Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Orville Season 2, Episode 3: Home

This week on The Orville, we get an episode that's incredibly emotional, as well as shockingly and surprisingly dark. 

Home marks the farewell of fan-favorite character Alara Kitan, as she makes the decision to leave the ship and return to her home planet of Xelaya. He departure generates a ton of real and heartfelt emotion, as the crew reluctantly says goodbye to one of their own.

And then out of nowhere the episode takes an unexpected and violent turn, as it morphs into a tense and brutal home invasion storyline. It was definitely an unexpected development on what started out as a comedy series. But as unexpected as it was, somehow it worked within the confines of this week's plot.

Obviously the big question on everyone's mind is why the hell is actress Halston Sage, who plays Alara, leaving the show so early in its run? Amazingly, no one really knows for sure.

The official explanation is that she left the series to star in a movie. Eh, I dunno if I buy that. Isn't this the very reason why actors have to sign contracts? To prevent them from leaving a show for a better gig?

Plus, most actors film movies during their TV series' summer hiatus. The Orville's seasons are only thirteen episodes long, so it must have one hell of a filming break! Surely there was more than enough time to star in a film without conflicting with The Orville's schedule.

There are also rumors that Seth MacFarlane and Halston Sage began dating sometime during Season 1, but recently broke up. This supposedly caused tensions between the two, which either prompted MacFarlane to fire Sage, or her to ask to leave. 

Again, let me emphasize that this is all internet rumor and speculation. So far neither party has confirmed or denied these rumors, so take that how you will.

Of the two stories, I'm more inclined to believe the latter. But the relationship-gone-bad rumor doesn't make complete sense either. If they had a bad breakup and MacFarlane wanted Sage off the show so badly, why would he give her such a beautiful and heartfelt sendoff? Why not just violently kill off her character?

I honestly don't know which story to believe, so for now the answer to why Sage left the show is, "Who the hell knows?"

Many fans are having trouble letting go of Alara, and have deluded themselves into thinking that since the door was left open for her return, she'll be back in a few weeks. I hate to break it to you, guys, but... that ain't happening. Alara's gone. Apparently for good.

If you don't believe me, then look no further than this. They've already hired her replacement! That's right, actress Jessica Szohr is joining the cast as Talla, a new Chief Of Security who just happens to be Xelayan like Alara was.

I dunno... it seems like a bad idea to replace Alara with another Xelayan, and one who looks practically identical to her. I feel like they should have gone in as different a direction as possible with the new character. For now the situation reminds me of the two Darrins on Bewitched!

This week's episode also features several fun cameos from former Trek alums Robert Picardo, John Billingsley and Molly Hagan. We also get appearances from two Seinfeld stars!

When The Orville premiered, I denounced it as a clumsy parody of Star Trek that couldn't settle on a tone. Those days are long behind us. This episode's incredibly emotional ending proves it's no longer an imitation, but has emerged as a fully-realized and heartfelt drama. I don't know how MacFarlane managed to pull off this particular trick, but kudos to him for doing so.


The Plot:
It's Friday night in the Orville's mess hall, which means it's time for the weekly arm wrestling competition between Alara and Isaac (organized by Gordon and John, of course). Normally the super-strong Alara can hold her own against Isaac, but this time he handily (heh) beats her. Even worse, he breaks her arm in the process!

In Sick Bay, Doctor Finn mends Alara's broken bones. She scans Alara and notes that she's losing muscle mass and bone density at an alarming rate.
Finn discusses Alara's situation with Mercer and Kelly. As a Xelayan, Alara's used to a high level of gravity. Living in the relatively lighter gravity of the ship is negatively affecting her body— something that happened to early astronauts. 

Finnsays the only solution is for Alara to return to Xelaya to recover. If she doesn't, she could lose her strength completely and then she'd NEVER be able to go home. Unfortunately Finn can't say how long recovery will take— it could be weeks or even years. Maybe never (!).

Alara's reluctant to leave the ship, but Mercer talks her into it, assuring her that her job will be waiting for her whenever she returns.

The Orville approaches Xelaya, a beautiful ringed planet. Mercer and Gordon fly Alara down to the surface in a shuttle. As they land in front of her family's home, Gordon activates a gravity field around the ship. Mercer puts on a special suit to protect him and escort her to her home.

Alara's parents, Ildris and Drenala Kitan come out to greet her. As Mercer and Alara step out of the protective field, she immediately collapses under the planet's high gravity. Her family rushes over and helps her up. Mercer tells Ildris that Alara's an amazing security officer and a valued member of his crew. Since intellectualism is prized over the military on Xelaya, Ildris ignores the compliments and brusquely thanks him for bringing his daughter back.

Some time later, we see Alara's getting around her old home in a floating, anti-gravity chair. As she sits down to breakfast, her sister Solana joins them. The whole family wastes no time planning Alara's life for her, expecting her to go back to school and forget all about the Orville. Her sister mentions she's getting married, and this prompts Drenala to hint that Alara should settle down as well. Alara snaps and floats back to her room.

Ildris enters and brings up the fact that Alara was never as smart as other Xelayan children, and says he did the best he could with her. She counters by saying he never once encouraged her, and that her shipmates have always been much more supportive. He brushes off her insults and says the whole family's going to their beach house to try and reconnect.

