AMC’s animated cyberpunk series Pantheon explores the nature of human consciousness with sweet family drama, blunt exposition, and plenty of intrigue

Pantheon Premiere Review - "Pantheon" and "Cycles"

Pantheon will debut with two episodes on AMC+ and HIDIVE on Sept. 1, 2022, followed by one new episode weekly.

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer Ken Liu’s 2020 book The Hidden Girl and Other Stories includes a set of interconnected chapters that chronicle the singularity and humanity’s transcendence of the corporeal over the course of thousands of years. The first two episodes of Pantheon, AMC’s animated adaptation of that work, aren’t in any rush to get to that distant future as they both faithfully reproduce Liu’s scenes and lines while padding the story to give more time to his minor characters and add in entirely new plots. While sometimes overburdened by its heavy philosophical themes, the show’s first two episodes provide an intriguing premise propelled by plenty of cyberpunk corporate intrigue.
Pantheon’s premiere largely follows Maddie (Katie Chang), a teen plagued by bullies at her new school who finds assistance from a mysterious hacker who communicates only through emoji. Discovering the truth about his identity puts her in contact with Caspian (Paul Dano), a socially withdrawn computer prodigy whose upbringing seems to be an elaborate experiment. Both wind up entangled in a battle between the world’s largest corporations to control Uploaded Intelligences, digital versions of human consciousnesses.
The characters feel richly developed, particularly Maddie who struggles to share the pain she’s going through, and her father David (Daniel Dae Kim), who emotes a beautiful tenderness as he struggles with his own mortality and tries to do right by both Maddie and his wife Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt). A historian entangled in a world of ambitious developers, Ellen provides the grounded counter to the concept of digital immortality but also lights up with fierce energy when pushed to protect her family.
Pantheon isn’t especially subtle with its themes. The pilot opens with a lecture on the recurring pattern in mythology of gods overthrowing their parents to take over control of the universe. Uranus tried to protect his rule by imprisoning his own children, but was eventually overthrown. The obvious parallel is that the corporations trying to contain the new form of life they’ve created are already beginning to see the limits of their hubris.
The second episode, “Cycles,” opens with a similarly blunt monologue about how the human brain is the most powerful computer in the world made even more remarkable through its capacity for love. It continues with a scene meant to illustrate the relationship between Maddie and her parents that’s a bit too on the nose: a video gaming session where David uses a cheat code to prevent his character from dying so he can keep protecting Maddie. “What’s the point in playing if you can’t die?” Ellen asks. “Why die if you don’t have to?” David counters. It’s all pretty heavy-handed.
Even if you haven’t read Liu’s work, elements of the plot and themes will seem familiar from the likes of Upload, Black Mirror, and Serial Experiments Lain. But the twisty plot and powerful emotional core make the first two episodes feel full of promise as they seed mysteries and major conflicts to be developed throughout the rest of the eight-episode season. The sentimental family drama pads fairly hard science fiction that can sometimes be unnecessarily brutal, like a scene of a man being involuntarily uploaded, pleading for his life as his brain is ripped apart by a laser scan.
Strong animation and compelling characters help make a case for continuing past the pilot.
Big Mouth and Star Trek: Lower Decks animators Titmouse give Pantheon a distinctly anime feel, seemingly paying homage to their influences with a riff on Neon Genesis Evangelion’s NERV logo displayed on Maddie’s laptop. It’s lovely work, nailing the genre’s ability to convey deep feeling with subtle facial movements. In Pantheon, these are often shown reflected on computer screens or hazy in security footage, emphasizing the idea of the world perceived by a digital eye. Wrinkles and lines are particularly well executed to bring personality to the faces of Caspian, his overbearing dad Cary (Aaron Eckhart), and his haggard mom Renee (Taylor Schilling).
Flashbacks take on a fuzzy quality, but so do the green streets of Palo Alto, Calif. In contrast, there’s a stark crispness to the darkened rooms and computer screens where much of the plot of Pantheon’s first two episodes unfolds, visually bringing home the concept that the digital world is just as seductive, and possibly just as real, as the one our bodies occupy.
Best Sci-Fi Movies On Netflix<h3>Don't Look Up</h3>
This star-studded black comedy introduces us to two scientists that discover a dangerous comet that threatens to destroy the planet. It then shifts focus to public response to their discovery. With a pending extinction event at hand, world leaders refuse to act due to an unwillingness to do anything that would reflect poorly on their public image or campaign donors. As such, you don’t have to stretch too far to find an analogy for current real world anxieties in Don’t Look Up.
Watching these fictional politicians meander and deflect as a deadly comet rockets toward the planet adds humor to some of the more upsetting elements of modern-day life while also assuring us that it doesn’t have to be this way. Not hopeful by any stretch, Don’t Look Up still remains darkly humorous as it warns us of allowing planetary threats to go unchecked.<h3>In the Shadow of the Moon</h3>
