[REVIEW] [SPOILERS] — A new surge in independently-produced online content is almost upon us even as existing media giants like NBC Universal begin to dabble in higher production value content intended for the web. Venus Rises, created by writer/director and Executive Producer J. G. Birdsall is especially noteworthy because this is not fan fiction. Based on an original idea, Venus Rises will be an ongoing series available online and on Illusion, a video-on-demand science fiction cable network. In development since the idea was conceived in 2002, a prequel to Venus Rises has finally been released, leading up to the series’ first episode.
The prequel is designed to introduce the universe in which this science fiction tale of two planets will play out. After the ecological collapse of the Earth, humanity fled to Mars and Venus, leading to class divisions across the vacuum. “Ikarus – Part 1″ explores the dynamics of a prospecting crew searching for resources in the Asteroid Belt.
Science fiction movies and television set in space have long been known for their scientific inaccuracies. Meanwhile, current scientific and technological progress underlines how reality can be stranger than fiction. Going into this prequel to a series I have been long anticipating, I admit that these two facts were foremost in my mind. How will independent science fiction producers deal with the same issues facing movie studies and television networks: cutting-edge movie-making technologies often paired with inane retreads of tired ideas?
The results are, in a word, mixed.
The opening credits really draw the viewer into the larger back story. Newspaper clippings and news reports hint at the seriousness of the disasters that befell Earth. As “Part 1″ gets started, the first CGI view of the mining hauler Ikarus is both tantalizing and a bit disappointing, especially after we enter the spacecraft. Inside the spacecraft, the set and onscreen graphics are top notch. Unfortunately, this makes the CGI outside the spacecraft stand out in contrast. For an independent production all the computer graphics, inside or out, are still noteworthy and show an attention to detail that is admirable.
Hard science fiction – that is, the kind of science fiction that gets into the nuts and bolts of science, discovery, and exploration – is underrepresented in movies and television. “Ikarus – Part 1″ is therefore refreshing in its attention to the spacecraft and other technical details. The remote sensing capabilities of the vessel are fun to watch. Asteroids, of course, are not really as close together as they are depicted here (and in most science fiction movies and TV, for that matter.)
Caption: Screenshot from “Ikarus – Part 1″. Asteroids are only this close together in science fiction movies and television.
What follows with the introduction of the crew is confusing, slightly melodramatic, and potentially cliched (depending on how this all turns out…this is “Part 1″ after all.) The men are dicks and Aeriana Onaar, a character played by Julia Hiroko Howe who will also be in the series, is at their apparent mercy. She is a “dumb mute” according to one of the evil crew members but can read lips and land drones with precision on the asteroid. What happens by the end of “Part 1″ has nothing to do with space and everything to do with violence against women and just rewards.
Where is this going? If the series is intended to be as bleak as indicated, then it might be a bit tough going, especially if we do not learn in these space settings anything new about gender politics, disabilities, exploration, and survival. At nine minutes in length and with characters that are either extremely unlikable or not yet fully fleshed out, “Ikarus – Part 1″ makes it difficult to come to any solid conclusions about this prequel or the upcoming series.
I enjoyed the music and the editing was well done, but I think it is too early to make any conclusive statements about the acting, directing, and other filmmaking mechanics. There is much to admire here and I look forward to the next part. There is some difficulty in introducing the back story and the universe for Venus Rises, but this is balanced by the novelty of original science fiction, filmmakers and participants that are obviously passionate about what they are doing, a fascinating and claustrophobic set, and at least one character I want to know more about.