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Childhood’s End


DVD SAVANT

After 63 years somebody has taken a crack at Arthur C. Clarke’s monumental sci-fi novel. This interpretation throws the emphasis way out of whack but succeeds too frequently to ignore. Charles Dance is the alarming Overlord Karellen, who comes from the stars to escort humanity through its next stage of development… and to announce the end of the world as we know it.


Childhood’s End
Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
2015 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 247 min. / Street Date March 1, 2016 / 34.98
Starring Charles Dance, Mike Vogel, Osy Ikhile, Daisy Betts, Georgina Haig, Ashley Zukerman, Hayley Magnus, Charlotte Nicdao, Peretta, Lachlan Roland-Kenn, Julian McMahon, Colm Meany, Robert Morgan.
Cinematography
Neville Kidd
Film Editor Sean Albertson, Yan Miles, Eric A. Sears
Original Music Charlie Clouser
Written by Matthew Graham from the novel by Arthur C. Clarke
Produced by Nick Hurran, John C. Lenick, Paul M. Leonard
Directed by Nick Hurran

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This is the first Syfy program I’ve watched in years. It’s far above the quality level that I had come to expect from that cable channel. Although it warps and dulls Arthur C. Clarke’s fairly amazing novel, it doesn’t totally betray it. When the end rolls by, be assured that this TV miniseries version barely touches on the mind-blowing visions in the book. Instead of Clarke’s cool but humanistic vision of man’s destiny, the domestic problems of the main characters are given most of the attention, with added romances, tragic back-stories, etc. The focus is thrown a bit off in other ways too, but we still recognize the contours of a very powerful tale. I’m giving it an enthusiastic B-plus. After all, we could have been given The Overlords versus Sharknado.

Keen literary science fiction readers knew about Clarke’s Childhood’s End long before the author’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, but us fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey learned right away that the 1953 book told the same story in more accessible terms. We’ve been waiting for ages for a producer with enough clout to get the book made into a movie. The effects needed were too daunting for pre-CGI technology. In the interim, Clarke’s original ideas and set-pieces were raided for genre blights like 1996’s Independence Day. Made by veterans of decent sci-fi efforts and cast with an talented group of non-star actors, Syfy’s Childhood’s End is good enough to engage general audiences and maybe even some cantankerous sci-fi hardliners.

The book’s three- chapter story structure has been retained: The Overlords, The Deceivers and The Children. Massive spaceships park over all the major cities of the Earth, announcing the arrival of ‘The Overlords,’ aliens that never show themselves but demonstrate wholly non-aggressive intentions. Farmer and local activist Rikki Stormgren (Mike Vogel) is chosen by the unseen Overlord Karellen (Charles Dance) to act as a go-between, which at first causes problems with the U.S. Secret service. An Overlord device given Stormgren proves to be not a weapon but a container of cures for most human diseases. Through Rikki, Karellen announces a ‘Golden Age of Man,’ and with the end of war, nationalism and the abandonment by many of religion, Earth becomes peaceful and placid. Media Mogul Wainwright (Colm Meaney) helps organize a resistance movement, which eventually falls apart when an attempted kidnapping of Stormgren fails miserably. Meanwhile, a handicapped slum kid named Milo Rodricks (as an adult Osy Ikhile) has been cured by the Overlord’s ‘magic medicine,’ and after his drug addict mother is able to put her life together, he studies to become a scientist. Milo’s dream goal is to journey to the Overlords’ planet. Just as Rikki decides that he must find out what Karellen looks like, his time as the Overlords’ intermediary passes. Fifteen years later, things begin to change. Karellen appears in public, and is revealed to look exactly like The Devil as represented in old texts and drawings. Cultural rebels form ‘The New Athens,’ an imperfect but ‘free’ society away from the Overlords’ rule. But there’s no escape from the future, which for humanity is nothing less than a major jump in the species evolution. The Overlords are not part of a master alien race, but merely the ‘enablers’ of a cosmic consciousness called ‘The Overmind,’ which has decided that it’s time for our puny species to take the next step.