The next day, the Kitans fly to their island beach home. They're met there by Serris, and old friend of the family and the caretaker of the house. He welcomes them and tells them since it's the off season, they have the entire island to themselves.

Just then they see a wild eevek (a beaked horse-like creature) and Solana rushes over to pet it. Alara gazes at it in wonder, thinking things may work out after all. That evening, Alara sits on the beach and fantasizes about riding the eevek along the shore, the wind blowing through her hair.

She snaps out of her reverie and looks down the beach. She sees a light on in a house a mile or two away. She tells her parents about the light, and thinks it's odd since Serris claimed they were the only ones on the island. Her parents tell her Serris must have been mistaken.

Back on the Orville, temporary security chief Lt. Tharl comes on board. He meets with Mercer and Kelly, who are less than impressed with his dude-bro attitude. Later he takes his post on the bridge and starts pounding away his lunch, discussing his race's internal and external esophaguses. Mercer admits he misses Alara. Just then John and Claire enter the bridge, and say they have an idea on how to help Alara. They ask Ed and Kelly to join them in the Environmental Simulator.

At the beach house Alara tries to stand on her own, but is still too weak. Just then there's a knock at the door. A couple named Cambis and Floratta Borrin introduce themselves, saying they're staying in the house up the beach. They claim someone broke into their home, and wonder if the Kitans have seen anyone suspicious on the island. Drenala says the only other person on the island was Serris, but he left for the mainland yesterday.

Alara's security officer instincts kick in, and she begins grilling the couple for info and asks if they called the police. Cambis implies Serris may be the culprit. Drenala tries to call him, but gets no answer. Alara insists on checking out Serris' cottage, but Drenala protests. Solana offers to go with her.

The sisters fly to Serris' place. On the way, Solana says she admires Alara's life in the stars, and says she's proud of her. They arrive at the cottage, and find all of Serris' belongings there, indicating he never left the island after all.

That night the Kitans invite the Borrins to dinner. Cambis mentions his son Galdus, bragging that he became an professor at age twenty one. Ildis counters by talking up Solana and her PhD. Alara sits forlornly at the table, completely left out of their conversation.

A timer goes off, and Ildis says his trivalve sauce is finally ready. As Ildis is about to pour the sauce onto Cambis' plate, the episode takes a very dark turn. Cambis tells Ildis to drop the ladle and use his hand instead. Everyone thinks he's joking, until Cambis pulls out a gun. Floratta aims a gun on Alara and her family as well, telling them to stay put. Cambis forces Ildis to plunge his hand into the boiling hot sauce, scalding him horribly.

Cambis lines everyone up on the couch and begins monologuing. He says his son Galdus killed himself the previous year, after Ildis ruined his life. Apparently Galdus Horona (the family's real name) wrote a paper denouncing the Mellara vaccine, claiming it was dangerous and actually caused Torin's Syndrome. Ildis disputed Galdus' findings, saying his research and methodology were flawed. Ildis' actions inadvertently ruined Galdus and destroyed his life, driving him to suicide.

Cambis demands that Ildis record a statement saying he lied, and that Galdus was right all along. Ildis refuses, so Cambis aims his gun at Drenala's head. Ildis immediately caves and says he'll do it. Alara warns him that if he does so, Cambis will have no reason to keep any of them alive.

Realizing she has a point, Cambis switches tactics. He gets a pair of hedge shears from the garden, and tells Floratta to chop off Solana's pinky (!).

Just then there's a commotion outside, as the Orville's shuttle lands in the front yard. Cambis sees Mercer exit in a gravity suit, and tells Ildis to get rid of him. Mercer asks to see Alara immediately, but Ildis tells him it's not a good time. Mercer insists, so Cambis appears and shoots him in the chest.

The blast knocks Mercer twenty feet, and he lands hard on the ground. His suit begins malfunctioning, leaving him completely motionless. He sees his suit only has three minutes of power left. Once it runs out, he'll be crushed.

Just then Alara recovers her strength enough to attack Floratta. They wrestle around on the floor, and Alara eventually gets the upper hand and shoots her. She tells her family to get upstairs and hide. As she hobbles up the stairs, Cambis fires at her.

Alara tells Ildis she can deal with Cambis, but he needs to jump off the balcony and get Mercer back to the shuttle before he's crushed by the high gravity. Ildis gingerly climbs over the balcony (with his wounded hand) and falls to the ground. He lands next to the body of Serris, who was apparently killed by Cambis.

Cambis enters Alara's bedroom, looking for her. Suddenly she emerges from a closet and shoots him dead.

Meanwhile, Ildis tries to drag Mercer back to the protection of the shuttle before the suit dies. As they near the ramp, the suit fails and Mercer's lower legs snap. Gordon's able to grab his arms and pull him in the rest of the way. He blasts off to take the unconscious Mercer to Sick Bay.

Ildis joins his family, and praises Alara's heroic actions. He apologizes for not believing in her, and says he's sorry he had to have him for a father. She tentatively takes his hand.

Sometime later on the Orville, Doctor Finn and John give Alara the good news. They can replicate Xelaya's gravity in the Environmental Simulator, so that with weekly exposure to the room, she'll be able to keep her strength and stay onboard.

