Pantheon will debut with two episodes on AMC+ and HIDIVE on September 1, 2022, followed by one new episode per week.
Hugo and Nebula award-winning writer Ken Liu’s 2020 book The Hidden Girl and Other Stories comprises a set of interconnected chapters that chronicle the singularity and transcendence of corporeal humanity over thousands of years. The first two episodes of Pantheon, AMC’s animated adaptation of this work, are in no rush to get to that distant future as they faithfully replicate Liu’s scenes and lines while filling in the story to give his minor characters more time and add entirely new storylines. Although at times overloaded with its heavy philosophical themes, the series’ first two episodes offer an intriguing premise propelled by plenty of cyberpunk corporate intrigue.
The Pantheon premiere largely follows Maddie (Katie Chang), a teenager plagued by bullies at her new school who finds help from a mysterious hacker who only communicates through emoji. Discovering the truth about her identity brings her into contact with Caspian (Paul Dano), a socially withdrawn computer prodigy whose upbringing seems like an elaborate experiment. The two find themselves embroiled in a battle between the world’s largest corporations to control downloaded intelligences, digital versions of human consciousnesses.
The characters feel richly developed, especially Maddie who struggles to share the pain she’s going through, and her father David (Daniel Dae Kim), who expresses beautiful tenderness as he struggles with his own mortality and tries to make the well both by Maddie and his wife Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt). A historian enmeshed in a world of ambitious developers, Ellen provides the counterpoint to the concept of digital immortality, but also lights up with fierce energy when driven to protect her family.
Pantheon isn’t particularly subtle with its themes. The pilot begins with a lecture on the recurring pattern in mythology of gods overthrowing their parents to take over the universe. Uranus attempted to protect his rule by imprisoning his own children, but was ultimately overthrown. The obvious parallel is that corporations trying to contain the new lifeform they have created are already beginning to see the limits of their hubris.
The second episode, “Cycles,” opens with an equally blunt monologue about how the human brain is the most powerful computer in the world, made all the more remarkable by its ability to love. It continues with a scene intended to illustrate the relationship between Maddie and her overly on-the-nose parents: a video game session where David uses a cheat code to prevent his character from dying so that he can continue to protect Maddie . “What’s the point of playing if you can’t die?” Ellen asks. “Why die if you don’t have to? David replies. Everything is quite heavy.
Even if you haven’t read Liu’s work, plot elements and themes will feel familiar, like To download, black mirrorand Serial Experiments Lain. But the twisting plot and powerful emotional core keep the first two episodes full of promise as they sow major mysteries and conflicts to unfold throughout the eight-episode season. The sentimental family drama overlays some pretty harsh sci-fi that can be unnecessarily brutal at times, like a scene of an unwittingly uploaded man pleading for his life as his brain is ripped open by a laser scan.
Big mouth and Star Trek: Lower Decks Titmouse animators give Pantheon a distinctly animated feel, seemingly paying homage to their influences with a riff on Neon Genesis Evangelion’s NERV logo displayed on Maddie’s laptop. It’s a beautiful piece of work, nailing the genre’s ability to convey deep feelings with subtle facial movements. In Pantheon these are often shown reflected on computer screens or blurred in security footage, emphasizing the idea of the world seen through a digital eye. The wrinkles and lines are particularly well executed to give personality to the faces of Caspian, his overbearing father Cary (Aaron Eckhart) and haggard mother Renee (Taylor Schilling).
The flashbacks take on a blurry quality, but so do the green streets of Palo Alto, California. In contrast, there’s a striking sharpness to the dark rooms and computer screens where much of the plot of Pantheon’s first two episodes takes place, visually bringing the concept home. that the digital world is just as alluring, and perhaps just as real, as the one our bodies inhabit.
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