Remember the ‘God is dead’ brouhaha against John Lennon in the late 1960’s? Clarke’s Childhood’s End delivered the same heretical message twenty years before, but in the lowly science fiction pulps where it could be ignored. I can’t see the book being embraced by today’s evangelicals, and this TV version retains the same message. Deleted scenes (retained as extras) spell it out explicitly. That’s a plus for accuracy. Clarke’s book knocked out kids looking for far-out answers to life problems, because it constructed an alternate faith model, the same one as expressed in 2001. In his version of reality we’re not the center of the universe. We don’t have conventional souls, either individual or collective. We instead have a species identity, a spirituality passed from individual to individual. The next step is to become part of The Overmind, a jump so big that to succeed it requires The Overlords to serve as ‘midwives.’ Most humans find some kind of contentment in their lives with the belief that, even if they cannot reach their goals, their children might. The good news from Karellen is that the very next generation of children will achieve something incredible. The bad news is they won’t be human any more, but a new collective entity we can’t fully comprehend, the super-being more or less expressed in Clarke-Kubrick’s ‘Star Child’ visual. Your human identity will be lost forever.

Of course, the unwelcome part of Karellen’s message is existential-lite: stop living with the illusion that your existence has meaning beyond your breathing and struggling in the here and now. Some think that humans require illusions and hope to motivate our daily battles. The Overlords shrug and tell us just to accept our fate.

My first look at a photo of the cast of Childhood’s End was not encouraging — the row of 20-something faces would seem more appropriate for a new TV show called “Andromeda 90210.” But they manage quite well. The heavy dramatics of Matthew Graham’s screenplay take up the bulk of the running time. The book’s Rikki Stormgren was a senior citizen Finnish diplomat, without much of a home life; he was there simply to talk to Karellen in only the first part of the story. The movie’s Rikki is a young guy with a wife (Daisy Betts) and a dead ex-wife (Georgina Haig) that visits him in Overlord-induced hallucinations. Being somewhat reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the phantom wife is the first of the film’s many re-creations of situations from classic sci-fi pictures. Other early examples are the screws that unscrew themselves as the Overlord’s probes poke around Stormgren’s farm house (Close Encounters) and the alien object that might be a weapon (The Day the Earth Stood Still. The phantom hotel room for the Rikki / Karellen meetings, is reminiscent of the ornate room / prison holding Dave Bowman at the conclusion of 2001.

Instead of saying goodbye to Rikkie Stormgren at the end of the first chapter, he continues as a major character even though his relevance to the story has passed. We thus get more romantic encounters and dynamic intrigues between Rikki, Karellen, and his wife Ellie. And don’t forget the religious fanatic named Paretta (Yael Stone), a sickness, a shooting, etc. Only fifteen years pass in the movie before the Overlords show themselves, while in the book they hold off a full generation, until no man is alive that has a personal memory of growing up in a world before their arrival. The book establishes a narrative scale greater than human, whereas the show is stuck firmly in personal emotions. Not having to jump eighty years or more in the future also exempts the producers from establishing a futuristic society. As it is, it’s hard to know in what time frame things are talking place. Source music sticks to classical pieces or 1950s pop songs (?). After showing us a lot of futuristic architecture, a car trip is taken in a klunky ’70s station wagon.

Independence Day ripped off the awesome notion of giant ships anchored over major cities. Clarke’s punch line for the alien ships has been dropped – in the book, after we’ve accepted their presence for decades, all but one ship is revealed to have been an illusion generated for psychological effect. Clarke made short work of a military attempt to attack one of the Overlord ships with atomic missiles, an event that the show skips entirely. And the original finale to the Rikki Stormgren narrative, his kidnapping by the Freedom rebels, is no longer such a big deal. The miniseries instead invents a lot of new material on a personal-emotional level.

As I say, Clarke’s sketchy characters have been fleshed out to soap opera proportions. Milo Rodricks is given a girlfriend, Rachel (Charlotte Nicdao). When he eventually takes off on an interstellar voyage, they share a lover’s dilemma involving relativity and aging, as seen in the old French science fiction comedy (?) Croisières Sidérales and the Twilight Zone episode The Long Morrow. To free up running time for Milo and Nikki’s lengthy adventures, much of the big-picture storytelling is on the sketchy side, using efficient yet superficial montages, narrations and news bites. Clarke handled his ‘end of religion’ theme with just a few paragraphs about the decline of church attendance and the phasing-out of organized faith, explaining that the arrival of the Overlords and their paternal plan for the world pretty much replaced the need for supernatural deities. Screenwriter Graham invents the Evangelical Peretta character, who vows to avenge her ‘martyred’ mother and then involves herself in two of the separate plot threads. She eventually shoots an Overlord with a shotgun. Fairly astonishingly, considering the current media reluctance to say anything against Evangelicals or faith-based lifestyles, this Childhood’s End takes Arthur C. Clarke’s view at face value. The miniseries emphatically denounces all religious faith as childish superstition.