Later, Alara enters Mercer's office and gives him a gift box. She says she's decided not to go through with the treatments after all, and has decided to go back to Xelaya and reconnect with her family. Mercer's sad to see her go, but understands. He says her chair will be waiting for her on the bridge if she ever decides to come back.

Alara enters the shuttlebay, and looks puzzled to see no one's there. Suddenly the entire bridge crew emerges from behind a shuttle to give her a proper farewell. She hugs each one of them (even Bortus!), and boards the shuttle. The teary-eyed crew watch as it flies off.

Mercer returns to his office and sees Alara's gift. He opens the box, and inside we see it's an unopened jar of pickles.


• This is some heavy-duty nitpicking that's gonna ruin everyone's fun, but I can't help myself. During the arm wrestling scene, we find out the score is Alara 16, Isaac 14. Later on Alara says she and Isaac are evenly matched in terms of strength. 

If that's true, then she'd lose the arm wrestling contest every time! Alara may have super strength, but she's still a biological organism. Eventually she's gonna become tired and her strength will wane. Isaac doesn't have that problem. As a machine he can exert the same amount of force forever without exhausting himself. All he has to do is wait her out, and he'll win every time.

• Jason Alexander returns this week (very briefly!) as Olix. Too bad he didn't have any scenes with Lt. Tharl, for a mini Seinfeld reunion!

• Once again I appreciate the fact that The Orville gives us aliens that actually look, well, alien! In particular I loved the "bi-clops" guy we saw this week. It's a refreshing change from the Star Trek Universe's endless parade of "aliens" with bumpy foreheads.

• Doctor Finn examines Alara and notes she's losing body mass. She tells her, "Physical deterioration as a result of changes in gravity is nothing new. It happened to the earliest human astronauts. Even with extensive physical training while in microgravity, muscle volume and peak power inevitably decrease."

Kudos to the writers for adding some actual medical science here. Loss of body mass is a real thing that affects the crew of the International Space Station. They're required to engage in intense physical workouts, but even then it doesn't stop the deterioration, it only slows it.

I wonder if anyone else on the Orville is affected by this? I guess it's lucky that everyone else in the crew just happens to be from planets with comparable gravity to Earth's!

• When Doctor Finn diagnosed Alara's condition, my first thought was, "So what's the problem? Just increase the gravity in her quarters!" Like most sci-fi spaceships, the Orville's laid out like an ocean liner, so it obviously has some kind of artificial gravity. Just crank it up in Alara's room.

Doctor Finn and John eventually think of this (sort of), but by then it's too late.

• If nothing else, The Orville is a damn fine looking show. The FX team knocked it out of the park this week with this absolutely gorgeous sequence of the shuttle approaching and flying over Xelaya.

That said, I was a little surprised to see such tall, spindly buildings there. You'd think a planet with such massive gravity would have architecture to match— squat, one story buildings built out of only the strongest stone. I guess since the Xelayans are all brainiacs, they figured out a way to defy their planet's pull.

• Xelaya must be a fairly isolationist world. Despite the planet's natural beauty, I can't imagine they have much of a tourist industry!

 Now that I think about it, Xelayans are kind of like the Vulcans of the Orville Universe. Like Vulcans, they all have pointy ears, are fiercely intellectual and look down on the military. 

And if I remember right, Vulcan's gravity was a bit higher than Earth-normal, which gave Spock augmented strength!

The only real difference between the two races is the Vulcans' lack of emotion and devotion to logic.

• Mercer dons a protective "anti-gravity" suit in order to escort Alara to her home.

As soon as he has it on, he looks at a readout on his wrist that says he has an hour of protection against Xelaya's brutal gravity.

I don't quite get this. Why's the suit only offer a certain amount of protection? It's almost like it's the equivalent of an oxygen supply or something. Seems like the suit should offer constant protection.

I suppose maybe it's possible the suit's structural integrity can only take so much, and the readout's showing the amount of time left before it fails? Or maybe it uses a portable version of the shuttle's gravity shield, and it only has enough juice for an hour? I dunno.

By the way, there's some great attention to detail in this scene. After Mercer puts the suit on and checks the timer, Alara exits the shuttle's protective field. She instantly collapses under the planet's harsh gravity. A few seconds later Mercer rushes over to help her, and we can clearly see that his timer now reads 59:36! Well done!

• Before they leave, Gordon says he's always wanted to try something on Xelaya. He grabs a coke can and tosses it out the back of the shuttle. Once it clears the shield, it falls straight down and is instantly flattened.

Jesus Christ! When Alara said she was from a high-gravity planet, I figured it was maybe three, four times Earth normal, tops. How high would Xelaya's gravitational pull have to be to completely crush a can at rest? Fifty times normal? A hundred? No wonder Mercer needs a protective suit!

• Since Alara's been away from Xelaya for so long, she has to ride around in a hover chair until she readjusts to the planet's intense gravity.

Wait, how's that helping anything? She's never gonna recover her strength riding around in that thing. We do get one brief shot of her trying to stand up out of the chair, but that's it. It's almost like the writers think that simply being exposed to high gravity will magically restore her strength. They needed a scene where she's working out in a gym with comically tiny weights or something. 

By the way, note the purple ocean behind the family in this shot!

• This episode features quite a few guest stars from the various Trek series. Robert Picardo plays Alara's father Ildis. Of course he was also the holographic Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. Even though that was about twenty five years ago (!), he looks amazingly unchanged. Must be the hairline.

