By Tom Shales
Friday, January 22, 2010; C03
On the planet Caprica, belief in a single, omnipotent God is considered heretical and naughty children are sent to bed without their Holoband. The Holoband is a gadget that lets users, most of them young, travel to a wicked disco of the mind where the entertainment includes human sacrifice, and the clientele partakes heavily of what some on Earth call "girl-on-girl action." Oh, it's a lively place, all right.
Any resemblance by "Caprica" to "Avatar," James Cameron's moneymaking gollywhomper, would seem of necessity to be accidental, since both films were in production at the same time -- "Avatar" admittedly taking maybe 25 times as many weeks to complete. "Caprica" (pronounced so as not to rhyme with paprika) is happily absent any flower-child-like, cuckoo Pretty People sprung full-blown from a head shop in the '60s, however -- one way in which it not only differs from "Avatar" but improves on it.
Set in a faux future and a highly familiar alternate reality, "Caprica" arrives on cable's Syfy on Friday night dripping with deja vu. The series' pilot, in different form, has already been available for months on DVD and on a Web site, though Syfy says the version it's airing (at 9 p.m.) is slightly different from those. (Then there's also the sense of deja vu that comes from "Caprica" being a spinoff of the TV franchise "Battlestar Galactica.")
As often with Syfy's original fantasy films, this one looks great and sports a splashy array of visual delights, not the least of which is a fabulous glass house on a lake where half-mad scientist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and his wife Amanda (Paula Malcomson) live with their somewhat-bratty, 16-year-old daughter Zoe (Alessandra Torresani) and a domesticated robot that looks like a big bowling pin. The robot serves as a tennis referee among its other functions.
Zoe mouths off to mommy once too often and mom, in haste, lays a Joan-Crawford slap on her daughter's pudgy face. "You are going to regret that for the rest of your life!" Zoe shouts, but Zoe won't be around to check up on that. Moments after trying to text a message to her mother (on giant texting paper yet), the sleek commuter train on which Zoe's riding blows up, sending the girl to another realm that, it turns out, is within the movie's field of reference. No spoiler alerts are necessary here because all this happens within the first 10 minutes of the picture.
To some, "Caprica" will come across as a pastiche, but isn't that common to many, if not most, sci-fi films? They all contain more-or-less organic elements that are bound to have been seen before, given the nearly infinite number of fantasy films that have been made. The difference is in how they're strung together and whether the filmmakers appear to be dabbling in allegory, political overtones or some sort of stark, dark hidden meaning. One nifty twist to "Caprica" is that a daughter who seems to be dead might turn up again -- chased by her father through a forest of human holograms in the virtual nightclub accessed via the Holoband, for instance. "I'm not going to argue with a digital image," Daddy declares, a vow he finds hard to keep. Next week, in the second episode ("Rebirth"), a young woman's spirit turns up inside a handsome, humanoid robot trimmed with more chrome than a '56 Buick. It understandably fascinates two young technicians assigned to tinker with its mechanisms while indulging in double entendre.
A "great piece of engineering," marvels one. "Just a tool," scoffs the other. "She likes it rough," one notes later, when the robot gets feisty. The robot looks male on the outside, but the boys discern a feminine nature and refer to it as "she." One of the technicians, incidentally, is named "Philo," no doubt in tribute to Philo T. Farnsworth, generally considered the Man Who Invented Television (and no, he did not "die of shame" -- though he did express a regret or two before passing on).
There's enough going on in "Caprica" to keep a sci-fi fan, or anyone who likes to settle into a good story, satisfied and even beguiled -- and though it's shot too dark, those watching on an upscale, big-screen TV will be treated to a visual spectacular. In addition to those playing members of the Graystone clan, Esai Morales adds dramatic heft to the enterprise as Joseph Adama, a lawyer who's friends with Daniel Graystone. The filmmakers -- including director Jeffrey Reiner -- are no dummies. They include scenes set in the virtual nightclub, the one with the smooching girlies and random violence, within the first moments of the movie, and return to the place fairly frequently for a refresher course in lurid pandemonium. In later chapters, such adornments as a giant sports arena are added to the mix, each new detail adding to a certain commercial richness.
Syfy is owned, as you probably know, by NBC Universal, so there's one added pleasure to be gleaned from "Caprica" -- the rare sight of NBC doing something right.
(two hours) premieres Friday at
9 p.m. on Syfy.