The most successful human subplot builds upon the family crisis of the Greggsons, Jake and Amy (Ashley Zukerman & Haley Magnus). After an unnecessary childhood flashback, they discover that their son Tommy (Lachlan Roland-Kenn) is psychically disturbed. It only slowly becomes apparent that he’s in telepathic communication with their unborn daughter Jennifer (Rory Bochner). The Greggson and Rodricks plots come together nicely at the big party at the scientific establishment of the wealthy Rupert Boyce (Julian McMahon), where an Overlord Ouija Board (I kid you not) gives out predictions that for some reason we never see. For a while Tommy’s weirdness seems a replay of the spooky hi-jinks of movies like The Omen, but in part three (“The Children”) we get a full-strength replay of aspects of Village of the Damned, with psychically-connected tots performing feats of psychokinesis and forming a potentially sinister brat-pack ‘Undermind.’

The Greggsons must roll with the emotional punches. Jennifer is revealed to be the telepathic focus point for all the children on Earth. No more children are born (cue quickie sentiments in the vein of Children of Men), while the Greggson’s house comes under siege by hundreds of trance-stricken children that stare like zombies, face Mecca (Jennifer) and raise their hands in eerie salutes. Karellen has no way of telling people that they are going to lose their children entirely — the last generation will simply literally fly away. Director Nick Hurran earns high marks for making this work. The leave-taking is handled very well, even if the story of the adults left behind plays like a mawkish, quickie re-run of On the Beach. “What do we have to live for?”

The Childhood’s End miniseries carefully follows the broad strokes of the book, but it stumbles in its presentation of the Overlords. Until the end we see only one, Karellen. In the book he’s a benevolent but mysterious fellow who can be charming in person but never becomes warm and cozy with humans. Although he’s cordial in his talks with Stormgren he remains purposely remote, and his public appearances after the Overlords come out in the open are calculated to present a positive image and nothing more. Karellen interacts with only a few representatives, like Rupert Boyce. Therefore, when he does make an announcement, his authority seems absolute. The miniseries practically turns him into a talk show host, having cozy chats with everyone. Like an old pal passing through, he periodically drops in on Rikki Stormgren, to comfort his old buddy about the raw deal visited upon the Earth.

Events in the final chapter of Childhood’s End are as fantastic as science fiction gets. The miniseries touches bases with them but doesn’t attempt Clarke’s giddy sense of weirdness, that makes us feel as if the world has vanished beneath our feet. A zillion-mile interstellar voyage to a distant planet plays almost like This Island Earth — amounting to little more than a stopover before a hasty return trip. The planet described in the book has things about it that the narrator won’t or can’t report on; we’re told that some sights are simply too alien, too Lovecraftian for a human to perceive. The filmmakers just give us a world that resembles the Harkonnen planet Giede Prime.

The show’s only unforgivable sin is committed on the Overlords’ home world. The Overmind is supposed to be something entirely unimaginable, that even the Overlords can’t directly converse with on an alien-to-alien, or alien-to-God basis. But just as the filmmakers have already made the frosty Overlords into ‘just folks’ pals, one of our human characters is granted a one-on-one audience with The Overmind, an entirely lame idea. The pale scene has its equivalent in the awful, awful alien encounter in the 1995 movie Contact, where an astrophysicist must undertake a flippin’ Voyage to the End of the Universe just to have a heart-to-heart with Daddy.

The cosmic progress of the world’s children goes well, and then stops just before the real magic can begin. In the book, the world’s children perform many years’ worth of ‘cosmic prep’ to make the Big Evolutionary leap to the next level. The description in the book is just good enough to make the mind spin — they start by meditating, and then levitate and form gigantic geometric patterns in the air while changing form over time. I believe Clarke says that they end up using an entire continent as their ‘parade ground.’ A hint of Clarke’s imagery is used in 2001, with those patterns of diamonds flying in formation over the surface of an alien planet. An impractical effect called the ‘cuboids’ planned for Close Encounters would also seem inspired by this material from Childhood’s End. Although no actual ‘Star Child’ appears in the original book, the whole idea is that an entire generation of children congeals into a single super-being, suitable to cruise the cosmos. This new entity toys with the planet and finally destroys it as a graduation event. I forget whether this transformed human spirit is meant to meld with the Overmind, or join it as a newborn arrival in the cosmic community.