Molly Hagan plays Alara's mother Drenala. Hagan looked incredibly familiar, and I was going nuts trying to figure out where I'd seen her before. Turns out she was Eris, the first Vorta we meet over on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Of course! I should have recognized those eyes instantly.

John Billingsley plays the unhinged Cambis. He was also Doctor Phlox on Enterprise.

By the way, how awesome is it that this episode gives us a battle between two Star Trek doctors? I'm surprised Doctors Crusher and Bashir didn't show up as well!

• The eevek looked pretty darned good, especially for a TV budget! FX have certain come a long way since the original Star Trek series!

• At one point Alara sits moping on the shore, trapped in her hover chair by the harsh gravity. She then has a romance novel fantasy about being free, as she rides along the beach on the back of a wild eevek.

If you looks closely at her in this scene, not only is her flowing hair longer than normal, but she doesn't appear to have her characteristic Xelayan nose and forehead ridges! In fact she looks 100% human.

Wha...? Did they somehow forget to put her prosthetic makeup on for this scene? Or does this mean Alara secretly fantasizes about being human? I honestly don't know what's going on here.

• The first time I saw the beach house I honest to god thought that was an AIDS ribbon in the front yard! I guess it's just some sort of futuristic alien art.

Some more attention to detail here— note the planet's rings in the sky above the house.

There're in the exact same position in the sky later on, when we see the house at night. Just like they should be!

See, unlike our moon, which orbits Earth and appears in a different part of the sky every night, Xelaya's rings are in a fixed position. They'd be in the exact same spot every day. I'm happy someone on the show realized that, and made sure the FX team got it right!

• I knew that was Patrick Warburton playing Lt. Tharl without having to look it up. There's no mistaking that voice!

When I first saw Tharl I assumed his "appendage" was like an elephant's trunk. Later we find out it's actually a second, outer esophagus, and is attached to his gut. Eww.

When Mercer meets Lt. Tharl, he notices there's a hole in his uniform for his esophagus. He says, "Um, we only have standard-issue uniforms on board, so if you need something specific..."

Uh... why's Mercer acting like they have a storage room full of uniforms? Doesn't the ship have replicators, er, I mean the synthesizers? Several times now on the show we've seen crew members enter the synthesizer room and order up various items of clothing. In fact John just whipped up a god-awful Michael Jackson-esque jacket for Gordon a couple weeks ago in Ja'loja. So what's the problem here? If Tharl needs a special uniform, he can just order one with a hole in the stomach.

 At one point Cambis and Floratta show up at the Kitan's, claiming their beach house was robbed. I love how Alara instantly goes into full detective mode and begins grilling them:

Cambis: "We just arrived this morning, and we think someone's been in our house. So we were wondering if you'd noticed anyone or anything unusual."
Alara: "Someone broke into your house?"
Floratta: "Well, we don't know for sure, but we think so."
Alara: "Was there any sign of forced entry?"
Cambis: "No. No, not that we saw, but when we got inside, it looked as if several items had been moved around, like someone was looking for something."
Alara: "Was anything missing?"
Floratta: "Well, not that we could see."
Alara: (deadly serious) "Did you call the police?"
Floratta: "Oh, of course. They came right away.
Alara: "Did they scan for DNA?"

• Welp, if nothing else, this episode tells us what MacFarlane thinks of anti-vaxxers! 

The entire B-plot revolves around Cambis' son Galdus Harona, who published a paper claiming the Mellara Vaccine was dangerous and could actually cause Torin's Syndrome. Ildis disputed Galdus' paper, saying his methodology was flawed and the vaccine was harmless.

Sounds a lot like certain celebrities who fancy themselves scientists here on our world! At least Galdus was actually a doctor, unlike the celebrities here who somehow see themselves as experts.

 Cambis shoots Mercer, which damages his anti-gravity suit and pins him to the ground. His suit has just three minutes of power or whatever left, after which he'll be crushed. For some reason, he orders Gordon to contact the Orville and inform them.

Um... what the hell does he expect anyone on the ship to do about it? It's not like they have transporters in this universe, to whisk him off the planet. Is he wanting them to send down another suit in a shuttle? That'd take half an hour or more. He's only got three minutes left!

Too bad they didn't have another gravity suit, so Gordon could have dragged Mercer back himself.

Ideally, Gordon could have fired up his shuttle and carefully inched it back to Mercer, until he was close enough to drag him inside.

I've seen people online wondering why Gordon didn't throw a rope to Mercer. Really? First of all, where the hell would he get a rope? Is that standard equipment on shuttles? Secondly, Mercer's for all intents and purposes paralyzed. How's he gonna grab onto a rope? And lastly, how would you even throw a rope in such high gravity? We saw what it did to the coke can. A rope would instantly fall to the ground the instant it cleared the gravity field.

Of course the real reason this scene existed was to ramp up the tension and give Ildris a redeeming, heroic moment.

• Man, Robert Picardo killed it during his final scene with Alara. He's always been a solid character actor, but who knew he could deliver such a powerful, emotionally charged performance? He was straight up weeping when he told her he was sorry she was stuck with a father like him. Well done, Robert!

• I have a feeling the cast wasn't acting in Alara's farewell scene, and the director just pointed the camera at the actors as they actually said goodbye to Halston Sage.

