November 14, 2019

Love, Death & Robots “Beyond the Aquila Rift” Review | Off the Beaten Path

It feels just like yesterday that I started this review series (instead of, you know, six days ago), and now we’ve officially covered the first third of the season. Now this episode we have to welcome us to the middle of the show, Beyond the Aquila Rift, is easily one of, if not the most famous episodes to emerge from LDR. I bet if you’ve heard about this show since it came out either in person or online, you’ve probably heard about Beyond the Aquila Rift, brought up as one of the best episodes and the ones that people most want to discuss. And I’m here to tell you that yes, that discussion and adoration is warranted. Now I’ll try my best to outline the why for all this positive acclaim. Before I go on, I must insist that if you haven’t seen the episode before reading and plan on seeing it, go watch the episode first. This is an episode that is defined by the twist at the end, and my rewatch was more dedicated to see if the episode holds up to repeat viewing. In other words, there will be spoilers.

Based on the short story by Alastair Reynolds, it follows the crew of the ship Blue Goose, particularly the captain Thom. After they’ve completed some successful mission (they seem to be more blue collar workers than military), they enter suspended animation and jump into hyperspace. Thom is awoken from his suspended animation and realizes they are in an unfamiliar region of space. The door opens and in walks an old flame of his, named Greta. She then gives him the bad news; a routing error has not only sent them hundreds of light years off course, but that hundreds of years have passed since they were put into suspended animation. Thom then spends the next night reconnecting with Greta over fond memories and passionate sex, while she slowly breaks the news about just how far off course the got. They decide to awaken the rest of the crew, starting with Suzy. As soon as she awakens, she has a full on mental breakdown, telling Thom that Greta is obviously not Greta before she is tranquilized and put back into suspended animation. That night, Thom realizes that Suzy was right, and confronts Greta. She reluctantly confirms his suspicions, telling him that he is experiencing a virtual reality designed specifically for him by her to spare him from the truth of where the ship ended up. After demanding to see the truth, Greta reluctantly decides to show him, telling him that despite what he sees, she does truly care for him. He awakens, emaciated and dirty, into a world covered in flesh like webbing, his crew long dead. He looks over and watches “Greta” emerge from the shadows, not a beautiful woman but a giant flesh colored spider monster. As his mind snaps, he wakes up again from suspended animation, with Greta walking onto the ship as if nothing happened.

Now when I first watched this episode back in March, my mind changed as I was watching it. At first, I was fairly unimpressed. The animation, provided by Unit Image, went back to 3D CGI after three episodes with unique animation. Not to say I thought the animation was bad, I just thought it was a bit of a let down. The dialogue wasn’t heavy on exposition, but it wasn’t as inviting as in Suits. Other than the chemistry fueled dialogue between Thom and Greta, it wasn’t all that remarkable. The story dealt primarily on a huge coincidence; even hundreds of light years off course and hundreds of years into the future Thom somehow met an old flame who wasn’t some ancient crone. Another way of putting it, it felt like the story was actively undermining the stakes of the situation, of being truly stranded in both space and time, by having familiar faces; it made the universe of the episode smaller more than expanding it. Lastly, there was the sexual content. While it was easily the most enjoyable to watch out of everything LDR offered (I mean, I’m only human, and that shit looked hot), it didn’t feel like it needed to last so long from a narrative standpoint (on my rewatch, I clocked it at just under a minute in duration, with more than double that featuring a naked Greta doing non-sexual things immediately after). In other words, I thought that it was entertaining but in a purely exploitative manner. Even when Greta revealed to Thom that what he was experiencing wasn’t what he was experiencing, I didn’t think it would prove to be much; I expected something similar to The Matrix, with Thom earning some reward for finding truth. Then the veil was truly lifted, and everything was thrown into a new, unsettling at best and terrifying at worst, light. My weed filled but slowly sobering brain had a hard time processing what had happened. I even had to take a break in order to bring myself back down, and I bet many others did the exact same thing. That twist took what I thought was at best a B- sci-fi story to up to an A-, A cosmic horror story. Despite this, I didn’t rewatch the episode between my initial watch and my rewatch the other day. I’d say there were two reasons for this: the first was that I didn’t want to ride such a roller coaster again unless I was in the right mood; second was that this kind of end twist defining story could fall apart on rewatch if the setup for the twist isn’t done well (look at the middle of M. Night Shyamalan’s career for an example), and the initial experience could be ruined by that failed first rewatch.        

