Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The 4400: Sober Sci-Fi Sans Spielberg Sophism

(People who inexplicably vanished over a sixty year spanse during the 20th Century, emerge un-aged from an orb of light which lands on Mt. Rainier)

When Joseph Force Crater, a respected U.S. court judge, disappeared without a trace on August 6, 1930, and became one of history's most famous missing persons, no one theorized that space beings were the culprits. It was concluded that syndicated crime figures had provided Crater with a new pair of cement shoes and had taken him for a swim. Having gone missing some seventeen years before the noted 1947 UFO sightings of pilot Kenneth Arnold near Mt. Rainier, Washington, the American public had not yet developed sufficient awareness of the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting earth to connect Judge Crater with the conspiracy theory lore associated with alien abduction.

Crater undoubtedly descended the ramp from film director Steven Spielberg's mother ship when it landed at Devil's Tower, Wyoming, in 1977. In an unabashedly sanitary nod to other-worldly benevolence, the aliens of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind are forgiven their intrusion upon the lives of myriad, unsuspecting humans, via intimations of unexplained altruism. Besides, they had really cool space crafts, and the little, asexual beings' tall, spidery leader, who looked to be a warm, kindly sort would never resort to the forced impregnation of human women or even the slaughter of South Park cattle. And Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an Indiana telephone lineman who became "sunburned" and telepathic after his first UFO sighting, got to be the chief guest aboard the mother ship, presumably learning secrets that even the world's scientific leaders were not invited in on.

The USA Network television series The 4400, follows the thread of speculation surrounding mysterious disappearances straight to the core energy of the mother ship, wasting no time thumbing its nose at Spielberg's smarmy pretenses. A quixotic meteor is on a calamitous crash course with earth. As military intervention inexorably fails (in the form of avenging missiles), earth's leaders passively wait out imminent annihilation. The writers, Ira Steven Behr, Rene' Echevarria, and director Scott Peters, obviously versed in ufology history, place the point of impact at Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington. But instead of an apocalyptic explosion, a psychedelic ball of light, emitting an intense flash of energy, descends. Instead of childlike, doe-eyed space aliens, 4400 humans, missing over an individually varying 60-year spanse, emerge from the orb intact, unaged, and without memory of where they have been. The tone is somber, non-celebratory, and rife with passive hints of suppressed trauma.

Contemporary society, rendered paranoid by the New McCarthyist era of terrorism, does not welcome the returnees with open arms. Agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch), and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) from the Department of Homeland Security, are deployed to interrogate and socially reintegrate the returnees. Baldwin, the Fox Mulder of the 21st Century, linked personally to the event through his nephew Shawn, a returnee, and his son Kyle, who has been in a 3-year coma since being repelled and left behind by the light, is intent on answers. Skouris, a sober but not humorless nor unattractive scientist, pragmatically sets out to unravel the mystery. Early suggestions of attraction between the two emerge after Baldwin's collapsing marriage is revealed.

The most enigmatic returnee is eight-year-old Maia Rutledge (Conchita Campbell), an unnervingly intuitive child taken while picking flowers in the 1946 California woods. Maia, whose family long since died, is placed with idealistic foster parents, but soon returns to government custody after a series of accurate predictions frighten the couple. Philosophically resigned to her sense of displacement, Maia exudes an air of knowing, suggesting she may remember where she went and what she did in the twinkling that encompassed 48 earth years. And unlike child actress Dakota Fanning's turn as the hybrid alien/human child Allison Clarke in the 2002 Spielberg-produced TV mini-series Taken, Campbell's unaffected characterization of Maia never exceeds the bounds of believability.

Orson Bailey (actor Michael Moriarity, familiar as a regular on TV's Law & Order), a successful lawyer who disappeared in 1979, returns to find his beloved wife Elizabeth (Sheila Paterson) a dying Alzheimer's patient. As his anger and rage escalate, Bailey finds himself possessed with horrifying telekinetic powers which he cannot control.

Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a black soldier involved with a white woman vanishes in 1951 during his stint in the Korean War. Tyler comes back to find himself inextricably emotionally linked to his courtesan's granddaughter, Lily Moore (Laura Allen), also an abductee. Moore, perhaps the most plaintive returnee, is rejected by her husband, who has remarried and who refuses to tell their 12-year-old daughter of her existence.

The deepest strengths of The 4400 lie in its discplined narrative arc and the emotional substance of its characters. Without the ongoing mythology surrounding the question of what the returnees endured while missing, the storyline would itself vanish into another, very predictable dimension. Hence no convenient little humanoids landing in the streets and back alleys of Seattle (where most of the returnees, who instinctively remain near where they reemerged, choose to stay).

Although The X-Files spin seems staged and distracts from the humanist coil of The 4400, the collective plight of the returnees, played out in the lives of key characters, is compelling enough to override the unnecessary science fiction artifice. Just as in "real life", the government, ever the watchdogs and militant do-gooders, is the most boorish element in what is otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking fare.

(the 4400 wander The Mall of America...)


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