• Wow. If that final shot of the pickle jar didn't punch you in the feels, then go lie down in your coffin, cause you're already dead.

Goddamn you, Seth MacFarlane! You took what started out as a parody and somehow turned it into a legitimate sci-fi drama series, filled with fully realized characters and more honest emotion than Star Trek: Discovery will every have.

• This Week's Incongruous 21st Century (And Earlier!) References:
The only one I spotted this week was Lt. Tharl, who spoke like a 21st Century dude bro.

The most obvious one: In the TNG episode Skin Of Evil, Chief Of Security Tasha Yar is killed by a sentient oil slick named Armus (yeah, I know). At the end of the episode, a holographic Tasha bids a tearful farewell to the rest of the crew. It's not an exact fit, but there are a lot of parallels to that episode in Home. Chief Of Security Alara Kitan decides to leave the Orville. At the end of the episode, she bids a tearful farewell to the rest of the crew.

In the DS9 episode Melora, a woman from a LOW gravity planet was assigned to the station. She was forced to get around in an old-fashioned wheelchair, because Earth-normal gravity was too much for her. In Home, the Orville's gravity wreaks havoc with Alara's health. She returns to her high gravity planet to recover, and is forced to get around in a hover chair until she re-acclimates.

In the TNG episode Family, Captain Picard returns to his family home on Earth, to recover from his traumatic experience with the Borg. His presence reopens old wounds with his brother. In Home, Alara returns to her family home to recover from exposure to Earth-normal gravity. Her presence reopens old wounds with her parents.

This one's pretty minor, but it's worth a mention. In Skin Of Evil, Tasha Yar is competing in some kind of martial arts contest. Lt. Worf informs her that he bet on her, as she's sure to win. In the arm wrestling scene in Home, the very Worf-like Bortus tells Alara, "I have wagered on you, Lieutenant. Do not fail me." The two scenes are almost identical!

This Week's Best Lines:
John: "Isaac, get your shiny butt over here. It's go time."
(Was... was that a Futurama reference?)

Gordon: (as they fly over Xelaya) "God, I just can't... I mean, look at that."
Mercer: "Nothing like it."
Gordon: "You know, it's places like this where you realize, God, I'm trash. My family is trash."

Mercer: "Mr.and Mrs. Kitan, it's no secret to anyone that Xelayans don't think much of the military. But you should know that your daughter has distinguished herself beyond all expectations. She has saved a lot of lives. Including mine."
Ildis: (dismissively) "Yes, well, thanks for dropping her off. We'll take it from here."
(I'm with Mercer-- I'd like to punch Ildis in the face too!)

Ildis: (talking about Alara) "I was saying earlier, she already looks healthier than she did on the Orville."
Drenala: "Well, that recycled air wasn't doing you any favors. They worked you way too hard out there. You always looked tired."
(Jesus Christ! That's EXACTLY the kind of thing a mom would say.)

Ildis: (telling Alara he wants her to go back to school) "If you're worried about competing, I've already talked to some of the professors at the university. They know you're going to need a little extra attention, but they are all up for the challenge."
Alara: "Oh, thanks."

Ildis: "We both know if you hadn't been slower than the other children, you wouldn't have felt trapped into joining the fleet."
Alara: "Dad, I was well aware of my intellectual weaknesses. I had you to remind me every day."

Mercer: "Anything new in engineering?"
Kelly: "Nothing departmental, but Yaphit's six-month evaluation was last week, and he asked what our parental leave policy is."
Mercer: "Why? Is he thinking of splitting in half?"
Kelly: "We can't legally ask him that."

Tharl: "This ship is totally sick, man."
Mercer: "Thank you."
Tharl: "Yeah. I was checking it out on the way up here. I'm like, "Man, this is bitchin.' I like all the carpets."
Kelly: "Your references are terrific. You come very highly recommended."
Tharl: "Yeah, my last captain had a total boner for me. Not a boner-boner; a professional boner."

Solana: "I have a theory. I think the soldiers and the intellectuals all secretly want what the other has. The muscle wants the brains, and the brains wish they had what it takes to clobber the barroom drunk who gets out of line."
Alara: "Why can't a person have both?"

Ildis: (referring to Mercer) "You'll have to get him back to your ship, but he'll be all right."
Gordon: "Are you gonna be all right?"
Ildis: "Alara took care of it."
Gordon: "She always does."

Ildis: "Alara, you... we would all have been..."
Alara: "You don't have to say it. Dad, it's my job. It's what I've been trying to tell you for years."
Ildis: "They would have killed us. All of us."
Alara: "Probably."
Ildis: "I don't know you. I never even tried to know you."
Alara: "I wanted you to know me, Dad. All I ever wanted was for you to be proud of me."
Ildis: "I am so proud. So very proud that you are my daughter. And I'm so sorry that you got me for a father."

Alara: "I won't forget this place. I promise."
Mercer: "We won't forget you. And if you ever decide that you miss that little chair on the bridge, it'll be there for you."

Eh, Not So Fast There, Hipster Spock

Today I was watched the trailer for Season 2 of the dumpster fire known as Star Trek: Discovery (aka STD), and something occurred to me.

At one point Sexy Hipster Spock appears and gravely intones, "This Angel showed me an apocalyptic vision. Someone, or something, is going to end all sentient life in the galaxy." 


