Fox’s sci-fi ‘Virtuality’ hovers between 2 worlds
By Glenn Garvin
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
“I’m asking if you know fantasy from reality,” the starship commander demands of one of his officers, and in “Virtuality” the question is anything but rhetorical. This sci-fi TV movie that Fox hopes to spin off into a series is like an existential Cuisinart, slicing and dicing the real, the virtual and the imaginary into something that’s intellectually fascinating if not quite dramatically satisfying.
A sort of cross between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Matrix,” “Virtuality” is set aboard the Phaeton, a spaceship setting off on a 10-year intergalactic voyage in search of a new planet to replace an ecologically doomed Earth. As a form of recreation, as well as a psychological escape from the close quarters in which they live, the 12 crew members (including three married couples) have been equipped with a cutting-edge virtual-reality program that allows them to simulate anything from fighting a Civil War battle to surfing big waves off Hawaii.
But the virtual world proves destructively seductive. One wife cybercheats on her husband with another crew member; another, whose dreams of children were dashed when she signed on for the long voyage, obsessively indulges her fantasy of pregnancy. An officer uses the program to resurrect his dead family and is quickly embroiled in bitter domestic drama with his ungratefully risen son.
Worse yet, as the voyage nears the point of no return, the crew members find themselves being raped and murdered in their own dream worlds. Is there a virus loose in the program? Or is the virtual-reality program drawing the violence out of their own dark fantasies?
Meanwhile, an increasingly serious series of technical malfunctions in other ship devices leads some crew members to worry that Jean — the Phaeton’s omnipresent if not quite omniscient computer, whose soothing voice and infuriatingly bland simulated personality make her sound like the granddaughter of “2001’s” HAL — has, like her techno-ancestor, run lethally amok. Others suspect a malign human hand.
The virtual-reality program is not the only layer of artifice in “Virtuality.” The leviathan-like corporation that owns the ship is financing the journey by turning it into a reality show, a doomsday version of “Big Brother” or “The Real World” called “Edge Of Never” (”The fate of the world hangs in the balance ... Only on Fox!”).
But to keep up the ratings, the show’s executive producer — who doubles as the ship shrink — has to encourage phony psychodramas among crew members, which soon enough mutate into something real. “You’re constantly making us into bitchy queens,” complains a member of the crew’s married gay couple, to which his partner adds: “I didn’t sign up to be an interstellar punch line.” They’re quickly slapped into line with a threat to leave their earthbound families at the mercy of the ocean tides swallowing Florida.
“Virtuality’s” wit is no surprise; it’s written by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor, two of the producers of the Sci Fi Channel’s uncommonly intelligent “Battlestar Galactica.” They get excellent support from a low-profile cast that includes Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (”New Amsterdam”) as the Phaeton’s troubled spaceship commander and Clea DuVall (”Carnivale”) as its brash pilot.
As cynically penetrating commentary on modern America’s obsession with celebrity and cybergadgetry — on a world where the concepts of friendship and community have been abandoned for “social networking” and no thought can be too complex to fit in a 25-word tweet — “Virtuality” is peerless.
As drama, unfortunately, it’s often punchless, with a meandering narrative which, it’s obvious from the first moments, cannot be contained within a single two-hour show; “Virtuality” too often resembles the series pilot it really is, rather than the self-contained movie it purports to be. And sometimes, attempting to mock reality TV, “Virtuality” merely apes it — particularly in the long, confessional interview cut-ins with crew members, which are as tedious as anything you see on “Survivor” or “Real Housewives.”
As the Phaeton crew devolves into mutinous whining and self-absorption, the producer/shrink comforts the ship’s commander: “It’s great TV.” No, it isn’t.