Netflix’s Another Life is a reminder that we’re living in a great period for serious science-fiction films and TV series. Unfortunately, the reminder comes by way of unflattering contrast. Created by Aaron Martin and starring one of modern sci-fi’s royals, Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck in SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot), this is an earnest but hard-edged drama about extraterrestrial first contact and deep space exploration that Frankensteins together bits of classics and near-classics. But the the whole never congeals into an original statement. And the storytelling is so ungraceful that I got whiplash from the first four episodes, which is all I could handle before deciding that if I continued to the end, it would take time away from revisiting three great movies that this series wouldn’t exist without.
Speaking of which: Arrival. Another Life starts with a media influencer named Harper Glass (Selma Blair) interrupting one of her video posts to observe an alien spacecraft’s descent into the atmosphere. It’s shaped like an ouroboros or three-dimensional infinity symbol, and it crashes into Earth to form a pile of crystals that forms some kind of transmitter. From there, a touch of Interstellar: The narrative splits into parallel tracks, one set on Earth, the other in space. The space part of the story follows Sackhoff’s character, Niko Breckinridge, a badass astronaut commanding humanity’s most advanced starship, the faster-than-light Salvare, as it travels into deep space to uncover the origins of the crashed ship. The Earthbound section of the series follows Niko’s husband Eric Wallace (Justin Chatwin) — like Niko, a member of the United States Interstellar Command, and an extraterrestrial research expert — as he tries to figure out how to use the transmitter while taking care of their daughter Jana (Lina Renna).
And then the show borrows from Star Trek in all its iterations, as well as old-fashioned nautical adventures and The Odyssey, with Niko fending off a challenge to her authority by the resentful Ian Yerxa (Tyler Hoechlin), the ship’s previous commander. He’s such a smug, hostile irritant that you’d think a psych evaluation would’ve kept him from joining the new mission in the first place. His purpose is revealed soon enough: to trigger PTSD in Niko, who had to kill half the crew of her previous ship to save the other half, and create a civil war within the crew, made worse by Niko’s incremental derangement, complete with nightmares and hallucinations. One of the episodes is essentially Solaris meets Alien with a dash of The Abyss, and the Earth scenes are half of Interstellar. The show is like an à la carte sushi menu of genre influences, each hour checking off a different set of boxes to see what’ll happen. Trust me when I tell you that this all sounds a lot more fun than it plays.
Like so much of Another Life, the conception and writing of the crew seems either dramatically nonsensical or half-assed. An AI character, Samuel Anderson’s William, is onboard to act as a combination therapist, superego, and intervening god, in the spirit of Her or Blade Runner 2049; but as thoughtful as the performance is, and as likable as the relationship is, it’s still impossible not to think about all the other sci-fi stories that have had more to say about humanity’s relationship to the intelligent technology that’s meant to enhance it. There’s also a gender nonbinary character, JayR Tinaco’s Zayn Petrossian, but the show doesn’t do much with them, and often seems content to let the character’s function overlap with William’s.
The actors, to their credit, act their asses off anyway. And what asses! And what midriffs! And what chiseled shoulders and arms! As a display of shameless intergalactic eye candy, this series right up there with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which made every character look like mannequins in a hypothetical Bergdorf Goodman window display titled “Sexy Epcot Center.” Every crew member, save Niko and a government representative and son of the U.S. secretary of Defense (Sasha Harrison, played by Jake Abel), is under 30 (shades of Logan’s Run, maybe), serving on a spacecraft that’s done away with uniforms and encouraged the crew to walk around in tight shorts, T-shirts, sports bras, and other form-fitting clothes. Sackhoff more than holds her own with the other cast members who’ve been served up for our delectation, her hair always impeccably gelled back from her forehead, her body so toned that she looks like she’s been on a fish-and-rice diet for three years while running a marathon every day. The production often treats her the way Mad Men treated Jon Hamm, as a sculptural object as well as a lead character, posing her in silhouette and following her as she and other gymwear-clad crew members go on long walks down the ship’s winding corridors. Sometimes jumpsuits get put on, but only so they can come off again because it’s hot, you see. The more Niko suffers, the more purely physical Sackhoff’s performance becomes; ditto the rest of the crew, who are subjected to a series of narrative pit stops and shocking twists meant to rile them up enough to punish themselves, go wild, have brutal fistfights with each other, and gasp in teary-eyed terror while being stalked.
The most frustrating thing about Another Life isn’t that it can’t make up its mind whether to be smart and challenging or trashy and shallow, but that so many of its subplots and scenes feel thrown together. Information isn’t delivered in an order that builds dramatically from moment to moment; characters are constantly leading a scene with the least interesting thing they have to say, often something that could’ve been saved for another time, then dropping a bombshell. And there are other moments where you get the conclusion of a thought process without seeing that process, which is how great science-fiction movies create most of their suspense and emotional involvement. There’s a scene in the first episode, for instance, where Wallace just shows up at the crystal transmitter and announces that he might’ve just figured out the mystery, then plays a bit of Mozart and slows it down. It’s essentially the music-as-communication climax of Steven Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but shorn of anything resembling drama, much less the cooler, procedural type of engagement that we associate with the scientific method.
This is, perhaps ironically, the kind of storytelling that a lot of contemporary science-fiction fans seem to prefer — the ones who want answers, not questions, and get impatient with any scene that’s not dumping data and explaining stuff verbally — but it plays as if the show had decided to film the summary of a script instead of an actual script. It’s a shame considering all the talent on display here, figuratively and literally. Call it Close Encounters of the Secondhand Kind.