First of all, why is it that every threat on this show always seems to involve the ENTIRE goddamned universe, instead of just one planet?

Secondly, did the writers forget that STD is a fraking prequel series? I'd say it's a given that whoever or whatever this Angel is, it can't be that much of a threat, since Spock went on to star in three seasons of The Original Series as well as eight of the movies. Obviously the Angel's gonna be defeated somehow.

This crap right here is why prequels are always a bad idea.

By the way, what in the name of Spock's Beard is going on at the end of this particular trailer? In the final scene, traitor Michael Burnam enters a turbolift with Captain Pike and his entourage. A lizard-like alien is already inside the lift, and Michael asks if he's OK. He hisses that he's sick, and then sneezes a huge wad of snot on the blue shirt next to him. Ha, I guess?

Note that this scene is almost a frame by frame copy of a similar one from The Orville. Seriously, the framing is exactly the same.

What the hell? Is this scene a not-so-subtle little jab at The Orville? Or a friendly acknowledgment perhaps?

Or did the producers of Discovery read all the criticisms that the show's too dark and joyless, and are attempting to copy The Orville's lighter tone in a desperate attempt to increase the ratings and win over the fans? I... I dont' understand what's happening anymore.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Escape Room

Escape Room was written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, and directed by Adam Robitel.

Schut previously wrote Season Of The Witch, along with some TV work. Melnik previously wrote... well, nothing of note. Escape Room appears to be her first theatrical work.

Robitel is an actor, writer and director. He previously directed The Taking Of Deborah Logan (?) and Insidious: The Last Key.

The film has a similar premise to 2018's Hell Fest, as both feature characters inside a "scare attraction" that turns out to be all too real. It also feels like a watered-down version of the Saw franchise, with elements of The Belko Experiment, Hostel and Cube thrown in for good measure. Think "Diverse Group Of People In A Small Space Being Killed Off One By One While An Evil Group Observes Them," and you'll have a pretty good idea what it's like.

The film taps into the public's distrust of the ultra rich and powerful, who most believe are secretly manipulating us all. In the world of the film, this turns out to be quite literally the case.

I had verrrrry low expectations for this film, especially after I found out it was released by Sony. As I love to point out in my reviews, my former employer's movies are almost always cinematic train wrecks (see Slender Man and Holmes And Watson for proof!). 

Somehow Escape Room turned out to be a decent little thriller! Believe me, no one's more surprised than I am to hear me say that. I guess if Sony goes to bat enough times, eventually they're bound to hit a line drive now and then.

The film's smartly written, tightly plotted and features some decent performances. The characters can be annoying at times, but they're fairly intelligent and don't do anything overtly stupid. Best of all there's not a single jump scare to be found in the entire run time! Honestly, you can't ask for much more than that these days.

Escape Room isn't the first movie about, er, an escape room. That honor would go to the imaginatively titled No Escape Room, a direct to video (I think?) film released in 2018. Both movies appear to have similar plots, and although I've not seen the earlier one, I have a feeling it's probably the lesser of the two.

Something tells me we'll see even more "Escape Rooms Gone Wrong" films before the fad burns itself out.

By the way, I went to an escape room during our family vacation last year. I freely admit I'm terrible at solving puzzles and mysteries, so I wasn't much help. Fortunately my nephew's pretty good at spotting and figuring out clues, and carried the rest of us. We had an hour to solve the room, and managed to unlock the door with just three minutes to spare. Definitely not a record, but hey, we made it!

So far Escape Room's grossed $19 million against its incredibly modest $9 million budget. That means its earned its money back and a bit more, so you know what that means! Look for Escape Room 2: Even Escapier in a year or two!


The Plot:
A disheveled young man (who we later find out is named Ben) falls through the ceiling of a tastefully decorated parlor. He looks around wildly, searching for a way out. Suddenly the far wall starts moving inward, crushing furniture and anything else in its path. Ben desperately looks for clues, and finds a puzzle above the fireplace. He manages to solve it, but the wall keeps coming and he's seemingly crushed to death. Welp, that was a short movie!

We then flash back to the previous day (grrr....), as we're introduced to six people from wildly different backgrounds. There's Zoey, a shy physics student, Ben, an alcoholic slacker, Jason, an egotistical stockbroker, Amanda, an Afghanistan War veteran, Mike, a jovial ex-miner and Danny, a nerdy game room enthusiast. 

Each of them receives a black puzzle cube from a mysterious source. After some difficulty, they all manage to open their cubes. Inside each is an invitation from The Gamemaster to the Minos Escape Room Facility, along with the chance to win $10,000 if they're successful.

The six arrive in the Minos waiting room, where an unseen receptionist tells them to take a seat. Eventually Ben becomes impatient and tries to leave. He accidentally breaks off the doorknob, which locks them inside. Suddenly the ceiling slides open, revealing a series of large heating coils. Danny, who's successfully beaten dozens of escape rooms in the past, realizes the waiting room is actually part of the game.

As the room heats up, the players begin looking for clues. Eventually more coils appear, causing the room to get even hotter. Danny geeks out at how "immersive" this particular room is. Amanda's less impressed, as the heat activates her PSTD and she starts freaking out.

