Sci-Fi and Tech

Ugly Reflections

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Black Mirror isn’t a television series as much as it is an anthology. The episodes are independent stories, so there’s no requirement of watching them in order. They are, however, tied together by the common theme of technology, and the consequences of technology. The first and second season which was written for and broadcast by UK’s Channel 4, released in 2011 and 2013 respectively, with three hour long episodes each. The third season, produced by Netflix, released on the 24th of this month, with six episodes – six different, terrifying stories of how our dependent relationships with technology could alter our lives, and the world.

Each episode takes on a different genre – the first episode, Nosedive, is an excellent satire based on our fixation with social media and is set in a pastel coloured, alternate future (or near future, depending on how you look at it). In this world, every social interaction, whether it’s getting into a cab or buying coffee, involves you being rated out of 5, which in turn shapes your rating as a person. Permanently cheerful and ridiculously good-looking 4.5s get treated with extra care, gain access to privileged spaces, and can claim their world as their oyster. The lesser ranked 3.5s and below – the ones who speak unpleasantly, the ones who don’t care for appearances, are categorized as low lives who for whom facilities are shut off. Nosedive narrates the story of a young woman who gives all she has into climbing up the ratings ladder so that she can move into a plush housing colony.

The second episode, Playtest, tells the story of a somewhat dull American traveler who agrees to test out a virtual reality game for quick money. It’s a fun episode to watch, but is among the weaker episodes in the anthology, with too many predictable, cheesy horror movie tropes and a rather ineffective twist in the end. The similarly themed fifth episode, Men Against Fire, which deals with augmented reality and tells the story of trigger happy soldiers whose brains are implanted with chips that make them see deformed zombies instead of human enemies, isn’t the most impressive either. While the moral lesson is necessary, the episode feels bloated, and doesn’t connect.

The third (Shut Up And Dance) and the sixth (Hated In The Nation) episodes are the standouts of the season. Hated In The Nation combines online bullying with drone technology with a classic whodunit police investigation, resulting the most riveting and well taken 90 minutes of television that you’d have seen in a while. Shut Up And Dance is an especially disturbing story of how a 19 year old, soft-spoken waiter in a café, and a married 40 year old are forced to come together as an unlikely tag team who have to complete terrible tasks when a mysterious hacker gets hold of the secrets of their computers and threatens to leak it to the world. It is poignant, gripping, upsetting and has an ending that lingers long after the episode finishes.

black mirror season 3
I thought the fourth episode was too eh-meh to write about, so here’s a photo.

Black Mirror, as a series can be especially bizarre when you’re watching it for the first time, and this third season hasn’t been consistent with the quality of its episodes. However, if you’re even slightly fascinated by the impact that technology has on our lives, Black Mirror is a series you don’t want to miss.

{The first three seasons of Black Mirror are currently streaming on Netflix}


These Violent Delights

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It was the famed novelist, Michael Crichton, who had written and directed ‘Westworld’, the film, back in 1973. The sci-fi thriller was about an amusement park where guests with heavy pockets could indulge themselves in any way they wanted with the highly realistic robotic inhabitants of the park – from gunfights to lovemaking, everything is kosher to those who can afford it. These robots are programmed in such a way that they can never harm the guests, until one day, they begin malfunctioning and predictably, all hell breaks loose. Westworld was a film that was far ahead of its time, and a runaway box office hit as well. The truth is that I’ve not seen the film (although I am very familiar with Crichton’s similarly themed Jurassic Park) which is why HBO’s lavishly produced television reboot of the film was one that interested me as much as it did.

Westworld (the TV series) picks up thirty years from where the movie left off – the park is well established again and the robots are more human than ever, to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish them from the guests. The only tell that they have is their inability to harm live creatures, which means they’ll happily let flies sit on their face, and sometimes, their eyeballs. These robots live programmed lives wherein their fates are already have already been written, unless an interaction with a guest throws their day off previously scheduled events. Even then, once the guests leave, they go back to sleep and wake up with no memory of past events, ready to lead their scripted lives once again.

The entire scientific set up is headed by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins, who is as hypnotizing as ever), who is in charge of creating and programming these bots. It’s when he installs an update in them, an update that allows the bot to access previous memories and have ‘reveries’, that the bots begin to malfunction, and chaos looms.

The show is unapologetic about its (mostly) ridiculous and over the top premise, and takes itself very seriously, making sure you’re as immersed in their world as they are. The Westworld of 2016 has been created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Ray Nolan, and has JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk sitting as executive producers – all names and talent that need no introduction, least of all in the realm of science fiction television. The casting is also incredible – a veritable coup by itself, for it brings together the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Hemsworth (the oldest of the Hemsworth brothers), Jeffrey Wright and Rodrigo Santoro, among others.

