- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

What will Earth’s population be doing as the world gasps to its end? Rooting solemnly for a small band of potential saviors? Watching with bated breath as a spaceship crew looks for a solution? Or maybe just settling in to watch yet another reality show?

“Virtuality,” a curious new made-for-TV sci-fi film from Ronald D. Moore, the creator of “Battlestar Galactica,” and Peter Berg, the director of “Friday Night Lights,” posits that the answer might be all of the above.

The movie, designed as a “backdoor pilot” — a testing ground to see if enough interest exists to begin production on a full-blown series — follows the crew of a spaceship as it races into the stars to find the cure for an ailing Earth. The crew’s trials and travails are broadcast around the globe, reality-show style — there are enough secret affairs and hidden traumas to go around.

There’s the moody captain, Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who’s seeing Rika Goddard (Sienna Guillory), the pretty astrobiologist. She also happens to be the wife of the ship’s psych officer, Roger Fallon (James D’Arcy), who also serves as an on-location reality-show producer. Other characters include a doctor, a second-in-command and the ship’s designer, each of whom displays a personal struggle ready to bloom into a longer narrative arc.

The crew’s stardom is explained but never seen — all the action takes place on the ship. Indeed, contact with Earth is sketchy at best, leaving some of the crew to wonder if perhaps they’re not being told everything.

If things get too stressful, the crew always has the option of retreating into virtual reality. Rather than stay cooped up in a tiny spaceship for their years-long journey, the crew members, thanks to some nifty technology, have the option of escaping into simulated worlds of their own creation: anything from a historical wartime adventure to a surfer’s beach to a quiet island mansion. Of course, all is not as it seems in virtual paradise, as a recurring computer glitch seems to have other ideas about their fantasies.

Mr. Moore’s show has a lot in common with David Cronenberg’s little-seen virtual-reality sci-fi think piece “eXistenZ” and borrows as well from the don’t-believe-your-eyes themes of “The Matrix.” There also are hints — however obscure — that if it’s turned into a series, it might take up some of the questions posed by philosopher Robert Nozick’s famous “experience machine” thought experiment. This experiment asked whether, given a perfect, programmable simulation machine, humans might prefer to spend their time vacationing in fantasy rather than engaging with the real world.

But one needn’t have a philosophy degree or even be much of a sci-fi aficionado to enjoy the movie. Instead, one simply needs the ability to appreciate an intriguing narrative conundrum (or three) without worrying too much about seeing a prompt resolution.

That’s because, as movies go, “Virtuality” is mostly tease — more setup than payoff. Few of the major mysteries are resolved, and most of the characters and conflicts are sketched rather than developed. Still, the final revelation suggests an intriguing, if not entirely unexpected, direction for the show.

The film’s strengths lie more in its promises than in what it delivers. As a self-contained production, “Virtuality” is hardly satisfying, but it’s a shimmering, provocative suggestion of what might eventually materialize but isn’t yet real.

WHAT: “Virtuality”

WHEN: Tonight at 8-10 p.m. ET on Fox

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