Eventually Zoey discovers that pushing on the six coasters built into the room's coffee table opens up an air duct. Jason and Mike enter the duct and find a way out. Unfortunately all six coasters need to be pressed at the same time, so there's no way they can all escape. Zoey comes up with the idea to fill water glasses to weigh down the coasters. Unfortunately there's not enough water, but Ben remembers his hip flask and fills the last glass with booze. He and Danny manage to escape the room seconds before it's engulfed in a fiery explosion.

They exit the vent into a rustic cabin. The players then discuss the fact that the previous room was just blasted by actual fire. They realize that they're not in a game, and everything that's happening around them is all too real. 

Jason notices the cabin door features an alphabetic combination lock, and tells the others to look for a seven letter clue to open it. Ben sees a sign that reads, "You'll Go Down In History," and flashes back to a year ago, when he was driving drunk with his friends. As they sang Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Ben swerved into the path of a semi, killing everyone but him. He tells Jason to try "Rudolph" on the lock, and it opens.

They exit the cabin and seemingly find themselves outside in a snow-covered forest. Eventually they discover they're in a room painted to look like the outside. As they look for clues, the temperature begins dropping. They find a single red coat, and decide to take turns wearing it. This triggers a flashback in Jason, who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck after his friend— who was wearing an identical red coat— freaked out from hypothermia, jumped in the ocean and drowned.

Ben steps in a hole in the ice, while Mike finds a fishing pole in a tree (?). They use the pole to fish around in the hole, and pull up a block of ice with a key inside it. Danny asks Ben to toss him his lighter so they can melt the ice. Ben throws it short, and when Danny reaches down to pick it up, the ice cracks and he falls into the frigid water below. The others try to break through the ice to save him, but it's too thick and he drowns.

To add insult to injury, they've now lost the lighter as well. The five remaining players take turns melting the block of ice with their body heat. Eventually they're able to get the key and escape the room.

They then enter a pool hall that's built upside down for some reason. Jason finds a door , but unfortunately it lacks a knob and won't open. Suddenly a section of the "ceiling" (which is actually the floor in this room) drops out, revealing a ridiculously deep shaft. The players then race to figure out the solution before the ceiling disappears completely. Zoey solves a slider puzzle on the wall, which forms an image of an 8 ball.

After much puzzle solving, Amanda unlocks a small safe, which contains an 8 ball. They realize the ball is actually the missing doorknob. Amanda tries to make it across the room to the others, but the last bit of ceiling drops out beneath her. She holds onto a telephone cord for a few minutes, then tosses the 8 ball to Jason and lets go, falling into the void far below. Jason fastens the ball to the knob, and the four survivors escape.

They then enter a large medical ward, where they find hospital beds identical to the ones in which they all recovered. Zoey realizes they all have something in common— each one of them survived a horrific incident. She was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Vietnam. Ben lived through the wreck that killed his friends. Jason was the only one left alive after his boat capsized. And Mike survived a coal mine collapse that killed his brother. They also find records indicating everyone in Amanda's unit was killed by an IED except for her. And Danny's entire family perished from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The players realize the Gamemaster is deliberately filling the game with survivors, to see which one (if any) will be the super survivor.

Suddenly a countdown clock activates, indicating they have five minutes to solve the room or it'll be flooded with poison gas. They find an EKG machine and realize an optimal heart rate will unlock the exit. Jason hooks the machine to the overweight Mike, who has a higher heart rate than anyone else. It's not high enough though, so Jason shocks Mike with defib paddles to increase his heart rate (WRONG!). He jolts Mike several times, which ends up killing him!

Zoey then freaks out and begins smashing all the CCTV cameras in the room, figuring that's the last thing the Gamemaster would expect. Time runs out and the room begins filling with gas.

Jason realizes he had it backwards, and the EKG machine needs to register a super low rate. He attaches the electrodes to himself, and somehow manages to meditate in the midst of all the chaos and dramatically slow his heart. The door unlocks and Jason and Ben exit the room, but Zoey's seemingly overcome by the gas, just a few inches from an oxygen mask. Hmm...

Jason and Ben enter a room plastered with optical illusions. They see a hatch in the floor and try to open it, but it's coated with LSD or something worse. The drug causes them both to hallucinate and try to kill one another. They find a single dose of antidote, and begin fighting over it. Somehow Ben manages to kill the much more fit Jason, and injects himself. He then slips through the hatch in the floor.

Ben then lands in the parlor from the opening scene. Although it looked like he was crushed and killed, we see he actually managed to crawl through the fireplace at the last second and survive.

He emerges into an industrial space filled with crates and TV monitors. The Gamemaster appears, and explains to Ben that a shadowy cadre of ultra wealthy individuals lures survivors of accidents to the Minos facility, then bets on who will escape.

The Gamemaster then wraps a garrote around Ben's neck and begins strangling him. Suddenly Zoey appears and clocks the Gamemaster in the head, saving Ben. I guess she must have reached the oxygen mask after all?

Anyway, the Gamemaster tries to shoot them, as Ben and Zoey attack. They wrestle around a while, and Ben manages to the gun from him. He coldly shoots the Gamemaster twice in the head.

Sometime later, Ben and Zoey recover in a real hospital. Zoey then takes the police to the Minos building to show them the escape rooms, but of course the place is completely deserted.

