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PEIA: Harsh Realm Articles
from aint-it-cool-news:

Tuesday, July 6, 1999
Glen reviews Chris Carter's "Harsh Realm" ((coming this Fall to FOX)) !!!

Glen here...
...with the first of many reviews / previews of upcoming Fall Season TV pilots and series (by the way, if anyone out there has Snoops or The Third Watch, please note the P.O. BOX listed below).

First up: my review of Chris Carter's new adaptation of James Hudnall and Andrew Paquette's 1991 comic Harsh Realm.

To me, Chris Carter has always been a "hit or miss" kind of guy: capable of magnificent, stirringly poetic concepts and writing; equally as capable ludicrous bombast and overblown self indulgence. Despite such inconsistencies, there's no doubt the guy is "on" when he's on, and there's no doubt Carter's thought process the very least...among the freshest and most imaginative of the current TV mega-creators.

As such, it was with great interest (yet a touch of caution) that I approached Harsh Realm, Fox's new hour long series debuting this Fall. Harsh Realm tells the tale of Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow), a U.S. armed forces trooper recruited to enter a government / military virtual reality experiment called "Harsh Realm". The Realm was designed to be a training ground to prepare super agents to combat & circumvent terrorism on the U.S. mainland. Seems the program has been seized by Omar Santiago (played by Chris Carter perennial Terry O'Quinn) - allegedly one of its VR constructs (although we get the strong sense he may be real instead of a construct).

Hobbes goes VR to play the game, finds a bizarre dichotomy inside: a burned out wasteland of neighborhoods, decay, and abandoned sprawl, separated from a sophisticated Nazi-like megoplolis by a quick-fry energy barrier. The people outside the barrier are generally a rather dirty unpleasant lot; unified by a singular set of principles and codes, yet each person keeping to themselves and staying out of everyone else's way. Hobbes discovers these folks are actually other military recruits sent in to Harsh Realm to take out Santiago. All have either failed, given up, or joined the other side (for a better life in the big city). And all are apparently stuck in the Harsh Realm simulation until the game is over & Santiago is eliminated.

Slightly pissed off and really wanting out of the Realm, Hobbes enlists the help of an annoyed and disillusioned Mike Pinnochio (D.B.Sweeney). Together, along with Dexter the dog and a mute chick with cool healing powers, they set off across the wastelands of Harsh Realm to have adventures and hunt Santiago. Pinnochio tells Hobbes that taking out Santiago won't matter one way or another: they're stuck there and that's that. Hobbes won't give up his hope for escape, and therein lies the initial thrust of the series...

Harsh Realm is neither a resounding success or utter failure: it is solid, intriguing fun whose ultimate artistic success will depend on whether or not Carter and company can envisage enough interesting subject-specific twists, turns and VR-related gimmicks to keep the show fresh and vibrant week after week. As a standard "hunt and destroy" mission-of-the-week, the series will fail apocalypticly and quickly.

But in concept and execution, Harsh Realm might play out on a rather vast tapestry, addressing plot points like: why has the government / military sent all those soldiers into Harsh Realm? Why did they leave them there? Is the introductory "reality" we saw in the pilot episode actually reality, or part of some bigger trip? Is Santiago real or VR? Might his apparent mission of domination actually be an effort toward liberating the unknowing VR subjects of Harsh Realm? As such, Harsh Realm could also be something of a political thriller both in our "real world" and in the Realm itself.

Now, the question has to be asked: how does Harsh Realm stack up against The Matrix? This is one of those hellish areas I generally hate getting into, as it's almost impossible to be fair to any one product when doing such comparisons. For a total mindbender, check this out: Harsh Realm is a comic book from 1991; The Matrix is a film from 1999. Harsh Realm (the series) is based on older material than The Matrix (which itself is an amalgam of multiple works and genres), but Harsh Realm is hitting the air after The Matrix hit theaters (indeed, HR should arrive just about the time Matrix hits home video, if I'm not mistaken). In essence, Harsh Realm came first, but The Matrix made it into the public mainstream first - so Harsh Realm will undoubtedly take some hits from people who don't stop to consider the actual chronology of events here.

Alarmingly, there are quite a few legitimate comparisons between HR and Matrix. Among them: both concepts involve a virtual reality, computer-contsructed representation of society. Both concepts involve members of said societies generally not knowing their life is a computer generated sham, and that reality is something altogether different. Both concepts involve a small faction of society attempting to "end" the simulation and liberate the sleeping masses. Both concepts involve the coming of a "chosen one" who will lead the lost souls of the VR world to some greater level of awareness. The list goes on, but you get the point. As such, no matter how much one tries to purge thoughts of The Matrix while watching Harsh Realm, it's nearly impossible for moments from Keanu's cyberpunk-o-rama not to spring the mind. Perhaps this will help the show ride the waves of "cool VR" sentiment and encourage audiences to embrace the series. But in a less fair world, inappropriate association with Matrix might stunt HR's chances of establishing its own identity and legitimacy.

Part Road Warrior, part A Boy and His Dog, part Tron, part...well...VR adventure about a hero who comes to shake up the system , Harsh Realm features the customary darkness one expects from Chris Carter (the wastelands of the Realm are pretty grim, as are its inhabitants). Joel Ransom's photography goes a long way to making the look of the Realm work, thus critically supporting the show itself. The atmosphere of the Realm was essential to this story's credibility, Ransom's imaging of imposing architecture, use of desolate grays, and capturing of broad vistas (wider than usual for TV) sell the setting nicely. Pilot's opening moments - set in Sarajevo 1994 - are really a site to see. Not a long sequence, but it's Saving Private Ryan approach to warfare photography sets up a nicely cinematic feel for the rest of the episode.

Direction is slick and often propulsive - pilot director Daniel Sackheim (Millennium, Earth 2, ER) endows the opening episode with some welcomed, in-your-face bravado: including John Woo-like standoffs between two dudes with guns (camera circling around the two as they circle each other, and a telling action moment punctuated with slow-motion). Performances are roundly good, although perhaps a bit more one dimensional than they should have been right out of the gate. Bairstow is engaging as Hobbes, but it's hard to get a bead on just what makes the character tick. Sweeney is rather one-note as Pinnochio, though there are some hints his character is more clearly defined than the pilot alone suggests. Terry O'Quinn is charismatic and compelling as Santiago - makes sense the people of Harsh Realm would flock around this guy as a leader (even if he is a jackass, there's intriguing dimension to his jackassosity).

Not a slam dunk and not entirely clear ("not entirely clear" being Chris Carter's signature characteristic), Harsh Realm is well-produced and potentially addictive. If the spectrum of storytelling widens to that of an action-centric / political thriller with ramifications in two "realities", this show might become something really wild, and very special. I'm not convinced yet, there's not quite enough to go on in the introductory episode.

But I do want to see more. Isn't that the endgame of a successful pilot?

what do you think? go to the messageboard and let everyone know.