Spielberg returns to his prime with AI drama Extant (Wired UK)

Welcome to the new world — both the futuristic society of
Extant, where human-level artificial intelligence is on the verge
of reality, and our own reality, where a TV project produced by
Steven Spielberg and starring Oscar-winner Halle Berry is debuting
online. Basically, it’s a pretty big deal.

Thankfully, the end product largely lives up to expectations,
providing viewers with a tense sci-fi thriller with solid
performances. Berry plays Molly Woods, an astronaut recently
returned to Earth and her everyday family life with her husband
John (played by ER’s Goran Visnjic) and
their son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon).
Aside from Molly’s trouble’s re-acclimatising to life on the ground
after a 13-month solo mission, everything seems the perfect picture
of domesticity — until Ethan asks for a “flip”, and John
carefully, lovingly, opens a compartment on his son’s back and
switches his batteries.

Ethan, it turns out, is one of the world’s most advanced
artificial intelligences, the product of John’s work in ‘Humanics’,
trying to create truly emotive robots. Finding the best way to do
so is to raise an AI like a child, teaching it morals and values as
any human infant would, the Woods have brought the boy up as any
other, while also filling a void in their lives due to their
inability to conceive. We get snippets of the struggles they’ve
encountered — small, world building comments such as fighting to
get Ethan into a regular school, or Molly’s doubts that he really
understands love — but more portentous are moments of bad
behaviour from the lad. Flashes of anger, the kind of childish
outbursts that you’d expect from any five-to-eight year old, gain a
sinister air when the culprit could well lack any real humanity or
empathy. A particularly chilling scene involves Ethan running off
into the woods, and standing over a dead bird when Molly finds him.
He insists the bird was “like that when I found it”, but even if
true, his rapt interest in the small bundle of organic decay is
ominous. It’s also one of Gagnon’s best moments, showing immense
range and talent for a child of his age.

Then there are Molly’s own personal demons. Plagued by visions
of her dead lover Marcus (implied to be her first husband, or at
least partner before she met John) and haunted by strange
circumstances experienced during her mission, it’s uncertain at
first whether her delusions are purely the result of her extended
isolation or something worse. The fact that she’s discovered to be
pregnant during her post-return medical, despite her supposed
infertility, strongly implies the latter. The idea of something
implanted and growing in your body, with no knowledge of how it got
there, is enough to make even male viewers feel incredibly
uncomfortable. Berry conveys the quiet but all-consuming horror of
the situation brilliantly, marking a return of the talent that so
impressed back in Monster’s Ball.

Most interesting are where these threads — artificial
intelligence and unwitting impregnation — overlap. There’s a truly
unsettling hint that the AI running Molly’s space station may in
fact have somehow impregnated her during the events of a solar
flare that conveniently cut off communications with Earth for 13
hours. The supposed death of her predecessor Harmon Kryger (Brad Beyer), the
repetition of the term ‘seraphim’, and a keen sense of paranoia
throughout all help make Re-Entry a keenly enjoyable first
episode.

The show’s vision of the future also proves engaging,
extrapolated from contemporary developments rather than aiming for
the far-flung likes of Star Trek. We see that space
exploration has become privatised, that religion is still a factor
leading to people’s moralistic opposition to scientific
advancements, that corporate power and subterfuge isn’t going
anywhere. The Yasumoto Corporation seems at the heart of
everything, with its CEO Hideki Yasumoto (Hiroyuki
Sanada
) both privately investing in John’s research and
secretly overseeing Molly’s debriefings. There’s a lot going on in
here, and much of it subtle yet impactful. Mickey Fisher’s script
doesn’t hammer anything in, but rather lets the audience pick up on
the nature of the world and its implications.

In a world where so much entertainment is dumbed down, this is
pleasantly a show with some intelligence about it. The ethics at
the heart of Extant are incredibly complex and there are
no easy answers offered. Although it bears some similarities in
theme to Spielberg’s own earlier movie
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
, which also explored the
impact of human-level AI on the world, director Allen Coulter
gives it a distinctly different feel. Hopefully, as the series
progresses, it will also avoid the slightly cheesy appearance of
aliens that marred the end of that film.

Between Extant, which premieres exclusively on Amazon Prime
Instant Video
, and the
Halo
series coming to Xbox consoles in 2015, Spielberg is
positioning himself as quite the forward thinking producer. While
this is produced in conjunction with American broadcast network
CBS, it has an air of unrestrictive creative freedom that pours
from the screen, similar to that which other streaming-first shows
such as Hemlock Grove or House of Cards have
offered. There are precious few ‘Spielberg-isms’ too — although
there is a focus on the Woods family, it’s not as overbearing or
schmaltzy as some more recent efforts with the famed producer’s
involvement, such as Terra
Nova
.

Overall, an extremely promising start for the series. There are
numerous hooks to keep viewers’ interest, and the overall look,
style, and tone of the show is fantastic — futuristic without
being outlandish. If the remaining 12 episodes continue this level
of quality, Extant could become one of the great ‘hard
(well, hard-ish) television shows.

New episodes of Extant will premiere at 9pm Thursdays,
exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

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Source: wired.co.uk
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