The Season (Series?):
There's a very good possibility that you haven't even heard of Defying Gravity, a multi-company production that aired on a few networks, mostly incomplete, in several locations throughout the fall of '09. I certainly hadn't until the reveal for this home video presentation, which contains all thirteen ordered episodes for the show's freshman run. The success behind James D. Parriott's creation, sadly, might've been hampered due to overwhelming ambition; what starts out as "Grey's Anatomy" in space evolves into a mysterious, ethereal glimpse into religion, science, mathematics, and the unproven connection between them all, one that sets its voyagers up for a journey across our known solar system. Within all that, Defying Gravity can be as complex and challenging or as clear-cut rewarding as you'd like it to be, one of the great signs of excellent science-fiction.
We're taken mid-century to the 2050's for our plot, which centers on the space exploration program ISO and their up-and-coming, state-of-the-art Venus research project. Eight astronauts have been picked to embark on a six-year voyage, lugging along a biologist, theoretical physicist, and others surgically picked for their capabilities. Two veteran explorer astronauts, Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston, "Band of Brothers") and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), haven't made the cut for this trip, largely because of their previous experience with a failed research mission to Mars that led to the death of two astronauts. Another force seems to be at play here, though, when two key members of the crew experience health abnormalities that take them out of the mission, thus leaving mission control head Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie) -- also the fifth wheel of the Mars mission -- to reluctantly fill their spots with Maddux and Ted. Oddly, this mysterious, predetermining "force" has a name on the ISO floor, simply referred to as "Beta" at first.
Defying Gravity puts a time dynamic into play that resembles the symbolic flashback-jumping in LOST, reflecting on specific elements -- an item like a baseball or necklace, a pertinent line of dialogue, or a memory of a personal event -- and how they interconnect with their meaningfulness to the crew real-time. Through these narrative-building flashes, equipped with altered hair styles and similar points to emphasize their nature as flashbacks, we also start to build a deeper relationship with each of the crew members; these include the whip-smart dreamer Zoe and her link to Maddux, once-wartime physician Evram (Eyal Podell) who's doubling as a doctor and a psychiatrist on the ship, biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox) and her semi-triangle between Ted, her ex-boyfriend, and her new husband Rollie, the mission's commander, and others. Each glimpse into the past typically takes place roughly five-years prior, during their training/competition exercises when they're honing their skills and barreling through rigorous ISO tests to determine if they're fit for travel. All of the editing for these sequences shows off tight precision and sensibility for storytelling, never breaking mood nor thwarting our concentration.
Originally pitched as (and received some criticism for) being a relationship dram-com in the vein of "Grey's Anatomy" set in a celestial setting, the amount of drama-laced humor throughout all the episodes does play up to that similarity. We've got a typical array of relationship-based soap lathering in Defying Gravity, complete with two -- not one, but two -- love triangles and a complete infrastructure of people who look to the ISO program as their bleeding-heart dream. It's a good thing that this side layer of playfulness is present within the storyline, though, because a full-blown drama surrounding the material could've built up a stiff and overly serious attitude. Though it can get a little on the saccharine side of things, the crew's romantic gallivanting isn't without its own level of secondary intrigue due to the gap between past-time scenarios and the real-time situation -- such as the outcomes of marriages and the overall acceptance of certain individuals into the program. A few thought-provoking concepts also see the light of day because of these plot kinks, such as the perception and legality of abortion in this not-too-distant portrait of modern society.
Parriott and crew make a wise decision to concentrate on the characters' densely-layered relationships with the first handful of episodes in Defying Gravity, fleshing them out a great deal before dropping a rather large storytelling bomb on us. An excellent cast has been brought together to fill the shoes of the crew aboard the Antares, as well as the guys scurrying about on the floor at ISO. Ron Livingston brings his blue-collar charm, made famous from Swingers and Office Space, to his role as the guilt-ridden Maddux, though he's toned down a bit so as to not draw attention away from the rest of the characters. Livingston also bookshelves each episode with narration, reflecting on the themes of the episode in a sober tone that befits his character's down-to-earth manner well.
His scaled-back presence paves the way for the rest of the stellar cast to shine, creating true individuals out of the crew instead of second bananas; of note is Laura Harris, recognizable from The Faculty and Severance, who adds a very sweet yet stalwart charm to Maddux's star-crossed romantic interest Zoe, while also pairing well against Florentine Lahme's strong-willed and sultry Nadia -- Maddux's "friend with benefits". Also breaking away from the pack, as to be expected from her work on the under-appreciated vamp detective story Blood Ties, is Christina Cox, who navigates through her role as "organic" expert Jen with just the right level of complexity. Furthermore, I also tremendously admired Karen LeBlanc's turn as Eve, Ted's wife and Mike Goss' boss, especially when we learn more about her back history and connection with "Beta".
Our characters' interactions, sprinkled with clues about the true nature of the mission via hush-hush references to this mystical force "Beta", develop a tireless momentum that builds towards the biggest thematic asset that Defying Gravity possesses: the complexity of guilt surrounding the crew, and how the loneliness of space can cause it to intensify. It introduces the concept of the crew's hallucinations on-board the Antares, meticulously painting the reasoning behind Zoe hearing a baby's cry from a storage pod on the spaceship, and why Evram sees a girl crushed under rubble on the battlefield -- though, in ways, we're given a hint to their nature due to Maddux's constant visions of his fallen Mars mission comrades. Emotional complexity and a sense of supernatural mystery power the narrative forward here, harking to a pensive and deliberately complex nature that takes us into the claustrophobic thoughts of very different minds.
