Dimension 404 is an imaginative Twilight Zone riff with a lot less humanity

Dimension 404 is an imaginative Twilight Zone riff with a lot less humanity

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Hulu’s science-fiction anthology series Dimension 404, created by Video Game High School’s Dez Dolly and Will Campos, is openly a riff on The Twilight Zone. The whole idea of a show like this is a little cynical in 2017 — another speculative-fiction pastiche, another tribute to something old and better. We’re familiar with those beats by now, and it’s not so thrilling anymore. But Dimension 404 makes up for that somewhat with the sheer number of ideas it throws at the conceit.

The intro sequence is a deliberate reference to The Twilight Zone: it cribs most of the classic show’s familiar language, and Mark Hamill does a hammy Rod Serling impression as the narrator. The intro is updated, obviously, with the “404” referring to a failed web experience. And the episodes center around online dating, hyper-realistic movie experiences, and a web search gone wrong.

The choice to avoid self-seriousness and try to make something fun out of a science-fiction/horror fest is the main thing that sets Dimension 404 apart from Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone’s most recent descendent. That much is obvious just from the trailer, and it could be a strong selling point on its own. If you’re into B-movie camp, Dimension 404 is a pretty good fit. It’s at its best when it leans into being ridiculous.

The first episode (starring Community’s Joel McHale, Glee’s Lea Michele, and iZombie’s Robert Buckley) is about a dating website that literally builds romantic partners to user specifications. It’s a little heavy-handed with its point: “Online dating? No, I don’t want some algorithm telling me who to date.” But there’s also a pretty good Soylent joke, and the story eventually spirals away from the expected, easy social critique into something totally bizarre.

That kind of third-act devolvement is where the series shines. Take, for example, a movie-musical skewering bit near the end of episode two — which scans as a declaration that La La Land and related phenomena are by-products of a corporate-mandated hive mind. Sure! Why not?

That episode stars Patton Oswalt and Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland, the former playing an old-school curmudgeon who brings “Shifter” glasses to 3D movies to turn them back into 2D, and complains (at needless length) about emoji. The new type of “cinema experience” they’re at isn’t 3D, though — it’s called “Cinethrax,” and the villainous creatives behind it describe it as “just like color or sound or cinema itself… it’s like watching Star Wars for the first time.” Eventually, they chant “Embrace the experience!” as an alien ravages the theater. (That’s all in the episode’s initial plot description, and it gets even weirder from there.)

dimension 404

Dimension 404’s production design is impressive, and was clearly mapped out by someone having the time of their life. (Hulu is keeping the production-budget numbers under wraps, just as with any Netflix show, but it looks like this was an expensive series.) In particular, the first episode flips cannily between a Silicon Valley-inspired corporate dystopia and a picture-book outside world, all in service of a story about how tempting it is to trust “visionaries” to build your perfect life for you. There are frames between the madness of the science-fiction idea onslaught that could have been torn out out of a Wes Anderson movie.

But in spite of an incredible cast (the series also features Megan Mullaly, Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu, and briefly, Charles Flesicher, the scariest part of Zodiac), Dimension 404 doesn’t have particularly interesting characters. Even for an anthology series, they’re crudely drawn as commonplace stereotypes without much emotional range. They mostly exist in a state of wide-eyed shock, and they make uninteresting mistakes and have uncomplicated world views. (They scream things like, “If you don’t adapt, you’ll die!”) In effect, they’re just well-known faces appearing in scenes full of crazy stuff.

dimension 404

dimension 404

“Chronos,” the least interesting episode so far, follows a physics student (Ashley Rickards) who can’t buckle down on an important homework assignment because a mysterious force has somehow erased her favorite 1990s cartoon about time travel. Hamill’s narration sneers over her initial panic, sarcastically suggesting that the audience can’t relate because “you work hard. You value your time. You’d never spend your whole night watching a science-fiction TV show.” That episode is as weird as the rest, but it feels more like an easy joke about hipsters and binge-watchers than an analysis of any modern techno-paranoias.

Though Dimension 404 does a good job of borrowing and not stealing, it misses the mark a bit on what made The Twilight Zone so memorable. The thrill of that show was that it was a game to see how human the creators could make a terrifying, impossible experience. Every episode of The Twilight Zone is a campfire story, as evocative in 10 sentences as it is in a full 30 minutes. It’s masterful storytelling. And well-made TV like Dimension 404 is one thing, but not the same thing.

The first three episodes of Dimension 404 are now available to stream on Hulu.

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