Practical Effects, Impractical Emotion: Syfy’s Hunters

Going into Hunters, Syfy new alien-terrorism show, I asked myself one question: is this following the path of The Expanse, or Childhood’s End? I’ve found The Expanse to be an often brilliant, modern, gripping sci-fi epic, while I found Childhood’s End to be rich in ideas, but cheesy in execution. Having now watched the first two Hunters episodes, I can say that the show falls solidly in between those two poles. I do think that it has great promise, however. I’ll give you my (non-spoilery) thoughts below!

Hunters has been adapted from Whitley Streiber’s Alien Hunters series (published by Tor Books) by legendary horror producers Gale Anne Hurd and Natalie Chaidez, who are working with Emile Levisetti. The plot has a ton of promise: an alien cell has infiltrated the human population. This cell—known as the Hunters—intends to mount increasingly terrible terrorist attacks, gradually waking sleeper agents and converting humans to their side. They claim that their cause is just, but isn’t that what terrorists always say? And if they won’t ever tell the humans what their grievances are, how can they be met?

DJ

FBI Agent Flynn Carroll, his wife Abbie, and their foster daughter, Emme are living an ordinary life until Abbie is kidnapped, and Agent Carroll launches his own investigation into her disappearance. This story is intercut with the work of a secret government agency called the ExoTerrorism Unit, or ETU, whose agents are tracking the alien terrorist cell and work in total secrecy. We meet agents Regan and Briggs just as Regan makes an enormous tactical error that shifts the balance of the unit, and leads to the ETU recruiting Carroll. The new team tracks an alien who calls himself McCarthy, who, and I am not making this up, works as a DJ named “Somatic Society” to cover the fact that he’s an alien. Now, here’s a question: why do the aliens keep sending each other Somatic Society’s remix of Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark’s “Maid of Orleans”? Could there be a code buried within?

Here’s the good: Britne Oldford is great as Agent Regen! She is one of the Hunters, but has allied herself with humanity, and we slowly learn more about her struggles and the effort she must exert to hide her true nature. Emme is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and self-harms when she’s stressed out. She lives with the Carrolls because her dad, Flynn’s partner, was killed on the job, and she is strikingly aware of how much Flynn doesn’t want her around. Shannon Berry’s performance is raw, and ground her scenes in a stark realism that the rest of the show often misses. Julian McMahaon makes a GREAT slimy villain as terrorist leader McCarthy. The practical effects, which come courtesy of The Babadook’s Justin Dix, are fantastic. Every alien autopsy is a squicky symphony of dripping organs, cracking bones, and unfamiliar anatomy. As their human shells break down, the Hunters show themselves through patches of scaly skin, which looks just as irritated and wrong as it should.

Hunters

And the not-so-good: with The Expanse Syfy took a giant leap forward in their original programming, much like the leap they made with Battlestar Galactica. There is nothing shlocky about The Expanse, and while the dialogue is occasionally on-the-nose, the characterizations and slowly unfolding plot twists make up for it. Hunters has some good performances and a compelling idea, but much of the dialogue is too obvious. The military officers say what you expect, they react to each other the way you expect. More upsetting, for me, was that once again we spend time with a naked woman, curled into a fetal position for the purposes of censorship, sobbing, covered in blood, locked in a cage. It could be argued that we need to know the stakes, and that the scenes featuring this woman are meant to build our empathy, but I think anyone who has ever watched television knows what a terrified naked woman looks like, which is a horrible thing to be able to type. The interesting aspect, which is that the supposedly deaf woman is trying to cover her ears to block out music, is lost in a stereotypical scene of torture porn.

I am also frustrated by a particular trope—in both Hunters and in Childhood’s End, men think back on women they’ve lost and focus on sex to the exclusion of everything else. Happily, I don’t have too much personal experience with violent loss, but wouldn’t it be more common to focus on fights you had, times you should have said you were sorry and didn’t, mundane, everyday things that were part of the unique life you built with someone? Would it really just be an endless loop of your loved one suggestively dropping a slip to the floor?

The second episode is a leap forward in some ways. The dialogue is stronger, and we see some interesting moments of espionage as the ETU tries to get ahead of McCarthy’s terrorist attacks. Unfortunately almost all of the violence is again directed at women, including a wrenching scene of McCarthy harvesting a blood and tissue sample from a woman who is conscious, naked, and face-down on a concrete warehouse floor, and an ambiguous sexual encounter that didn’t seem too consensual to me. Obviously, it’s not like television can be completely scrubbed of this kind of violence any more than life can, but when it’s disproportionately directed against (specifically naked and helpless) women, it begins to make the show a slog. To be fair, there is also a fight scene between a male ETU agent and one of the aliens that shows us just how out-matched the humans are—but the man is in full combat gear, armed, and has communication with other agents outside. He’s neither terrified, nor naked, nor under immediate sexual threat.

My hope going forward is that Hunters digs further into its characters emotions to round them out rather than sticking to stock “grizzled FBI agents with PTSD”. My other big hope is that they play around more with the allegories of terrorism that they’ve already seeded. But most of all, I think they have a great potential through-line in the differences between Hunter Regan and her all-too-human partner Carroll, and if they exploit it more, they’ll turn Hunters into a solid piece of sci-fi.

Leah Schnelbach will never get that OMD song out of her head. Come talk about New Wave with her on Twitter!

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