Look, if the theme song to Helix is going to be some upbeat Burt Bacharach-style elevator jam, then obviously the team behind Syfy's new horror-thriller Helix aren't taking the show entirely too seriously and recognize their show can also be fun. The producers, who include Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Steven Maeda (Lost), and Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost), know what they have in Helix: a claustrophobic spookfest dripping with black goo. And if they aren't going to take things entirely seriously, then I won't either, because I think that's exactly how Helix is meant to be watched.
Because even though Helix has the chance to be the best Syfy original since Battlestar Galactica (I'd put Being Human in that spot right now), if you didn't take it seriously, how else would you be able to get through dumb dialogue like this:
Julia: "Can you at least tell me what Peter was working on?"
Dr. Hatake: "Mutagens, mostly."
Julia: "For speeding up mutations. Those are dangerous."
Dr. Hatake: "You wouldn't want to let your children play with them. Do you have children?"
My ears tried to secede from my face when I heard that. But this is a Syfy original, and if you expect the same style of smooth pleasantries as Justified, you're on the wrong channel. Clunkers come with the territory. So does bad acting (it's present here) and rehashed concepts (again, present). It's what Helix did with what it had that has me eager to watch more.
The two-hour debut introduced us to the main story: a group of Center for Disease Control scientists are sent up to a high-tech research facility in the Arctic (I'm not sure if it's explained why the facility is all the way up there other than the fact that no one bothers them because braving sub-zero temperatures isn't worth making sure rules are followed) to investigate a possible viral outbreak. The rest of the story unfolds as expected, except probably a lot slower. The CDC scientists arrived at the facility, the scientists already at the facility are really cagey about what they're doing, there are a lot of people purposefully not answering questions directly asked of them, the CDC scientists begin to realize that some questionable experiments are being conducted, and best of all, people start getting infected and turn into puddles of black goop. All of this was filled out like a Viral Outbreak Movies edition of Mad Libs, with only the names of the players and behaviors of the virus changed.
Instead, Helix seems like a project for the people behind the camera to show off. The only thing left to really distinguish Helix from our grizzled expectations of another show or movie about people getting sick was atmosphere, and Helix nailed it. The last half or so of the pilot was fantastic as the real star of the show–the moody research facility (apologies Billy Campbell's Dr. Alan Farragut)–scared the pants off me. And it's because Helix is technically and stylistically one of the best new things on television. Allow me to geek out a bit.
The cinematography is flat-out outstanding. Inspired by space-station aesthetics, the Arctic Biosystems facility is antiseptic and personality-free. The place hardly feels lived in, which adds to the inherent claustrophobia of working several stories below the surface of what is Hell on Earth. Hospitals look like the Bellagio compared to this place. Long shots of corridors magnify the emptiness that resides inside the mega-lab, accentuating the scariest fact of working at this expensive dump: the scientists are entirely cut off from everything else, so that if anything does go wrong, or I dunno, some infection that causes internal organs to liquify goes rampant, it'll take a long time before an ambulance shows up with a bunch of Band-Aids.
But what really struck me, and I don't know if this was intentional or not, was how the cinematography changed as the virus or whatever bug was causing problems mutated. The pilot hour had an emphasis on symmetry and centered, focused shots. But as the virus progressed (a shot through a microscope showed it turning nice spherical cells into spiked balls of death) in the second hour "Vector," so too did the perspective of the camera. Those tidy corridor shots became angled and asymmetrical.
This was a typical Shining-esque walking-down-a-corridor shot from the pilot (I've cropped all these images to fit on the site, but I've kept the center of the shot consistent with what was broadcast):
This was walking down a corridor in "Vector":
When Alan was chasing Peter through the vents in the pilot, the tunnels seemed to go on forever. When Balleseros was chasing Peter through the same vents in the second episode, things were cut off. The result was a feeling of change that went beyond the insides of the infected. The whole damn place seemed to be changing as the mood shifted toward fear and danger.
This was a head-on-shot of Alan and his point of view in the vents from the pilot:
Notice how he's staring straight ahead into the camera in the first shot, and how the vent he's crawling through seems to go on forever in the second. Now look at the shit Balleseros had to go through. Again, a head-on shot and his POV:
It's all twisted and finite, as though the walls are closing in or the place is turning itself into a pretzel. As if everything is slowly mutating. So even if the dialogue isn't well-thought-out, the cinematography appears to be. There were also small stylistic choices all over the place that emphasized the dichotomy between the two groups of scientists. Like this:
Gorgeous, clean, and impeccably measured, right? But notice that the two scientists from the CDC (Julia and Sarah) who don't know what the F is going on are in the foreground, which is symmetrical and evenly split. Now look at the background, where Hatake and his security detail are looking on through that bubble-shaped window. That's off-center, and it should be; those jerks are in cahoots with the virus (probably).
There was also a scene in the second episode when Alan was trying to talk those crazy (and possibly) infected scientists into not being so crazy and hostage happy. These scenes were intercut with Julie examining the rats that were being experimented on. They did a neat trick here: the rats were all in cages, obviously, but did you notice that several shots of the scientists in the hostage situation were shot from behind glass? As if THEY were the subjects of some sick experimentation? Am I looking too far into this? Maybe. But this is how I watch TV!
And how about that final scene from the pilot, you know the one I'm talking about. When Peter is moving in slow-motion with the severed arm to gain access to another wing of the lab. Scary and beautiful. There's also repeated use of what I call stutter shots but someone with better knowledge of cinematography calls a different and more correct term, where quick edits in similar framing give the illusion of jumping while dialogue continues to flow. The scene where Julia and Alan are suiting up in the pilot was a great example of this, and it's a nice touch. What does it mean? I don't know, but it looks cool.
Audio was also used well. There was a minimal score that popped up every once in a while, but the symphony of humming machines, particularly in that great stretch of the pilot's second half, created the best aural atmosphere. Helix is a show that demands Surround Sound, and don't be afraid to crank it up.
But those treats for the senses can't completely erase the show's problems. Some acting is robotic (though Campbell is good), the dialogue feels like an unchecked first draft, and the viral story offered nothing different from what we've experienced before. I don't even think there's much to discuss about the plot so far because so little has happened. There was also the deal of that weird love triangle storylines between Peter, Julia, and Alan, and Sarah, Julia, and Alan. Do I really believe in a potential romance between 26-year-old Sarah and what, 40 or 50-year old Alan? Not really. Has it paid any dividends yet in the first two hours. Nope, except for that final shower scene between Julia and Peter.
But Helix is all about setting the right mood and paying attention to the little things. After two hours, there's still barely any movement on the virus plot. There's a virus! And maybe it's a really old virus, or maybe it was created by Hatake. But the show is so damned fun to watch because of its escapist atmosphere that the slow-burning story is easily overlooked. There's time for the rest of Helix to come around, but it appears that the scientists behind the camera are the real stars of the show.
– You know the drill, if someone is puking, I'm GIFing it! Especially if they puke inside a helmet. I love people puking in helmets.
– I haven't heard what the show's future is on Syfy, but unless something really big is down the line, I don't see how this could go much longer than a season or two.
– Why were the frozen monkeys outside? Did Hatake just chuck out the dead ones, or were they sent out there alive?
– UGH all that painful exposition backstory from the first 25 minutes, especially that helicopter ride, was tough to get through.
– Rule #1 of sci-fi science station shows: dead or sick people always have a vidlog!
– Obviously Hatake is behind things, as evidenced by the opening when he gives Peter some water and notes that his infection–and the fact that he didn't instantly die from his innards leaking out of every orifice–is "progress."
– What are your theories behind the virus?