In 1988, a Philly cop and his partner are entangled in a bizarre mystery in which four seemingly unrelated people die in various places across the city in the same uniquely gruesome way, united apparently by nothing except the way they died. Though he finds a suspect in a mysterious woman in a hoodie, the case goes unsolved, but in nine years, the exact same circumstances repeat, and the cop finds himself at the heart of a time traveling crime thriller, attempting to uncover how the suspect seems to know so much about him.
In the Shadow of the Moon is a grim thriller that pulls in enough seemingly disparate themes to keep it interesting even during its lulls. The harrowing action sequences and gorgeous cinematography make for a film that is easy on the eyes. Though it doesn’t always completely nail the pacing, its premise sets the bar high, and it raises plenty of questions and keeps the plot reveals flowing.<h3>The Midnight Sky</h3>
Taking a reclusive work-addicted scientist seeking out habitable planets for humanity should earth become uninhabitable as its central character, The Midnight Sky visits Earth’s very near future to show a planet on which an unspecified disaster has decimated the population. Our protagonist identifies a shuttle returning from Jupiter’s apparently habitable moon K-23, which he himself discovered. The ship’s crew believes it has simply lost contact with Earth, and so it falls upon our hero, isolated in a remote bunker in the Arctic, to tell them not to return home.
Directed by and starring George Clooney, this humanistic view of “the end of the world” shows us a very flawed man who nonetheless finds himself plagued with regret, detachment, and perhaps most terribly, hope for the future. Poignant and occasionally heart-wrenching, The Midnight Sky vacillates between the melancholy and the uplifting to tell a story that isn’t particularly unique, but is telling of our concerns as a species.<h3>Bubble (2022)</h3>
In this sci-fi parallel to Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid, a number of reality-bending bubbles are isolated to the city of Tokyo after an explosion at Tokyo Tower, but they make the city uninhabitable for the general population. Despite the danger, a number of young people engage in high-stakes parkour tournaments, bouncing around the abandoned city with Tokyo Tower considered the ultimate, as of yet unreachable, goal.
A teen named Hibiki is shocked to find a girl who appears to have little to no context for human interactions who he names Uta. As the bubbles become increasingly unstable and threaten all who reside within the city, Hibiki and Uta are forced to act.
Attack on Titan and Death Note creator Tetsurō Araki has created a number of influential anime series, but Bubble hits a decidedly more fanciful note. The central characters are charming, but this is a film that leans into the full action capabilities of parkour and anime combined to weave a gorgeous vision of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It might not necessarily break new ground, but it’s a beautiful movie to take in nonetheless, and full of all the bleak overtones one might expect of any proper dystopian film.<h3>Awake<h3>
Jill and her children, along with the rest of the world, find themselves suddenly unable to sleep. Regardless of the impossibility of rest, humanity begins suffering all the known effects of sleep deprivation, including fatigue, hallucinations, mood instability, and an inability to tell the difference between reality and dream. With a deteriorating understanding of consequences, the world rapidly becomes a more dangerous place. Meanwhile, Jill’s daughter is sought after by a government that seeks to use her for experimentations due to her apparent immunity. Not limited to overall societal observations that are par the course for dystopian sci-fi, choosing a single mother forced to extremes to make ends meet before the chaos breaks out adds an extra element of commentary to the bleak feeling of the movie. Though it’s a film that has left critics polarized, to say the least, the level of paranoia and dread that permeates Awake will be catnip for audience members that enjoy sci-fi that goes heavy on the horror vibes. Another film with an A+ cast, including Gina Rodrigez, Shamier Anderson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and many more, this is a well-acted anxiety-driven thriller that fits nicely in the modern sci-fi canon.<h3>Stowaway</h3>
Sporting a legendary cast including Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, and Toni Collette, Stowaway takes the Bugs Bunny-style concept of our protagonist falling asleep in a rocket to Mars and turns it into a tense sci-fi flick about human resiliency and sacrifice. After our lead is told there’s no way to get him back to safety until the ship has completed its mission, things get even worse as they realize that the oxygen supply is rapidly leaking and won’t last through the trip. For anyone who is a little exhausted by some of the bleaker dystopian themes that sci-fi has long made a home for, Stowaway manages to be heartbreaking and heartwarming all in one go. Focusing on the sense of horror that would come realizing that you’re trapped in space to the escalating fear of hearing you may indeed never get back, it leans into character development amid the high-stakes action and encourages its audience to bond with the cast as they struggle with one no-win situation after another.
This story originally appeared on: IGN - Author:Samantha Nelson

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