As I sat down with some buttered toast and a cup of coffee this morning I thought to myself, “what’s it gonna be today? Nightflyers or the newly released Season Four of The Expanse?” Just last week, Netflix released Nightflyers in the U.S. It originally aired in 2018 and has been out in Europe for some time. The delayed U.S. release makes it binge-watch material at this point.
Despite its unimpressive ratings and painfully critical user reviews, I was still interested in Nightflyers, the saga of a ship of scientists making their way through the cosmos to unlock the secrets of a mysterious entity known as Volcryn. I had the time and it takes some pretty terrible sci-fi for me to regret watching. Besides, the premise seemed harmless enough.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “The Expanse is a waaay better show! Why didn’t you hop on the bandwagon to praise it?” And you’re right. It would be hard to find a sci-fi geek alive who doesn’t regard The Expanse as one of the best franchises in recent years. However, I’ve never been one for bands or wagons and the allure of hopping on the bandwagon can wait until next week. Besides, I’d be surprised if the reviews of Nightflyers, following its Netflix US release weren’t just getting buried under reviews of The Expanse.
So, a few slices of bacon left on my breakfast plate, I decided to give Nightflyers a shot first. I had done minimal research before jumping in so I really wasn’t sure what to expect.
First off, the show was nowhere near as bad as the bitter 2-star reviews make it seem (3.5 at Amazon; 5.9 at IMDB, and Critics 35%, Audience 58% at Rotten Tomatoes). After reading a dozen user reviews, I got the impression that Nightflyers was going to be a complete mess with a storyline that leads to absolutely nowhere; sort of like Another Life. (my review is here). Despite its flaws, Nightflyers does not deserve all the criticism it received.
Back to the Nightflyer’s pursuit of Volcryn. It turns out that Volcryn is not the only mystery; the Nightflyer holds many of its own secrets. Twists, turns, surprises, reveals, foreshadowing… it all happens on board. At the start of the season, a mysterious force has begun taking over command of the ship. It begins wreaking havoc on critical systems, ultimately leading to the deaths of several crew members.
Once again I fell into the trap of thinking Nightflyers was trotting out the same old sci-fi yawner I’ve seen a hundred times by now: A rogue AI is trying to take over the ship, kill its crew, and return to Earth. But, as with The Feed, I was wrong about that (my Feed review here).
Rather, the captain’s mother’s consciousness had been placed on the ship after her death (confusing I know, but bear with me). Now, her consciousness has begun taking control of the ship in order to turn it around and away from the Volcryn. So what I thought was going to be an AI take-over actually turned out to be something more confusing. I’m not sure which I would have preferred… the same old trope or a confusing plot twist.
But that was not the only plot device that tricked me. Oh, no sir. The captain, himself, had me fooled. Throughout the show we would see the captain appear first as a hologram. This device left me sure that the captain is an AI. Immediately following my deduction, however, the captain appears in physical form to rescue a crew member. Rather than admitting defeat, I thought, “Well, the captain must be an android! Ha! I still win.”
And later in the season, I seemed to have been vindicated; the captain appeared, indeed, to be a robot. But then my deduction was shattered after the captain turned out actually be a deformed human chimera thingy living in a tube…full of water… in a secret lab aboard the ship.
Wait, what? So let me get this straight… the hybrid thing that lives in the water-filled tube is inhabiting a robot as the captain of the Nightflyer. His mother turns out to have been a psychopath whose consciousness was placed inside the ship after her death so that she could live forever. Oh, and there is a psychic kid of whom everyone is afraid of because he makes people see random things. And a baby that disintegrates into ash. Wait… what is happening?
Needless to say, the story got so weighted with narrative reveals that I completely forgot the main mission of the Nightflyer, to investigate the alien Volcryn. To say that Nightflyers is confusing might be an understatement. A whole lot of information needed to piece together what just happened is still missing by the time the credits of episode ten roll around. We never really figure out why a baby burst into a cloud of spores or why the captain’s mother was psychotic, or what the Volcryn was/were trying to tell Karoly (the leader of the expedition crew).
Nope, not sure how any of that was supposed to resolve. Then again, I’ve reviewed more than one show that left me wondering what exactly was happening. Here’s a theme that sci-fi space epics often fall victim to:
In the future, human beings will have advanced far beyond what we know today. Despite our advanced technology, however, we will eventually come face to face with something so far beyond us that it transforms our understanding of reality. Our contact with this life-changing force is existential, transcendental, and deeply religious. In the presence of this transformation, the whole of the human race lives in harmony after shedding off the shackles of religion and archaic thinking.
Sounds familiar? I bet it does. Think of any sci-fi film that has left you dazed and confused and I bet it comes pretty close to fitting that narrative.
Confounding plot developments aside, I don’t think Nightflyers was a terrible show. It was certainly better than I’d been led to expect. That said, it’s not without shortcomings and if you’re looking for something that keeps you hooked, Nightflyers may not be for you.
If you enjoyed this review by Adam Nieri, you might want to check through these as well for thoughts about films that might interest you, brought to you by Mind Matters News Sci-Fi Saturday:
The Feed: A Mind Matters TV Series Review: I started out thinking that the show was just the usual ho-hum tyrant-AI-takes-over flick and it is so good to be wrong! Imagine a world where your mind is stored on social media. Now, what happens if someone steals, then abandons it. What will you do?
How To Become Human: A Mind Matters Short Film Review. This new film turns a conventional sci-fi storytelling premise upside down. Rather than an AI struggling to become human in a human-dominated world, we watch a human struggling to be more like an artificial intelligence in an AI-dominated world.
The Outer Worlds: A Mind Matters Game Review: You must discover the dark secret of the Halcyon space colony, despite the greed and corruption of a handful of powerful corporations. After the raging dumpster fire that Fallout 76 (2018) turned out to be, I hesitated to invest my time and money in another role-playing game (RPG) epic. But I am glad I did.
Another Life All fun and games till an AI falls in love. Then it descends into a convoluted drift of uncertain storytelling. And the victim is not primarily the viewer, who has other options. The victim is the art itself.
Alita, Battle Angel A Mind Matters Review: If you love anime and felt betrayed by the flop of Ghost, I would highly recommend Alita.
Ad Astra: The Great Silence becomes personal. The film images the fate of those seek significance in the stars and may well wait indefinitely. In a world where the divine touch of extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t elevate human existence to any level of significance, we are left with Ad Astra: a slow, methodical decay of human significance.
Love, death, & robots Despite the trash and ruined expectations, several shorts were enjoyable and downright fun to watch
Simulation: Would a simulated universe even make sense? A well-crafted short sci-fi film suggests, intentionally or otherwise, maybe not. I’ve seen quite a few sci-fi short films over the years and Simulation is certainly one of the better ones. However, beyond that, I’m not sure this film knows what it is; it’s an identity crisis.
Sprites: Will plausible robots replace movie stars? A short film prepares us to think about it
Terminator: Dark Fate—A Mind Matters Movie Review. Aside from the fact that it felt like a retextured version of Terminator 2, I was constantly being reminded of the film’s obvious political agenda. Movies like Terminator: Dark Fate don’t seem to be made by people who care about the narrative. They seem to think that they need only make something that looks like a movie but acts as a medium for broadcasting their message to the masses.