For at least a century, science fiction has a strong tradition of short stories–quick, punchy narratives that effectively develop a single idea. Works like these don’t do much with character or world-building and they don’t need to; they get their power from following the implications of the idea. They’re like an experiment on reality, changing a single variable and seeing how it plays out. Because of that, they don’t need a lot of special effects when adapted, focusing instead on the changes to human action. Much of Philip K. Dick’s work was like this; so was Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” which began as a short story. On television, The Twilight Zone carried the tradition forward and enchanted directors like Steven Spielberg, and Stuart Willis’ Restoration fits squarely within the genre. (Disclosure/shameless plug: Willis has interviewed me for his most excellent Draft Zero podcast.) (Useful information for viewers: Restoration has been broadcast on Australian television and will premiere in New Zealand shortly. It will be also available on the Stan streaming service this Thursday.)
The central idea of Restoration is simple, and has a genealogy in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, all the way back to Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (the source for Total Recall): in the near future, the Restoration Life Services Company can back up your entire consciousness and memory, and restore it to your body. (Willis sez that the idea came to him from the way we back up our phones on the cloud.) They can also restore your consciousness to another body, or to a “gerry” (generic body) in case of something inconvenient, like, say, death. To say more about Restoration would be to give away its elegant, twisty, noirish plot; just know that Willis and co-writer Matthew Clayfield play with some fascinating questions of how our identity is made: is it from our consciousness? Our memories? Our bodies? Our interactions with others? Could these identities conflict with each other?
To its great credit, Restoration never slows down to debate these questions, it simply uses them to drive a strong hour of storytelling. (It also gets some wicked funny moments out of them–what if you don’t smoke but your body does?) That’s the strength of the short-story format–you don’t need to explain a lot about the world or the characters to make it work. Instead, Willis edits this so tightly, with no scene going on one beat longer than necessary, starting the story right away (the first twist lands within five minutes) and keeping it going to the finish. We need to see more films that use their time constraints as well as this; Willis and Clayfield use an elliptical style here that saves time and is well suited for cinema, dropping us into situations just like the characters have been, and leaving us to figure it out just like them. Sometimes what we see isn’t real, but that’s because what the characters see isn’t real. Good science fiction makes you pay attention.
Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Willis uses existing architecture to give a cold corporate feel to a lot of the settings, and that further emphasizes the actions of the characters over world-building. Unsurprisingly and effectively, there are a lot of doubled and mirrored images, night scenes, and slitted light sources, giving this the look of a noir just as the plot is a heightened version of noir; it’s very much the heir of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca in that respect. We know what we need to know for the action, but there’s definitely a sense that there’s more out there, especially with Craig McLachlan as the classic noir figure Guy Who May Be Behind Everything.
That Restoration has a lot of the feel and power of great film noir makes sense, given how many great noirs were about identities mistaken and identities assumed. It’s the power of science fiction that it can take metaphysical ideas and render them literal; think of how far A Scanner Darkly took the idea of the undercover cop or how Gattaca used the “assumed identity” plot. Willis uses the premise to create a sense of dislocation far greater than anything in the realistic noir genre, unmooring his protagonist not just from his face and his life but even from his reflexes and his smell (that last one becomes a crucial, touching plot point), and creating an antagonist that maximizes the idea of “you are your own worst enemy.” The calm surface of the series makes these things even more harrowing: what we see isn’t a hallucination, it’s just the world the characters live in and accept. It’s a compelling work, and just open-ended enough to make us hope that Willis and Clayfield come back to it in the future. They just might: Willis hopes to use this as a pilot for a series, set twenty years or so after the events here. (One story he’s planning will be a version of The Departed/Infernal Affairs, awww yeah.)
For a fuller SPOILER-type discussion of Restoration, click here.