Haphead Review

Postopian Pictures’ Haphead is a sci-fi web series about a woman who is literally empowered by video games. It mostly delivers on that premise, though not in the ways you might expect. Written by Hand Eye Society co-founder Jim Munroe, directed by Tate Young, and filmed in Toronto, the show recently wrapped its first eight-episode season and it’s a thoughtful, professional look at culture and the ways people relate to technology.

In other words, Haphead is decidedly not about superheroes. Things that are implausible remain impossible, so no one has super strength or laser eyes. There is no flight or teleportation. Characters can only perform feats that actual human beings are already capable of.

Hapheads simply learn to do those things much faster. The term (and the title) refers to the haptic cables that characters attach to their heads while playing video games. The cables transfer the skills gained while leveling directly to the user’s muscle memory, so if you can do it in the game, you’ll be able to do it in real life, too.

That’s the premise. The plot, meanwhile, focuses on the interpersonal drama between a young woman named Maxine (Elysia White) and her more rebellious father Simon (David Straus). Maxine is the resident haphead, a recent graduate and gamer coming of age in the not-too-distant future (her game of choice is called Overgrowth). Her gradual empowerment isn’t physical as much as it is mental, her in game experiences serving as a source of refuge and confidence as she navigates an uncertain world.

The futuristic elements of that world are simple yet evocative, crafting an entirely plausible pseudo-dystopia where drones are primarily used to invalidate insurance claims. There’s a class rift between a loosely defined corporate authority and the punk teenagers playing with tech that are stereotyped as gangsters and discriminated against for the purchasing potential in their wallets.

haphead-maxine

Maxine and Simon are inserted directly into the middle of that conflict when she takes an entry-level factory job that doesn’t quite pay minimum wage. Though she’s doing it because the factory makes experimental gaming tech and she’s young enough to believe in internships, her security guard father knows full well how a dead-end job can turn into forever.

That tension provides the emotional axis of the series. Simon wants something better for Maxine, but poverty and the looming threat of organized crime exacerbate the situation. A strident non-conformist, he struggles to balance his ideals with the responsibilities of fatherhood, seeking the best for his daughter even though he’s uncomfortable with the concept of authority, especially when applied to himself.

Maxine, meanwhile, is not yet old enough to be jaded, living with a youthful optimism that colors her relationships with those around her. Despite the overtones of conflict, Maxine and her friends aren’t anarchists or revolutionaries. They’re kids who think technology is really fucking cool, and it’s easy to relate to that enthusiasm.

In fact, that’s probably the best thing about the show. Haphead understands the allure of digital worlds and virtual reality. More importantly, it understands that neither is inherently destructive or anti-social. The characters go on trips to cyberspace and come back with real-world skills that they’re eager to share with others, and they do it not because they want to withdraw from the world, but because that’s how they choose to be a part of it.

It culminates with a beautiful moment about halfway through the series when you finally learn what the hapheads have been doing with the technology, and the reveal is so straightforward and pure that you wonder why you wasted any time searching for more conspiratorial motivations. As is so often the case, youth has no interest in fighting an older generation’s war, and I’m pretty sure I’d do the same thing if given the opportunity.

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Haphead is not a perfect show. The plot is somewhat inconsistent and the choreography struggles to mask the physical disparities between the actors and the acrobats. You also have to suspend belief to convince yourself that Overgrowth would be a next-gen hit somewhere in the future. It’s a necessary concession to the format. Full game development is expensive so most (if not all) of the shortcomings can be blamed on the limited budget – Overgrowth doesn’t look bad, only dated, and Haphead fares much better than comparable shows –  but it is noticeable so it needs to be mentioned.

The real-world CGI is far more effective. It’s less ambitious, but it manages to convey a distinct sense of place, particularly with regards to the construction of class. Though Maxine and her friends are somewhat naïve, the industrial machine is always lurking somewhere in the background.

Fortunately, Haphead is smart enough to judge people rather than tools. The show works because it manages to capture the discrepancy between the utopian vision seen in advertising – the things we’d like to use tech for if given the chance – and the darker ends that technology will be used for in reality.

It gives Haphead a strain of authenticity that plays nicely against Maxine’s more optimistic struggle. Her arc has a strong undercurrent of escapism as empowerment, of using technology to find a more complete version of yourself, and that subtle idealism serves as a compelling anchor for questions of empathy, loss, and ambition. Technology is only as good as the people who use it, and Haphead offers a refreshing look at both what technology is and what it could be if we push for something better.

 


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