Now as I said at the beginning, I thought Beyond the Aquila Rift definitely earned its reputation as one of the best episodes of LDR after my rewatch. The real question I had going in was why it worked very well. To put it simply, it was a pitch perfect encapsulation of a central tenet of cosmic horror; the Island of Sanity aka an extension of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. 

If you aren’t aware of what these two concepts mean, I’ll provide you with a crash course. Found in book seven of Plato’s Republic, the Allegory of the Cave in a nutshell rounds up a number of Plato’s ideas on the nature and order of both reality and knowledge into something easily explainable. It goes like this. A group of men are at the bottom of a deep cave, chained up so that they can only face the wall opposite the entrance. There they watch shadows flicker and dance, created by a fire behind them (this is meant to represent beliefs and common sensory perception); in essence, this is the only reality the men know. Plato then posits that the philosopher is a man in the cave who breaks free of his chains and sees the fire behind him, causing him to realize the shadows he has observed all his life aren’t reality. To attain knowledge of and experience true reality, the freed man must ascend up the cave and see the Sun (in this case representing both Platonic Forms, and the knowledge of said Forms). If you’d like to learn more about the Allegory of the Cave, I’d recommend reading both the original source material and some of the many thousands of pages of supplemental material written over literally thousands of years. If we look at pop culture, we see this a popular thematic concept. Stories like The Matrix, The Truman Show, Room, and many others follow the idea that the philosopher (usually the nominal protagonist) is in the right; it is better to escape false perception to experience true reality even if it causes extreme pain in the process. The cosmic horror tenet elaborated by H.P Lovecraft, the Island of Sanity, expands upon Plato’s original conclusion (that the philosopher is forever bound to the illusions on the wall and is unable to truly perceive the Sun without being blinded) and makes it even stronger. Namely, it is better to not even break free from the chains of illusion. The deeper reality, by nature of being incomprehensible, is entirely harmful. It can only bring madness and confusion even by merely knowing there is something deeper. Lovecraft likened it to humanity living on an island of sanity in the middle of an ocean of madness; to venture beyond the shores of sanity, no matter how much they misrepresent true reality, is the height of folly. 

Now let’s return to Beyond the Aquila Rift. On rewatch, it became apparent that every little element of the story that seemed implausible was truly a construct like the shadows on the cave wall. If we look at the sexuality for example, it becomes apparent that Greta is using her constructed sexuality to keep Thom (and us, the viewers by proxy) in a happy and docile state in order to keep him from questioning if what he was experiencing is in fact real. We also see this with the ending when Greta erases Thom’s memories, allowing him to live happily (until he realizes that he’s living in a false reality again); Greta essentially lets him wade in the waters of insanity, and pulls him back onto the shores of sanity. The ingenious aspect about this is that while Thom may live happy and content, we the audience are forever stuck with the horrific truth. For example, even after my rewatch, I’m still left guessing at Greta’s motives. “She” claims that she only cares about Thom, like she’s done for everyone who has gotten lost and ended up in her care. What we don’t know if she’s lying for some ulterior motive. What I think is even more likely though is that we can’t comprehend what exactly “she” considers caring. I mean, if Thom was really having sex with “her”, want did “she” want from him in the act of sex? That’s something I don’t want to know because I don’t think I’d even be able to comprehend why. 

So in the end, as with episodes like Three Robots and When the Yogurt Took Over, this rewatch made me appreciate Beyond the Aquila Rift in new and deeper ways. What I at first considered to be stock sci-fi fare became one of the greatest examples of cosmic horror I’ve ever experienced and easily the best horror story of LDR. It’s the beauty of this episode; it uses established philosophical concepts to create something truly unnerving, something that will stick with you long after you’ve experienced it.

Final Review: A-

                  

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