Westworld is only one episode old, making it the perfect new show to watch. To be fair, the premiere left the audience with more questions about the show than answers, but I do believe that it’s by design, for it makes sure that you’re counting down the days to the next episode. The sets are lavish, and it’s evident that every penny of its massive budget is accounted for, but the story is still the hero of the show, which is why a simple shot at the end of the first episode will have you more agape than all the special effects put together. Westworld calls itself a reboot, but think of the term as a technicality, for there is little else that is as original on television right now.

{Westworld is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD every Tuesday, and is also available on HotStar}

Tech and Chips

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}
Last week, I had all four of my wisdom teeth extracted, an occasion which demanded rest, food that had compulsorily been through a blender, a heady cocktail of pills, and finally, a comedy series that would help numb the pain. The show I watched through this week, swollen mouth and all, was Silicon Valley, and while it wasn’t as effective as ibuprofen, it certainly helped.

Silicon Valley traces the trials and tribulations of four programmers who are trying to make it big in the heart of the tech world. Richard Hendriks (played by Thomas Middleditch, who looks to be the most interesting mix of Hugh Grant and Hugh Laurie) is a programmer who works in Hooli, a software company in Palo Alto during the day, and spends his free time after work, building his own programme, Pied Piper, in an incubator house set up by a big talking, bossy entrepreneur who hasn’t really achieved anything, Erlich Bachmann (TJ Miller).

silicon valley gif

Richard is awkward in the worst way, and completely incapable of holding a conversation with any of his co-workers, so when he tries to tell people about Pied Piper, he is ridiculed instead. His colleagues, in a bid to see if they can humiliate him further, test the programme, only to be blown away by the efficacy and complexity of Richard’s code. As more colleagues gather to see what the fuss is about, one of the business development associates , Jared (Zach Woods) sees the potential in Richard’s code to potentially alter the industry, and takes the matter up with the CEO of Hooli, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). Before Richard can understand anything that’s going on, he’s whisked away to the CEO’s room, and is offered ten million dollars, on the spot, to sell the code to Hooli. Around the same time Gavin Belson makes the offer, a famously eccentric Venture Capitalist, Peter Gregory (played by the Late Christopher Evan Welch) contacts him, and tells him that he will fund two hundred thousand dollars for a small stake in the company, which Richard will be CEO of. Richard, who has never been confronted with this kind of money or attention, is forced to make a decision which can change his life – sell out, or believe that he can make his own fortune? Richard, after considerable thought and vomiting, opts for the latter.

The rest of the show is a painfully honest account of the amount of trouble involved in actually setting up a business. Richard has to deal with Erlich’s bossiness, the constant bickering of the two other programmers in the house, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) who are automatically absorbed into Pied Piper once the funding comes through, and the fact that Gavin Belson is working around the clock with a giant team of programmers to reverse engineer the Pied Piper algorithm.

The show has great comic moments, and the chemistry between Dinesh and Gilfoyle as two people who love to hate each other, is particularly excellent. Perhaps the only fault I can find with Silicon Valley is that despite the abundance of phallic humour, there is close to no female casting. There are no female programmers, and save for Peter Gregory’s assistant, Monica (Amanda Crew), and in the second season, Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) who plays Gregory’s successor. One of the show’s creators, Alec Berg, was asked the same question in a conference recently, and he insisted that the reason for that was because of the actual disparity of women in the tech world. It was evident that they weren’t in love with the world they were showing on screen, and he went on to say that it was screwed up (with an f).

I have to say though, as screwed up as his world is, it’s a lot funnier than the one we’re living in.

{Silicon Valley is available on the HotStar app, and is telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

In A Flash

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Barry Allen is just your average physics nerd who works in the forensics department of the police station. He is struck by lightning in a freak accident, put in a coma for nine months, and wakes up to find that the lightning has bestowed him with super speed and a new set of abs. He also learns that it isn’t just him who was on the receiving end of the lightning, and that there are other “meta-humans” in the city who have great powers, but not necessary good intentions. Barry, although initially doubtful about his abilities, with the help of the scientists who restored him from the coma (and were also the cause of the freak accident), brings down a meta-human who has the power to control the weather. While most superhero shows would take half a season to reach this point of the story, The Flash wraps it up in the very first episode.

