For all the Polanski talk, Extant seems much more intent on expressions of attachment than body paranoia. The premise is John Updike does Rosemary’s Baby, except the demon child is already born. Among the many differences is this: Rosemary was violated; Molly was hypnotized. The conception incident here evokes longing, not recoil; confusion, not disorientation. It’s played like a hallucination—though it wasn’t—but because this fertile entity borrows the form of Molly’s dead first husband, Marcus, the scene speaks for the pilot: Who we let in has so very little to do with us.
There might be those who see that as fundamentally comparable to the Rosemary scene. They should return to Halle Berry’s performance, and the tenor of the direction. She trembles agape in that familiar way and searches his black eyes for more than Marcus’s exoskeleton. If the encounter hadn’t left her a souvenir, you’d think she could have done this to herself. As the thing apparently impregnates Molly, Berry does something similar to it with Molly’s history. There are three, if memory serves, profile shots of two people facing each other in “Re-Entry.” One of them is unobstructed. That one is this one, Molly floating there, staring at a ghost, the alien firmly on the ground in zero gravity, ready to do whatever it intends to do. There’s unbound connection here: Molly to her memories.
This examination of connection reoccurs, like those profile shots, throughout the pilot. That demon child isn’t so much demonic as it is robotic. Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) is Daddy’s pride and joy: The prototype for a new wave of unhuman humans. John Woods (Goran Visnjic) engineered the boy when he and Molly couldn’t conceive and were denied adoption. His affection for Ethan surpasses inventor-invention, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the human experience working or the product. He presents Ethan to a powerful technology board and exhausts the importance of integration. These are not sophisticated slaves, but a new breed of people. He grows defensive toward their questioning. Passion and foolishness are more closely related than he and Ethan.
The tension is drummed up intentionally. The point of the show is to inspire uneasiness in the viewer. But the side effect is John’s instability. At times, he flashes with something comparable to what Carrie Mathison has become on Homeland, minus the neuroses. After a minor outburst in defense of the boy to Molly, he apologizes. How many times have we seen this juiced up and aimed at Mandy Patinkin? It’s one of the scenes in which director Allen Coulter returns to the profile. This time, a half-wall separates John and Molly. The low angle makes it look as if they’re talking through it. It could be a metaphor for their emotional baggage. But the barrier is actually upstairs sleeping. At their best, Molly and Ethan are mother and son. That’s just the starting ground for John: the boy will always be both family and career. It’s a doubled-down conflict of interest. Molly might be secretive, but John is unreliable.
Extant could easily sort this out. It needed John on edge in order to loop in its Big Brother ambitions. The space program has gone private and it only takes 41 minutes to introduce a cover up. As with reality, science and big business collude. The show, as is par for the sci-fi course, disapproves. Program directors (Michael O’Neill) stream therapy sessions. Mysterious, stoic mega-owners (one played by Hiroyuki Sanada) undermine their own corporations and forgo interior home lighting. “Re-Entry” uses them as placeholders: Here are some probably seedy fellows.
Their isolation and string-pulling promise plot, but their effect on what seems to be the heart of this show is peripheral right now. It’s hard to imagine the sci-fi institutional paranoia melding gracefully. “Re-Entry” attempts. Annie Wersching’s chairwoman renounces Ethan’s humanhood by way of the soul. “Some of us still believe in that sort of thing,” she says. Her spouting is less insight than utility. She’s capital-o Opposition. There’s nothing of society in her retort, just curmudgeonry. She gets to be smug, John gets to shout “But!” There’s also a pretense for horror the show hasn’t yet backed up. Mostly it’s in the score and Ethan’s “Your hair looks pretty.” It would be better quieter. That goes for the music and the conspiracy.
Creator Mickey Fisher seems to want this show to ask, What does it mean to be real? Before the presentation, John assures Ethan he is a person. Ethan disagrees. This is a thing. Gagnon can do more than spook. He fires a “But I’m not!” like we might hear from a young kid insecure about a new haircut. He thinks he lacks some criteria to fit in. He can’t yet grasp the severity of his otherness, but he knows the makings. To him, his inhumanity is as personal and upsetting in the minutia as the Never Let Me Go clones’ was in the grand. Gagnon nails it, and Fisher and Coulter let it flitter: This is the everyday.
Better yet, Fisher licenses the same anxiety to John and Molly’s marriage. John finds Molly looking at old pictures of her and Marcus. She says she’d had a dream. We haven’t yet watched him materialize in a solo space station. John levies a silver lining: He misses Marcus too, but he and Molly never would’ve come together had he not died. Yes, it’s morbid on screen, too. But Molly comes back with that “we all end up where we’re meant to” bit, pointing to destiny. It comforts John, but it’s a half-truth. Molly may believe it, but she pairs the belief with deceit: There was no dream, only insemination.
Fisher frays their relationship in bits. Molly’s been gone for a year. The pilot covers their re-acclimation with tender shower sex. But they are rarely together and often juxtaposed. We switch between John’s progress and Molly’s acclimation. John pitches Ethan to the board; Molly discovers she’s pregnant. John secures under-the-table funding; Molly finds Ethan “finding” a dead bird. Fisher structures in distance. They’re not together, as far as the camera can often tell. But it’s not a question of if they want to be together. It’s this: Can they offer each other all of themselves—a full person? Fisher’s family drama features no one whole.
This is where the series needs to stick. It’s a good-looking show with a slate of directors that know how to channel atmosphere. It’s expensive, and looks it, and big money usually wants big plot. Steven Spielberg’s name is attached, so it wouldn’t be out of the question to have some Falling Skies in Extant’s thriller vibes. But the pilot is best off when focused on Molly and Ethan and John. Regardless of its artificial intelligence-son-alien-fetus cleverness, Fisher has sketched thoughtful inquiries into how and why we love. If all this show wants do is parse the authenticity of connection, human or otherwise, Extant may round into something fuller than expected.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.