Saturday, August 8, 2015

To Be or...: AMC's Humans

The AMC/Channel Four summer SF series, Humans, which just finished its first season last Sunday, focuses on the familiar theme of what it means to be human in a world being run largely by synthetic life. Loosely based on the 2012 Scandinavian show, Äkta människor (Real Humans), Humans (which is set in a future Britain that doesn't look dramatically different from the present) is a densely plotted, yet engaging, serial drama that sets itself up as a thriller, but resists the kind of melodramatic mechanics that give most popular television programs their push. Although that approach is certainly laudable, and it never becomes languid (especially given that other successful thrillers like True Detective manufacture suspense by mainlining dread), there is a pronounced lack of suspense despite the very nature of the story. Since Humans wants to be on the human side of every issue there seems to be little of consequence despite the consequences that unfold. Even so, the cast – whether they are playing real people or synths – have dimensions built into their roles which gives the plot some pep and purpose.

Humans begins with the married Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) buying a synthetic human, Anita (Gemma Chan), to help him take care of his children, including his precocious, tech-savvy teenager Matilda (Lucy Carless), her brooding brother, Toby (Theo Stevenson), and the youngest sister, the energetic Sophie (the aptly named Pixie Davies). Their mother, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is a lawyer who (for reasons we come to understand later) remains remote from her family and gets completely consumed in her work keeping her away from home for extended periods. Part of Joe's motivations for obtaining a synth is purely practical to compensate for his wife's continued absence, but it also has to do with a growing sexual frustration that draws him more intimately to his new purchase. What he doesn't realize, despite his various desires, is that Anita is not who she seems to be. Having been bought as if brand new, we soon discover that she isn't right out of the box. Originally named Mia, she had months earlier been kidnapped by black market entrepreneurs who hacked her with new software – but not enough to erase her previous identity.

While the larger society uses synths as a labour force either doing menial work, household duties – or as part of the prostitution trade working in sex clubs – we discover that a handful of synths are also part human and at odds with a society which is growing more hostile towards the artificial life. In particular, Leo Elster (Colin Morgan), who is the son of the late synth inventor David Elster (Stephen Boxer), was given synthetic parts and brought back to life when he died in an earlier accident. As it turns out, Leo's caregivers and companions are all synths who were given human consciousness by his father. After David's death, the synths scattered and so his loyal watcher, Max (Ivanno Jermiah, who resembles a teenage reincarnation of Woody Strode), goes on the hunt with Leo for his fugitive family. The dispatched crew include the dynamic vixen Niska (Emily Berrington) who works in a sex club and has grown to distrust and hate humans; the acquiescent Fred (Sope Dirisu), who is under the supervision of Professor Hobb (Danny Webb), an artificial intelligence researcher who assists government and law enforcement in trying to enslave synths; and detective Karen Voss (Ruth Bradley), who is passing as human and denying her nature while fooling her married police partner, Pete Drummond (Neil Maskell), whom she is also attracted to. But Pete is growing more suspicious and jealous of synths that make him feel less than perfect, especially since his disabled wife Jill (Jill Halfpenny) now depends on a synth for practical, emotional and – eventually – sexual needs. Leo's most treasured sibling on the loose is Mia, who he doesn't initially know is now working as Anita in the Hawkins' household. On the periphery of the story is Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a retired and widowed synth researcher who once worked with Elster, and who becomes an empathetic supporter of his former partner's work by helping the synths on the loose. (Millican's also developed a parental bond with an outmoded synth caregiver, Odi, played by Will Tudor, who the doctor refuses to recycle in order to acquire a new one).

Tom Goodman-Hill and Katherine Parkinson

If the plotting sounds complicated on Humans, it is. But the story unfolds with ease and clarity. The original series, Real Humans, wasn't quite as dense, but was needlessly churlish in the same manner as Stieg Larsson's detective novels. (Real Humans caught that cynical tone of Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books where Swedish society is portrayed as so ugly and venal that it appears to be conceived by bitter and resentful humanist socialists who were enraged that their country didn't turn out to be this idyllic paradise they'd hoped for.) For instance, in Real Humans, the ambiguous detective Pete is written instead as a working-class factory drone who is not only jealous of his wife's synth, but turns out to be a spousal abuser as well. The synths in Real Humans also look like Barbie and Ken dolls rather than suggesting the human characteristics that could justify the ambivalence humans would feel about their attachment to them. In Humans, the soft features of Gemma Chan continually make you aware of the possibility of human perfection. The psychological subtext where human beings are continually made aware of their own imperfections and take out those hostilities on the synths they've come to depend on permeates the narrative.

Humans goes a long way, as well, to rehabilitate the existential ideas that became so botched in previous projects that clearly influenced this one. The humanoid synths on the run and looking to survive suggest the group that populated Ridley Scott's film noir wasteland of Blade Runner (1982). But Humans has a more coherent core concerning their survival. Blade Runner, which set Harrison Ford's Deckard in pursuit of them, made little sense of their plight. Besides trying to comprehend how Los Angeles became this apocalyptic ghetto where smoke and rain became as frequent as people, Scott didn't make clear why Deckard was in such hot pursuit. (As Pauline Kael pointed out in her perceptive review, since the humanoids needed their lifespan expanded by their creator, why didn't they just turn up at their inventor's home?) Blade Runner made little sense because it also strayed from its source, Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and concentrated more on its elaborate set designs. (The fact that Ridley Scott endlessly tinkered with his picture may well reflect the many ways it was never satisfying to him.) William Hurt's inventor seems a carry over from the similar part he played in Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) which is certainly an influence on Humans. But A.I. tried to recast the Pinocchio story of a puppet who longs to be human in science-fiction terms that ran against the grain of what Pinocchio was about. As seen through the eyes of David (Haley Joel Osment), a Mecha created by Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), human society and the family he is part of becomes unappealing in the manner of a misanthrope's view that humanity was a lost cause to begin with. A.I. doesn't even draw the most basic emotional links between the synthetic David and Hurt's Geppetto figure. Only Jude Law's Jiminy Cricket character, Gigolo Joe, fulfilled the emotional contours of the story. The synths also have the glassy-eyed stare of the mind-reading child monsters of Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned (1960), an adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, but in Humans their glowing comes from mostly benign thoughts as if they'd escaped a yoga retreat.

The less nuanced 2012 Scandinavian show, Äkta människor (Real Humans).

In a sense, Humans gets inside the same burning issues of a technological world unconsciously shaping our idea of being human as Alex Garland's cleverly conceived Ex Machina did earlier this year. But maybe because this cautionary story of tech paranoia has so often led to calamitous conclusions, Humans has given the subject a more generous reading. That interpretation might make the series appear quaint when one thinks back on it, but I think its creators, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, want to deliberately blur the lines between what is human and what is synth behaviour. That's why there is little perceptible difference between the half-human Leo, who understands the limitations and strengths of both worlds, and William Hurt's Millican, who is human but still finds a kindred connection with Odi. (Hurt also gives one of his delicate and less mannered performances.) Humans has been picked up for a second season because the dramatic arc of what the previous season brought us is only now beginning to be uncorked. Since that path taken is one well traveled, the direction Humans is possibly taking us next season has barely visible footprints. I'm certainly curious enough to follow.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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