Working Through The Queue: Nightflyers (2018)
So as a precursor, I've always liked the film Event Horizon but I'm also aware it's not a great movie. On later viewings I understand its faults, but I still have a place for it in my heart. So keep that in mind, because it informs a bunch of my viewing of this show.
Now, Nightflyers is based on the novella by George R.R. Martin, more specifically the expanded version from 1981. Having not read the novella I can't speak to this show's faithfulness other than after some quick research it looks like it does touch on a lot of the key notes. The show though definitely invokes tones in the line of Event Horizon, the Sphere, maybe a little 2001, and a few other bits and pieces from other material.
The core concept follows scientist Karl d’Branin who believes that making first-contact with an alien species might be the only hope for humanity. He's approached by Captain Roy Eris of the Nightflyer, who shares this belief and agrees to take d’Branin and a crew of specialists to deep space in pursuit of an alien vessel that d'Branin is tracking.
The series does a great job of building up a number of long term conflicts and motivations as it has a well fleshed out cast of scientists and crew members. Besides the interpersonal dramas, we also get another core conflict as we're introduced to the telepath Thale. In this world telepaths are greatly feared due to their lack of control, or worse, due to some telepaths use of their powers to torture and harm others. With most of the crew against Thales participation in the mission we have a ton of built in conflict in the plot.
So you would think that's enough as we have the alien plot and the telepath plot, but then we also have a possessed ship plot. Numerous accidents start to happen throughout the Nightflyer, and d’Branin is starting to be literally haunted by his past. The mysteries start to pile up as they lead us to Captain Eris, who is all too familiar with what haunts his ship.
Spoilers after the picture.
Tonally the show goes hard for that Event Horizon mood. Besides the darker design elements throughout the ship, d’Branin keeps going into a memory chamber (seen above) which, c'mon, just look at it. Toss in the little ghost child in a rain jacket skulking around creepy corridors and it's pretty obvious the showrunners just said, screw it, there's one very well-known haunted house in space movie so we might as well visually invoke it and get it out of our system. Which actually works pretty well, because for me I've had an itch for a better made version of the Event Horizon formula for years.
What Nightflyers does differently though is that it quickly moves away from that supernatural element by revealing that the ship is actually haunted by the downloaded brain patterns of Captain Eris' mother Cynthia, who built the Nightflyer. What made this really work for me is that while this could have deflated a great amount of tension they instead managed to transition the horror into more of a psychological thriller, going hand in hand with the momentum of the telepath sub-plot and the brewing uneasiness of the crew.
Once the show switches gears and we start to have a better handle on those stakes we get a lot of really great character based horror stories throughout as the crew is slowly getting more and more unhinged the closer they get to the alien ship they are tracking. Cynthia makes for a great antagonists throughout as she attempts to manipulate and/or murder the crew in a slow burn attempt to reclaim her ship. We get elements of body horror, identity horror, existential dread and more, and for the most part it blends very well.
There are a few missteps though, and its difficult to tell if they feel like missteps due to the show being cancelled and they are just orphaned plots or if the writers genuinely didn't know what they were doing at times. There's this entire weird black mold plot that is creepy as hell but then it just sorta ends with no explanation, as if it just needed to happen to loop us into something that was foreshadowed at the start of the show. We also get an episode that feels mostly like a tangent, and they have a reason for doing it but it could have been melded into the long game of the plot a bit better. This leaves you with a feeling of wondering what the point was at times, or what may have been left out due to time constraints.
I've read some negative reviews that talk about the low budget, but honestly I felt that they did wonders with that low budget. There's a good visual cohesion throughout and camera work that makes things feel claustrophobic without being overly oppressive for an entire season. Toss in some good creepy visuals for good measure and overall I'm not sure I understand all of the complaints that were lobbed at it.
The cast is pretty solid as well, and even if there were characters that I didn't like they were still generally given time to be developed so they weren't completely one dimensional. One of the issues I have with Event Horizon is that besides liking Sam Neil and Lawrence Fishburne because they are Sam Neil and Lawrence Fishburne, everyone in that movie is pretty much a one-note character and/or an asshole, and this is mostly due to the directing and pacing. Maybe comparing these two properties on that front isn't fair because Nightflyer had at least 10 episodes to dig in and work with their characters. Still, having a stronger sense of who your characters are just goes a long way in caring about what horrible things can befall them as opposed to just having fodder for the horror meat grinder. On the flipside, Nightflyers had a much larger plate of possible victims and plenty of them were nameless crew so we could have had some more murder sausages.
As mentioned, Nightflyer was cancelled and it does leave a number of things unresolved. If that's the kind of thing that will really bug you in the long term then you may want to sit this one out, although I would still argue it fulfills on enough of its plots to be worthwhile. My particular draw for wanting to see this was because I viewed it as another stepping stone towards a particular type of horror that I want to see done right. There's a unique blend of sci-fi, psychological horror, Lovecraftian horror, body horror, and supernatural haunting that seems to continually escape the successful fusion that I dream to see, so I'll just sustain myself on the various scraps for now until someone perfects the recipe.