Review by C.J. Bunce
Apart from tech noir, dystopian science fiction TV and movies haven’t changed much since A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max. The future is bleak and man becomes monster—in one form or the other. One of the most welcome breaths of fresh air in a look at a post-apocalyptic Earth can be found in last year’s Station Eleven, an adaptation of a 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel. All the marketing HBO Max is doing for The Last of Us really should have been done for Station Eleven. The failure of past dystopian stories? They rarely left room for hope or they tip toward zombies or other preposterous elements. A dystopian story doesn’t need to be hopeless. In a future similar to that in The Postman, viewers will explore ways that humans could keep their humanity when the worse comes to worst. A sharp cast and showrunner Patrick Somerville’s experimental but successful shifting perspective, plus a light touch on its depicted violence, is the right combination for compelling TV. Station Eleven delivers ten exhilarating episodes with characters you’ll cheer on and eagerly want to see again with each new episode. Count it among the smartest writing for television.
Multiple shifting perspectives in time and characters rarely work in novels, TV, or movies. Kurt Vonnegut nailed it in Slaughterhouse Five, but good luck finding anything as good since. Somerville shows it still can be done well. Viewers meet the stakes head on in the first episode. Himesh Patel, who was brilliant as the star of Yesterday, plays Jeevan Chaudhary, a simple Chicago man going to watch some Shakespeare on a night out with his girlfriend. When suddenly the actor playing King Lear starts to stammer, Jeevan is the only one to take action, but it’s too late. In the rush of activity a national crisis is holding everyone else’s attention on smart phones and TV sets: a mass flu is rapidly picking off most of humanity within hours of transmission. A young stage actress named Kirsten, played by Matilda Lawler with the skill of an actress three times her age, is left behind, and Jeevan accompanies her home. But her parents cannot be found. His sister is working at a hospital and tells him to drop everything, buy supplies and barricade himself at their brother’s apartment (her brother is played by Nabhaan Rizwan). For everyone, especially a panic stricken Jeevan, all is happening too fast. Soon we see that Kirsten survives somehow, and we see her years later played by dystopia film veteran Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate, Blade Runner 2049) a troubled and by now worldly and determined woman who has found a way to take charge of her life.
Usually when a child actor doubles a role with an adult, the kid’s performance is jarring. But Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis are equally strong–these are strong actors creating strong heroines with traits you want to emulate, even if their characters’ main source of guidance is a graphic novel. But it’s not just a graphic novel–it has a story that touches everyone who reads it differently. Somerville provides glimpses of the future, but nothing “before”–as the graphic novel testifies, “there is no before.”
Viewers become sucked into a community of individuals as they confront an uncertain, and likely impossible future. The King Lear actor was a charismatic man named Arthur, played by Werewolf by Night star Gael Garcia Bernal. On the stage, he was young Kirsten’s mentor. He had a loyal friend named Clark, played by David Wilmot (Black Sails) who makes the best of the post-pandemic resources at an airport near Chicago where his flight was rerouted. Clark was married twice, first to aspiring writer-artist Miranda (Till’s Danielle Deadwyler) and later to actress Elizabeth (The Trial of the Chicago 7’s Caitlin FitzGerald), who he has a son with (played by Julian Obradors). Viewers will get to know each of these people well.
The cast is further bolstered by the great actress and aspiring director Lori Petty (A League of Their Own, Star Trek Voyager, Tank Girl), whose role as the director of a traveling acting troupe named Sarah is the anchor of the characters and the movie. But every supporting character is interesting in this story, even Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars, Galaxy Quest, iZombie, Just Shoot Me!) as a man on a bicycle who tries to convince the caravan of actors to make a side journey to a mysterious place he calls The Museum of Civilization. In one episode Star Trek Discovery actress Tara Nicodemo is the perfect Dr. Hawkeye Pierce of the future, running a birth center in an abandoned but well-stocked mall near Chicago. One welcome surprise is comedian David Cross as a member of the acting troupe who retires to a country club.
The production spanned the real-world COVID pandemic, but it doesn’t make use of anything learned (if anything) by it–it doesn’t seem to need to, as the only survivors seem to be those with both common sense and luck. The slow pacing and spliced footage from the past and future is deliberate and artistic, coupled with the kind of cinematography usually only found in epic theatrical productions. The film uses piano works by Dan Romer interspersed with pop songs that pre-date the pandemic. Most directors over-use this method in film and TV, but Station Eleven also demonstrates how to get that kind of handling right. When the show taps into the supernatural, it does it in a clever way, with a drug-induced scene of ghosts, allowing two unlikely characters to appear together. And the scripts infuse fun into each episode, despite the gravity of the story.
The Kevin Costner dystopian movie The Postman expanded on its source material, the original novel by David Brin, just as Station Eleven expands on its source material. The Postman used a touring Shakespearean actor making his way through a dark future to tell its story, and Station Eleven finds a way to make Shakespeare tangible and even necessary to the survival of more than one community of people. The story approaches Shakespeare from multiple angles, especially after a young man called The Prophet–a very good villain played by Daniel Zovotto–tries to disrupt the traveling actor community. The series does a superb job of finding its place in space and time, especially its use of post-pan characters–those born after the flu pandemic who know nothing of televisions, telephones, of the Internet. It’s fun to see Alex (Philippine Velge) begging the older Kirsten to share more details of the “before.” Viewers get payoffs for all the plot threads and they are all smartly written and satisfying. But best of all, the theme is what we all learned from the real world pandemic: storytelling, acting, art–in all their forms–are as important to living as any other component of life, whether social, political, economic, or scientific, as great as food, shelter, water, and air, especially when all are in jeopardy.
For all the surprises that arise in HBO Max’s The Last of Us, it seems artificial in comparison to Station Eleven. Beyond the neon tech-filled worlds and result of corporate extremes exemplified by the Blade Runner and Alien franchises, if your thing is Mad Max, Children of Men, or even The Walking Dead, take a look at Station Eleven. It’s the best dystopian series on HBO Max, and may be the best dystopian science fiction streaming anywhere right now.