After years of intense isolationist behavior, Sony’s PlayStation arm is branching out from purely developing video games for its own system and seeking more attention from the broader culture. Some of these are releasing their previously exclusive games on PC, but they are also coming to TV. A Last of Us television show is already well underway for HBO, and the company recently announced that it plans to make a show based on Horizon Zero Dawn with Netflix. Recent rumors suggest it could be a prequel.
What will this show look like? Unless they actively work to avoid the pitfalls of previous productions, Sony and Netflix have an uphill battle trying to bring this sci-fi adventure to life.
Here is the pitch
According to Giant Bomb games journalist Jeff Grubb, the story is currently designed with a split timeline. “The show as it’s being presented right now is called Horizon: 2074 and it will split its time between the timeline you see in the games and the timeline where things start to fall,” Grubb said in a recent release Episode of his GrubbSnax podcast. “And the idea is that this isn’t a reboot or a remake or some kind of reinterpretation of the game’s storyline; it will run parallel and explain other elements that appear in the game.”
First we must spoil Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s been five years since you had your chance! The Horizon games are all about the protagonist Aloy fighting against big robotic creatures that look like dinosaurs, oxen and other burly prehistoric beasts. The backstory, on the other hand, is set a thousand years earlier and tells the story of AI engineer Elizabet Sobeck in a moral, corporate and ego battle with capitalist inventor Ted Faro.
Ted Faro has developed a self-replicating AI that uses biomass – living matter – without a kill switch. Experts quickly conclude that Faro’s AI cannot be defeated and will inevitably consume all life on Earth. Instead of making talking about the issue illegal to protect shareholders, the government is providing Eliabet with all the resources she needs, as a skilled AI engineer, to create a kind of seed of life – an AI-powered system that takes life restart once Faro’s engines falter and shut down.
This show could be a great way to flesh out the game’s backstory — or it could be a terrible idea. It has a lot to offer, but just as many potential pitfalls. The show needs to be careful not to fall into the traps of doing too much backstory and too much sessional drama, while also getting the much-needed CGI just right. At the same time, there’s a lot of potential here for a fun new take on the story and characters.
The Star Wars problem
The original Star Wars trilogy planted countless fascinating seeds of galactic history. While the once-canonical novels that followed attempted to explore the aftermath of the Emperor’s death, the Star Wars universe focused on what happened before Luke met Obi-Wan before that fateful double sunset. It’s become so focused that it feels like Lucasfilm wants to document every moment from Chancellor Palpatine’s first appearance to his second death fighting Rey. During this time, individual lines of dialogue from the original trilogy have become entire films and television series, such as Rogue One, Solo or the Obi-Wan Kenobi series currently on the air.
While many of these moments are interesting, they become opportunities for the deep fiction to contradict itself and prevent the story from progressing – it always connects two dots we already know. Horizon Zero Dawn presents us with a mysterious world of these mechanical beasts and, as we explore them, fills in their backstory through audio logs that reveal some really big pictorial information about what brought the world to this post-post-apocalypse, and some small intimate ones Moments during the literal end of all life on earth.
Where Star Wars often struggles, and where Horizon could struggle, is in the detailing of all the things between the really big and the really small. We also see the potential for this in the rumor pitch. In the Horizon timeline, all life will be wiped out by 2065, and it won’t be a few decades before the AI that regenerates life begins to do so. Horizon: 2074 in this sense would just be a documentary of giant squid robots wandering aimlessly through a barren landscape until they run out of fuel.
Danger: session drama ahead
But putting aside the continuity issue the supposed pitch name introduces, and let’s assume someone just didn’t read the timeline closely and really means “Horizon Before Everything Got Bad,” because that’s really what the title means.
So let’s assume they move on.
It sounds like a battle of titans, but turning it into a board fight would be incredibly easy; There’s a lot of corporate espionage already built into this backstory, and the stuff is relatively easy to write. Back when Marvel and Netflix were still collaborating on shows, Iron Fist ran into exactly this problem. Instead of giving us a show about a guy in a colorful jumpsuit who gets into kung fu matches, we ended up with an entire season set in boardrooms. Horizon’s split between past and present will require constant vigilance and a generous budget to ensure the writers aren’t forced into corporate drama again and again.
Then again, choreographing fights is one thing. It will be difficult to build monstrous CGI robots for Aloy to fight with. Certainly not out of the reach of modern CGI houses, but only if Netflix and Sony are willing to invest the time and money to make it look right. Mixing CGI and live-action content is tricky, and from the CW’s superhero shows to an epic film like Dune, it’s just as easy to sniff it with the computer effects as it is to nail it.
Showrunners would have to strike a careful balance here, so that the CGI looks as good as it needs to be without ending up with a budget the size of Lord of the Rings, and to make the near-future corporate battle feel like a change of pace instead to relieve this budget. While there are notable exceptions like Stranger Things, many of Netflix’s VFX-powered shows like Jupiter’s Legacy and Shadow & Bone have fallen flat, at least in part, due to ugly VFX that distract from the stories. Sony’s other big TV adaptation of a popular game, The Last of Us, is on HBO and has a much more linear path ahead of it – over a decade of The Walking Dead has created a fairly clean template for dealing with post-apocalyptic shows featuring zombie-like creatures and practical effects.
While there are all of these gotchas, there’s also potential for a really fun, resonant show. Aloy, a literal clone of Elizabet, is the main character of the games; Fans of the games know her very well by now. She is determined, thoughtful, self-sufficient and badass. Elizabet is the main character of the backstory. We only catch glimpses of them, but we get to know them well enough through their actions. She’s awkward and intense, but she’s smart enough to intimidate Tony Stark and Reed Richards and has a love of life and humanity big enough to give anyone a lump in their throat. One is the image of athletics, the other an intellectual giant. Tatiana Maslany earned an Emmy Award in 2016 for playing a number of different versions of the same character in Orphan Black. Twin Peaks turned that idea into an entire mythology. Our dear departed Legends of Tomorrow used it to give talented actors new characters to play with. With the right actor, the dichotomy between Elizabet and Aloy could make for a really strong and compelling performance.
While Westworld stumbled more than ran at this point, one of the fun parts about it was the visual separation between the park and the behind-the-scenes stuff — the beauty of nature and the sparseness of a lab. With Horizon we have exactly that in looks and tone; Aloy’s world is in danger, but despite all the monsters and warring tribes, it is filled with beauty and potential. She grew up in a small tribe, but her world keeps growing and growing as she explores and experiences new things. Elizabet’s world is doomed and will get smaller by the day as Faro’s machines literally eat the world alive, but we know her plan will work, so there’s this bright light of hope in the darkness.
It can be an uphill battle for the Horizon Netflix show, no matter what pitch it eventually develops into a series. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t scale that mountain. After all, Netflix was able to turn The Witcher’s vast fantasy landscape into a really fun show. Who says Horizon isn’t next?
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