The show moves at the same breakneck speed that the fastest man on earth does. Barry takes down evil meta-humans with the help of his team, comprising Dr. Wells (Tom Cavanagh), the genius who revives Barry from his coma, and whose failed machine was the reason behind the lightning in the first place, Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), in-house computer whiz and the inventor of all of The Flash’s cool weapons and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), the moody but brilliant genetic scientist. The show for most part follows a “villain of the week” format while character development is relegated to the background, keeping the show light, and more importantly, easy to catch up on.

the flash, the flash gifs

Grant Gustin, former Glee star, is entirely believable as The Flash, and the fact that he plays an adorable 20 something who uses his super speed to sneak in an extra hour of sleep in the morning, makes him a refreshing change from the usually brooding, pensive brand of superhero which we are so used to today. The show’s creators throw plenty of unexpected jokes throughout the show, and even play on pop culture by bringing together the Prison Break brothers (Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell) as the deadly co-villains Captain Cold and Heat Wave. The Arrow, a vigilante hero and a friend of Barry’s (who has his own show as well) also makes frequent appearances, making both shows more cohesive with the comic books they were inspired by.

While there is plenty to like and enjoy about The Flash, it isn’t particularly perfect. The complete lack of chemistry between Barry and the supposed love of his life, Iris West (Candice Patton). Iris is the daughter of Joe West (Jesse Martin), a policeman who takes Barry in and raises him after his mother is murdered under mysterious circumstances. Iris and Barry are raised together, best of friends, and practically siblings. Barry pines for Iris as she dates Joe’s handsome young partner Eddie Thawne (the excellent Rick Costnett). While television can make us buy anything these days, the Iris-Barry-Eddie love triangle feels forced, and their time together on screen feels like time wasted.

Overall though, The Flash is something a lot of superhero franchises aren’t – fun. While it isn’t a show that is going to lend itself to serious cultural commentary, it is definitely one that does justice to the league it belongs to.

{The second season of The Flash is presently running on Colors Infinity}

Domo Arigato

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

While the idea of hacking has been something that has always fascinated me, its portrayal in film and television has been mostly rubbish – the “hacker” is either a really skinny, or grossly overweight guy who wears a pair of chunky glasses, brings in words like “bypass”, “security protocol”, “router” and “access” to conversation and is the one to crack a few jokes every time the rest of the group gets serious. All we know about the hacker is that he’s the guy who can solve any problem in minutes by furiously typing on his keyboard.

Mr.Robot is a series that revolves around hacking, and one that takes its technology very seriously. Unlike most film or television portrayals where it’s only the hacker’s keyboard that’s seen, here we’re shown his computer screen. There are no special visual effects to make the hacking seem cool – they’re probably the most genuine looking processes I’ve seen on screen. What makes the hacking exciting, are the characters, and their personal stories. The show follows the perspective of Elliot (Rami Malek), a computer programmer with anti-social disorder. We are audience to his everything that goes on in his head (there is one episode where we can even see his drug induced dreams). When he says that he has reprogrammed his mind to hear “Evil Corp” instead of “E Corp”, we only hear Evil Corp throughout.

mr.robot, rami malek

Elliot is a vigilante hacker by night, which means that he gets into the computers of people he has suspicions about, and tips the police if he finds anything incriminating. In the very first episode, he hacks into a coffee shop owner’s computer because the internet speeds at the coffee shop were unlike any other’s, and because “good doesn’t come without condition”. As it would turn out, the owner managed a child pornography website, and thanks to Elliot’s tip, gets arrested.

It isn’t long before Elliot is recruited into FSociety, a group of hackers led by “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater). Mr. Robot, and FSociety, are on a mission to bring about a revolution by destroying big conglomerates and rendering them powerless, a mission, to which Elliot is key. While the idea of throwing a spanner in the works is enticing, it also comes with terrible consequences. The rest of the season follows Elliot, his choices, and the consequences which occur when you set in motion something you don’t have complete control on.

The reason I love Mr.Robot is that although there is a lot of technical computer terms that thrown around (in the very first episode, the show thrusts words like “DDOS Attacks” and “RUDY Attacks” at us), there is no secondary character explaining them in layman terms. The show trusts the audience to be smart enough to figure what is going on. Rami Malek is spectacular as Elliot, the wide eyed, socially neurotic hacker with a past, as is Christian Slater, who plays the bordering on insane, yet strangely likeable Mr. Robot.

What really hit home for me while watching the show was the massive amount of information that the Internet has about the rest of us, no, the massive amount of information that we have been feeding it. With every status update we post, every tweet, every Instagram post, with every thought that we type out loud, we give the Internet greater control on us. Given how active I am on social media, these aren’t things I really think about, but watching Elliot scroll through hacked inboxes, Twitter and Facebook profiles to determine a person’s nature, was terrifying.

The all pervasive theme of Mr Robot, is vulnerability. The vulnerability of systems, the vulnerability of networks, and the vulnerability of people. Mr Robot isn’t a show about hacking computers. It’s a show about hacking people.

(Mr Robot is presently running on Colors Infinity)