Screen time: TV and movie highlights of 2016
Over the past 12 months we've seen some fascinating movies and TV shows dive into the realms of sci-fi and speculative fiction. It's always interesting to examine how popular culture reflects the zeitgeist back onto us through the media we consume, and as technology becomes more deeply woven into our lives it's important that the stories we tell incorporate those ideas and innovations. 2016 generated some truly compelling stories, giving us several hypothetical future scenarios questioning what a future dominated by social media will look like, along with some classic science fiction tropes that explored AI and the nature of machine consciousness.
Here are the movies and TV shows from the past 12 months that most stimulated our minds into thinking about how we inhabit this technologically dominated world – and what could be on the cards for our future.
Arrival is the type of adult, thoughtful, big science fiction that we complain Hollywood doesn't produce anymore, so it was a real treat to be served up a movie with serious business on its mind. The film was certainly not perfect, and for some (including this writer), it swerved a little too much into melodramatic emotional terrain with its final act, avoiding a deeper investigation into some of the hard science fiction ideas it was touching on. But concentrating on what the film does achieve, we were treated to a beautiful portrait of a world negotiating first contact with an alien intelligence. The way the film used its own formal structure to make a devastating point about how language can define perception was magnificently clever and effective. A little less Contact, and a little more Primer and this could have been an all-time classic of the genre. As it stands it's still the science fiction highlight of 2016.
Not every science fiction film needs lasers or robots, in fact in its truest guise the genre can recontextualize oft-told universally human stories by presenting them through a fresh speculative prism. The Lobster is a brilliant science fiction story that sets itself in a dystopian world where single people have no place in the community, and if they refuse to pair up they are turned into animals. Colin Farrell gives a hilariously deadpan performance as David, an architect whose wife has just left him for another man. He now is given 45 days to find a partner and if he fails he'll be turned into the animal of his choice, in this case a lobster. Directed by one of the pioneers of the recent Greek weird-wave in cinema Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), his first English language film is a stunningly bleak, yet dryly humorous alternate reality examination of our society's obsession with coupling. If you've ever felt like a single loner stranded in a sea of couples then this film will resonate. A brilliant use of a science fiction conceit to make a beautifully humane comment.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Despite the J.J. Abrams Cloverfield packaging, 10 Cloverfield Lane (originally titled Valencia from a screenplay titled The Cellar) is a remarkably contained and tense thriller jumping off from the idea of what would happen if three disparate people were isolated in a bunker after a nuclear bomb goes off. There is still plenty of debate over what point in the film's production process this was retconned into a Cloverfield film and it is pretty clear that the final act, with its sci-fi smash and grab action, was not the original conclusion to the film. After a nail-bitingly tense first two acts, the final act of the film could either wreck the entire experience or tip it into classic territory. We felt it fell somewhere in the middle, much preferring the considered and complex first hour that takes a great "what if" premise and generates fantastic drama from the interpersonal conflicts.
If you can ignore the "boy meets girl" teen movie trappings of Nerve you will find one of the sharpest examinations of social media groupthink ever to come out of Hollywood. Sure, the film is not as darkly cynical as an episode of Black Mirror, but it does offer a stark hypothetical scenario that takes obsessions with AR games to the extreme. Nerve posits a world where users of a game take the roles of either "watchers" or "players." The watchers pay for the privilege of daring players to embark upon increasingly extreme stunts and as the film ramps those dares up into life or death scenarios, the numbers of watchers increase. After Pokémon Go invaded our real world environments this year, Nerve suddenly became a startlingly prescient look at how quickly we can embrace a new form of entertainment and how dangerously disassociated users can get from the real world implications of their actions. Just try to ignore the generic teen movie shell.
Oliver Stone's Edward Snowden biopic sadly disappeared from the cultural landscape as quickly as it appeared, but despite its frustratingly banal biopic packaging the film was sensationally effective at highlighting just how important the revelations Snowden uncovered actually were. The film was magnificent in its portrait of how broad the government's overreach was into the lives of its citizens. While Laura Poitras' documentary Citizenfour was more immediate in its revelations, Stone's recreations of how PRISM actually functions resulted in some truly frightening sequences (you'll never be more paranoid about leaving your laptop camera uncovered). Unfortunately, the middle-America audiences the film was clearly designed to sway simply never saw it, leaving Snowden in a weird limbo state; not extreme enough for left-leaning Stone fans and too opinionated for the conservatives it was so desperately trying to recruit.
