. The overarching theme seems to be connection, between teachers and students, doctors and patients, robots and humans, a theme that is emphasised over and over again. That’s likely on purpose (one of the first tweets by “Evelyn Malik” says that “It’s not enough to make people think, you have to make them feel.”). But that focus on emotion gets in the way of intellectually expounding the issues.
The seven main episodes, which range from 12 to 22 minutes (including sometimes excessively long credits), are accompanied by some additional material that expands on the world of the shorts but wouldn’t have fit into them, as well as an eighth story presented in thirteen parts (video, audio files or fictional e-mail screenshots presented as images) which centre on Evelyn Malik. It seems to be a prequel to at least some, if not all of the other episodes, but that relationship isn’t always made clear. I expected the Malik content to be the glue holding the other shorts together and elevating them, but it doesn’t. We mainly witness some interactions with her sister (played by the same actress), a tragedy and Malik deciding to do something about it, but we’re never told exactly what happened, and the story thread ends before being properly resolved. In that way, it’s symptomatic for the season, in which we often take a brief look at people’s lives in the future without following up and concluding their stories. That might be intentional and certainly unconventional, but it didn’t satisfy me at all.
Individually, the main shorts are generally nice to look at, with okay to good acting. With the exception of Alex Rivera, all of the directors had worked on Futurestates before (seasons one to three). There are some interesting topics being broached, for sure, but because of the self-imposed restrictions, all of the films stay below their potential (and sometimes significantly below the episodes directed by the filmmakers in earlier seasons). A brief run-down:
- In “Ant”, the doctor/therapist Anthony is unhappy with the constrictions of his profession – robots fill automatic prescriptions for psychological distress by shooting the medicine into people’s eyes, and face-to-face time between the over-worked doctors and patients is strictly limited – and eventually rebels against them when confronted with a manic-depressive who missed his last appointment. It’s one of the more affecting shorts thanks to the lead actors, but has a pat, unrealistic ending.
- “As You Were” concerns a combat veteran outfitted with advanced (but not perfect) prostheses who can’t find proper work because of his disability. He also has PTSD and can’t accept his new body, leading to problems with his family. An interesting side aspect is the fact that prospective employers pay lip-service to his actual service, but anti-robot and anti-cyborg sentiment ultimately wins out.
- “Code Academy”, about a handful of teenagers at a very feminist private school specialising in IT looks nice, but decides to go in the least interesting (though I suppose timely) direction with its premise. It feels like nothing so much as a teen romance novella touching on LGBT themes (so, like an online teen romance novella).
- “Excarcerated” is another relatively strong entry, this one carried by its premise more than the execution. Presumably due to overcrowding, the excarceration programme lets prisoners roam “free”, but with a catch: They have to have implants installed in their eyes, which means they are always supervised by a guard. They also have to spend their time doing menial labour (which they are directed to via augmented reality signs, like in a computer game) and wearing a prison uniform, making them easily identifiable by the public. The additional material on the website effectively does more with this (very interesting) idea than the actual short, which tells an individual story about a man’s quest for redemption, not the psychological cost of such a system.
- The titular “Happy Fun Room” is a once-popular television show for very small children that is alluded to in several of the shorts. The current lead actress tries to teach children about safety precautions in the face of (what is implied to have been) a robot uprising, but is confronted by apathy and ridicule by her tiny co-stars who grew up in a different world. Her failure to deal with this new world and her PTSD is uncomfortable to watch, but because of that, it’s probably the most effective and memorable of the shorts.
- “A Robot Walks Into A Bar” is the set-up to the most humorous of the episodes, about advanced (and, historically, not-so-advanced) mechanical workers replacing humans. It can’t really decide what message it wants to send, though.
- Finally, “Teacher in a Box” about a new virtual-reality learning environment, but really about the bonding between an apathetic teacher and an abused foster kid, suffers from unclear storytelling. The description posted on the YouTube channel where the shorts have by now also been released says this about it: “When an abused teenage girl develops a design for a new product that stands to make millions for the corporation, a jaded teacher […] — who’d been replaced by a digital avatar — is compelled to protect the girl’s best interests.” That sounds like a more interesting film than the one we got.
And that, really, could be said about the entirety of the season.