Six months later, Ben meets Zoey for lunch. He's cleaned up his act, gotten a decent job and moved on from the incident. Zoey refuses to let it go, and says she's tracked down the Minos Corporation to New York City (did it really take six months to google their location?). She talks Ben into accompanying her there to expose the operation.

Cut to a doomed flight, as two stewardesses struggle to solve a puzzle before the plane crashes. They manage to unlock the cockpit door, and see the plane's heading right toward a mountain. One of the stewardesses grabs the controls and tries to pull up, but the plane crashes.

We then see the plane was just a simulation that's being prepared for Zoey and Ben's flight.

• The movie begins with Ben falling into an escape room by himself, and struggling to solve the puzzle before seemingly being killed. It then rewinds to a day earlier. This "Flashback Movie" cliche is my all-time least favorite story structure. From the very first frame, we know everyone but Ben's going to die, so why bother watching?

Fortunately it only LOOKS like that's what happened, as the film manages to pull a couple of surprises out of its hat and "subvert our expectations."

See, Rian Johnson? THIS is how it's done. It's perfectly fine to swerve the plot in an unexpected direction, but you need to steer it onto some sort of actual road, and not an into a dead-end alley. 

• All through the movie I assumed Zoey was the movie's Final Girl, so I was surprised to see her killed off at the beginning of the third act. Turns out the movie just wanted us to think she was dead, and she got better somehow. 

We then got both a Final Girl and a Final Boy, as she and Ben won the game and escaped together. This is officially the first time I've that particular story structure, so kudos to the writers!

• Part of the fun of an escape room is looking for clues and trying to solve the various puzzles. The film actually manages to simulate this, as it invites the audience to play along with the characters.

Well, sort of. For the first two rooms, anyway. In the first room, the players need to press six coasters at the same time in order to activate a door. The solution was there for anyone in the audience who was paying attention. Same goes for the second room— they needed a seven letter word to escape, and the clue was "You'll Go Down In History." As soon as I saw that I knew the answer was "Rudolph."

Hats off to the writers here, as this was a fantastic way to engage the viewers and get them invested in the story. 

Unfortunately this audience participation broke down after the second room, and never reappeared. I don't know of the writers simply couldn't think of any more puzzles, or they needed to get on with the story and the plot got in the way. Whatever the reason, it's too bad they didn't carry this idea through until the end.

• At the end of Escape Room we find out the Minos Group is funded by a sinister group of super-rich spectators, who bet on who'll survive the traps.

I wonder if these are the same wealthy perverts who abduct and sell college students in the Hostel movies? Or the same organization that pitted the office workers against one another in The Belko Experiment?

Who knows, maybe these movies are all part of the Escape Room Cinematic Universe!

• Tyler Labine plays Mike, the film's affable comic relief.

He's been in a ton of stuff, including one of my all-time favorites, Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil, a film I highly recommend. Seriously, drop everything and go watch it now. I need to do a belated review of it some day.

• As I mentioned earlier, Escape Room features a surprisingly intelligent script. OK, so it's not brilliant, but it's much smarter than most movies of its ilk.

For comparison, take a look at Jigsaw, the latest movie in the Saw franchise. In it, the Jigsaw Killer kidnaps five or six people and puts them in trap-filled warehouse. He's trying to punish them for their various crimes, so the traps are specifically tailored to each person. One of the characters killed a person by selling them a faulty motorcycle, so his trap involves a bike.

But... how could Jigsaw know that particular character would survive long enough to make it to the room with the motorcycle trap? What if he'd been the first one killed? The others would then look at the motorcycle trap and say, "That's weird. Wonder why that's here?" See what I mean? Dumb!

In Escape Room, the four surviving characters make it to a fake medical ward, containing replicas of ALL their hospital beds
— including those of the ones who'd already died. Obviously the Gamemaster would have no idea who'd be killed first, so he had to include all their beds. This proves the screenwriters put some actual thought into the script. Smart!

• Unfortunately the screenwriters squandered all those smarts in the very next scene. Jason figures out they need to record an abnormally high heart rate on an EKG machine in order to unlock the door. In order to do this, he uses a defib machine on Mike to INCREASE his heart rate.

Um... no. As I've said over and over on this blog for years, a defib machine STOPS your heart. It doesn't jump start it like a car battery, and it for goddamn sure doesn't make it beat faster!

• I'm a little fuzzy as to what's happening in the final scene of the movie. We see agents of the Minos Corp. testing out an escape room in an airplane simulator, which is obviously being set up for Zoey and Ben. 

So... is Minos going to endanger their actual flight? Take control of an honest to goodness real plane and disable it? Or are they somehow going to get Zoey and Ben inside the simulator and convince them they're on a real plane? If it's the latter, how they hell are they gonna manage that? Blindfold them before they board the "plane," so they don't realize it's fake?

I get that they mean to kill Zoey and Ben to shut 'em up, I'm just not clear on just how they're gonna go about it.

Escape Room is a smartly written, tightly paced little thriller that turned out way better than expected. It even managed to subvert my expectations, but in a good way. It isn't perfect, and it's not high art, but it was leaps and bounds better than any horror/thriller I've seen in the past year. I give it a B. I know I'm gonna be ridiculed for scoring it this high, but I liked the film and it entertained me, and in the end, isn't that a movie's job?

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