HBO's big-budget prestige gamble was several years in the making, finally arriving on our screens in 2016 with one of the best pilot episodes of any TV series in years. Initially setting itself up to be a compelling meditation on the nature of artificial consciousness, the series quickly descended into an over-plotted mess of tricksy storytelling. Fun to watch, and decode, but frustratingly opaque in its investigation of a potential dawning artificial sentience, Westworld was too narratively clever for its own good and ultimately chose cheap twists over thematic clarity. The finale cleared the way for season two to be a much more interesting, and straightforward, story so let's hope creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have got all their M. Night Shyamalan-style excesses out of their system and can use season two to start seriously thinking about the implications of the world they have constructed.
A controversial sophomore season to one of the most hyped debuts of a series in recent memory, Mr Robot delivered us a gloriously uncompromising second chapter to this zeitgeist-encompassing story. Ratings for this season unsurprisingly dropped dramatically from season one as creator/director Sam Esmail dug deep into the pragmatic repercussions of his world-shattering first season finale. It's undeniable that this was a challenging season of television. The show constantly subverted audience expectations, from giving us half an episode set literally inside a 1980s sitcom to a thrillingly distended, penultimate episode, interrogation sequence that rivaled the heights of David Lynch in its jarring weirdness. This was by far one of the boldest things to hit television in 2016 and its accurate depictions of modern digital culture made it feel like the most "current" tv series around.
The long-awaited, Netflix produced, third season of this technological Twilight Zone was surprisingly divisive among fans. Had the show lost its edge, become too generic, run out of ideas? We say no to all those questions, and these six new stories are as piercingly sharp as anything the show has produced. It's to be expected that an anthology series will have hits and misses, but even when Black Mirror serves up a dud it's still devastatingly on point. The weaker episodes like Playtest and Men Against Fire were still extraordinarily compelling on first watch, while the instant classics like Shut Up and Dance and Nosedive left us reeling for days. The show even surprised us with San Junipero, an episode as far out of the Black Mirror sandbox as you can get. Shot in a wide aspect ratio and set in 1980s California, this episode built to a beautifully poignant climax leaving us with one of the best episodes of TV of 2016.
It would be remiss for a look back at 2016 to overlook Stranger Things, which seemed to come out of nowhere and strike a chord with nostalgic Gen Xers hankering for simpler times. Taking obvious inspiration from movies such as E.T., Stand by Me and The Goonies and sprinkling in a touch of Poltergeist, Firestarter and A Nightmare on Elm Street (not to mention Winona Ryder) resulted in a show that was instantly familiar, yet new at the same time. How long such retro appeal could have been sustained is arguable, but the eight-episode run seemed the perfect length and the casting was spot on, with great performances across the board – not an easy task when dealing with young characters. Sure, the story itself, with a government conspiracy pitching a group of kids against adults in a search for their lost friend wasn't anything we hadn't seen before, but it was all done with such polish and pitch-perfection (and did I mention nostalgia) that a second season became inevitable.
Silicon Valley has been exponentially improving from season to season and this third entry in the ongoing struggles of a tech start-up took the show close to the pantheon of greatness. Creator Mike Judge has always exhibited a great attention to detail in chronicling this world of Silicon Valley developers, and this season we were treated to a genuinely insightful and surprising narrative tracing the trials of how one goes about moving a conceptual product into a commercial frame. This year the show felt excitingly current as its drama hinged on how this seemingly groundbreaking compression model could actually be translated into a real commodity that integrated into people's lives. Here the show finally embraced its novelty and gave us a story we genuinely hadn't ever seen before. This is a show that's forging its own path into a world that we haven't seen depicted this way on screen before, and it's immensely satisfying to watch such an original 21st century story unfold. Oh and it's crazy funny, too.