The fabulous irony imparted by Karellen, and only quickly stated in the miniseries, is that even in its annihilation mankind can be proud of itself. The Overlords have no transcendental destiny, and must remain a custodian race, mortal servants to immortal super-creatures. We humans possess what their race lacks, some kind of essence that will survive death, even if our individual personalities will not survive. And maybe the new entity, the formerly human Star Child, will retain our collective personality. Love may not die; the universe may not be the cold place that makes us shiver like the little animals described at the end of Things to Come.

I’ve lost track of a 16mm student film of the late 60’s, I believe with a one-word title, which was shown at an industry festival I attended straight from high school in 1970. A technically precocious workout for an optical printer, it presented a colorful and imaginative wordless story that I immediately recognized as an attempt to pictorialize the cosmic conclusion of Childhood’s End. Silhouetted youth figures meld together and become glowing stars, essentially. Any kid who saw 2001 and read Clarke would immediately have recognized the film’s unstated context and intent. Maybe someone remembers it; I know it traveled with exhibitions and maybe as part of a compilation animation feature. FOUND: It’s Omega by the Bay Area filmmaker Donald Fox, who also made the short subject Young Goodman Brown. Omega isn’t listed in the IMDB, but it can be seen on YouTube. A comment at the YouTube page says more about how Fox made the movie. Another funky online transfer is here, with warbly audio. A good quality excerpt of the finale is here, but with different, spacey music. All those white bubbles flying away? They’re the kids, dude. Far Out. Hey, where did my shoulder-length hair go? Thanks to Wayne Schmidt for remembering this.

The advertising for the SyFy miniseries sells the Overlords as garden-variety hostile invaders. The show itself indentifies with the human element to the very end, leaving Clarke’s vision of cosmic glory as a secondary concern. The last human alive waits glumly for the end rather than continue his life’s stated mission as a scientist, to learn for the sake of learning. No, after a personal disappointment of surprising cruelty he chucks it all away over love, and ends up moping about trivialities — cookie dough ice cream, I kid you not. It’s human, it’s sentimental, and it is 180° removed from the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke. The acting and directing make it play fairly well, though, even with the cookie dough stumble.

I remember yet another expression of Childhood’s End coming through in a feature film, with special effects by Douglas Trumbull. It’s the finale of the hapless black comedy Candy, and it’s a rock ‘n’ roll fanfare song by Dave Grusin and Roger McGuinn, sung by The Byrds and augmented by a full orchestra: “Child of the Universe.” The conceit of Candy is that the nymphet played by Ewa Aulin is some kind of eternal sex spirit, which in context comes off as a soft-core Playboy party joke. But the song itself is triumphant. Its lyrics would seem to be written to describe Kubrick’s Star Child, or Clarke’s reborn galaxy-being. Trumbull’s images even depict a glowing ‘thing’ rising from Earth and flying into space:

…. Swirling ions from the stars / streaming down onto the earth
From a galaxy like ours / manifested in her birth
Child of the Universe / Giving freely of herself
Purity had truth rehearsed / leaving man her cosmic wealth
Love for anyone who needs her / innocence is all that feeds her
Rolling through the mist
Knowing what is understanding / patience that is undemanding
Or does she exist? Or did she exist?

A great deal happens in this miniseries that could be ludicrous if mishandled. Director Nick Hurran shows a fine control of his cast, which sells the reality of the fantastic events. Charles Dance is an impressive Karellen, despite the outrageous design concept.  Many of the actors appear to be Australians and the only locations listed are in the Melbourne area. I personally recognized only the fine UK actor Colm Meany in a very good supporting performance. Fans of Dr. Who, Game of Thrones and other more recent TV fare may be more familiar with others.


 

Universal’s Blu-ray of Syfy’s Childhood’s End miniseries is a handsome 2-disc, rather plain-wrap presentation. The show looks fine and the special effects are impressive even if they don’t break new ground. Although not cheap this can’t have been the most expensive show on cable. Considering the scope of the story the production is truly spectacular.

The menus aren’t particularly helpful. The Overlords is on disc one. Without a way to navigate the chapters, viewers must click through The Deceivers to get to The Children on disc two.

The extras are numerous deleted and extended scenes. Most are small extensions or details but a few add good information and could have enhanced story clarity for viewers unfamiliar with the book. Since the effects aren’t finished for some of the deleted scenes, we get shots with un-removed cameras, shots on raw green screens and shots missing major effects. When an Overlord appears, Charles Dance (Karellen) and Benedict Hardie (Vindarten) are in complete rubber suits, except for their lower legs and the missing devil wings, which are represented by blue wire frame guides for later CGI animation.


 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Childhood’s End Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
upplements: Deleted Scenes
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: 2 Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: February 21, 2016

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