The environment created with Defying Gravity's production is stellar, giving the whole series a rather striking, stylish look. Its Vancouver-based set design echoes a wealth of research done to emulate the space-travel experience, which is shown through believable execution of its technology. The situation revolves around the ISO main base monitoring every element of these astronauts -- through engineering schematics, step-for-step physiological monitors, and on-site cameras filming the crew every step of the way -- and we never experience any disappointment or mood-breaking hiccups caused by half-hearted CG or questionable logic. Visual effects also claim some of the fanfare for this seamless aesthetic, both inside the ship and out; Stargate Studios craft stunning effects, out of both mundane shots like blood being vacuumed and tomatoes floating in a gravity-free zone to the full-blown rendering of the Antares as it moves through space. They create some rather spectacular sequences in this show, including the heartbreaking Mars mission failure and, similarly, the approach towards Venus, which are both evocative and precisely rendered.
Defying Gravity had me sold on its concept, a relationship-based exploration of space with a taste of psychological intrigue, long before the narrative takes its ambitious leap into a complex world full of conflicting speculations and belief-based abstraction. However, it becomes a completely different ballgame once it explains exactly what "Beta" is and why the astronauts are really on this voyage, transforming the ship and its content into as big of a mystery as the island is on LOST. James D. Parriott and his team have built something endlessly fascinating with the layers of scientific and metaphysical theory present in its construction, all while continuing the same vein of relationship development and tension that's highlighted in the first portion of the series. For a series to cram obvious miracles, predetermination, theories about fractals in nature, bible verses about God's call-to-arms, and the tribulations one undergoes for faith, all while keeping a straight, earnest face about the whole thing, is an astonishing achievement for what's ultimately a piece of dramatic sci-fi entertainment.
It doesn't require much thought to conclude that Defying Gravity isn't going to be for everybody, though, primarily because of its involved, literal takes on spirituality and its relationship-centric theatrics. Perhaps that's why it only saw, at most, two-thirds of the ordered episodes aired on any of the networks that it appeared on, halting either on or before the episode "Eve Ate the Apple", the one with "the big reveal". Thankfully, though the series reaches an expounding point that could stretch the story arc over several seasons, the breathtaking, suspenseful finale satisfies most curiosities and answers most of the questions brought up within its starting point -- giving the season enough support to stand on its own two legs as a singular creation. Still, there's a lot of potential with the adventures that these characters could undergo in James D. Parriott's infrastructure, and it's a shame to see such a startlingly produced, well-expressed piece of science-fiction fall to the wayside and not find an audience.
Love, Honor, and Obey
** Eve Ate the Apple
** Déjà Vu
** = Unaired Episodes
Defying Gravity comes released from Fox in a clear-case, four-disc presentation that offers all thirteen (13) of the series' originally-ordered episodes. Most audiences only had the opportunity to see either eight or nine (8-9) of the episodes, since the show was yanked off the air due to poor overnight ratings. Frankly, stopping at that point is almost like eating the appetizer and side dishes during a meal while avoiding the main course, because the real meat of the program comes in the developments around its central plot revelation. For those that haven't seen the additional episodes, they're certainly worth the time and wait for this release -- especially the outstanding finale.
Video and Audio:
Three of the discs snugly fit between three to four (3-4) 40-minute episodes, while one holds two (2) episodes plus the special features, which reflects on each of the satisfying yet hazy 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. Bright, bold colors find their way through the intricate set design, and Fox's transfers handle the denseness of detail and palette to strong degrees. The visual effects look outstanding and stand a step above the live-action sequences, likely because of the difference in sources. Some scenes, though, are a bit on the overly digital side, showcasing some speckled black levels and blurry lines, while flesh tones and solid blocks of color do fluctuate and break a bit. Still, all points considering, these transfers get the job done in retaining the exceptional production design and overall stylish look to the series.
Audio comes in English Dolby Digital 5.1, which can best be described as serviceable to the visual treatment. Vocal clarity has a few moments where it drops to low levels, but on the whole there isn't a line of dialogue that isn't clear and bouncing properly against the environments. The rear channels do receive some surround activity, mostly with musical elements and a few other effects -- splashes of water, fire rumbling from the burners on the landers, etc. The lower frequency track is, for the most part, not really there, only popping up in sequences where it absolutely needs to be heard. Still, everything sounds fine here, projecting the mood of the series just fine. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Aside from a Photo Gallery and a set of Deleted Scenes (19:28, 4x3) for all of the episodes, the only other supplement is a short featurette entitled Mission Accomplished -- A Look at Defying Gravity (10:33, 16x9) that's little more than the actors regurgitating their character's motives and actions.
As I mentioned in my review for District 9, 2009 was an excellent year for science-fiction as a medium -- especially when considering the moderately-budgeted, highly pensive two punch of District 9 and Moon. Defying Gravity can firmly fit into that catalog of output. It's a collision of soap-opera theatrics and extensively thought-provoking concepts, thrown together into an astoundingly assembled television series. On top of that, it's brought to life by a great cast that gave each and every character life. Whether Defying Gravity will see any more content or not is uncertain, though outlook doesn't look good, but this first season still comes with high regards on its own. Those bothered by incomplete seasons with dangling, unbearably unanswered cliffhangers won't be off-put by the conclusion to this season, which wraps an installment to this story arc nicely. Very, very Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site