BBC film critic Mark Kermode once described the ho-hum Jesse Eisenberg magic heist thriller Now You See Me as “The Prestige for stupid people,” and that phrase kept rolling through my head yesterday as I binged the first three episodes of Hulu’s new sci-fi anthology series Dimension 404. It’s not that Dimension has anything to do with Now You See Me or The Prestige or, indeed, magic; it’s more that it, too, seems like a blatant knock-off with far lower ambitions. However, it’s too cruel (and entirely inaccurate) to say Dimension 404 is Black Mirror for stupid people. So, I’ll just say Dimension 404 is like a Black Mirror–Twilight Zone hybrid for people who grew up on Goosebumps and wouldn’t mind a similar level of sophistication and lightheartedness applied to internet-era phobias, such as dating app culture and 3D movie conformity. Mark Hamill provides fun bookending voiceovers like a cross between the Cryptkeeper and Rod Serling, and each episode builds to a subversive twist. It’s a version of Black Mirror I could safely watch with my niece and nephew.
24 hours ago, though, I hadn’t even heard of Dimension 404. Then Hulu emailed me this to celebrate the debut of the first three episodes:
RocketJump? Genre-bending? Sci-fi anthology? Stand-alone episodes? Clever title referencing the HTTP 404 error code we all see when trying to access a website that’s no longer available (if it ever was in the first place)?
Yes to all of those things. I was literally just singing RocketJump’s praises in the comments section of this site last week. They’re the guys who parlayed YouTube notoriety into forming their own production studio with thirty employees and a large production house in Burbank. Through Kickstarter, they managed to make three seasons of Video Game High School, and clearly now have a deal with Hulu since Dimension 404 is their second collaboration with the streaming platform (the other being the reality series Rocketjump: The Show). Dez Dolly and Will Campos are the listed primary creators of 404, with Dolly serving as showrunner.
If you are familiar with RocketJump perhaps you’re willing to cut 404 a little slack in the production value department because while what we see on screen is generally superior to a nearly budget-free web series it’s definitely not as strong as what you might normally expect from Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I referenced Goosebumps earlier partially because each 404 episodes seems to be working with a budget about on par with that of an average Goosebump episode from back in the day. In 404‘s case, it leads you to sometimes wonder, “How much are they paying all of these name actors (e.g., Joel McHale, Lea Michele, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Hyland, Ashley Rickards) to be in this?”
Of course, quality storytelling usually trumps or at least heavily mitigates shoddy production values. Is that the case with 404? As per usual with anthology shows, the answer varies from episode to episode:
I don’t know what the point of this episode is. They’re taking aim at dating apps, and the state of love and trust in the age of eHarmony and Tinder. That much is clear. However, the twist, which I won’t spoil, and message seemingly amounts to little more than, “Rejection sucks, but just be yourself. It’ll all work out in the end. Plus, try meeting someone in real life. Don’t become too reliant on algorithms.” Sure. Okay. But how exactly does that…
Darn. I can’t really talk about this episode without spoiling the twist.
To thy own self be true. Fine. We’ll just go with that. That’s what we’re meant to take away here. Hey, if it worked for Shakespeare who am I to argue.
Since this came off as having the most muddled story and message of the three episodes it’s the one whose low production values seemed most noticeable. That being said, “Matchmaker” is also the funniest of the bunch, mixing (500) Days of Summer, Westworld and Cabin in the Woods together with some spot-on eHarmony parodies, which grow hilarious bleaker as the episode progresses. iZombie‘s Robert Buckley is a particular hoot as the needy music blogger who might not actually be a music blogger because, as someone accurately points out, “Have you seen your [gorgeous] apartment?” So true. So freakin’ true. Plus, Lea Michele is allowed a quality punchline or two, and Joel McHale (as the dating app owner) smarms his way through Jeff Winger speeches as only he can.
There’s something slightly hilarious to me about the RocketJump people picking up the torch from Rod Serling, adopting his deep-held belief in the power of storytelling to shine a necessary light on society and then crapping out an episode which rails against aggressive film marketing gimmicks like 3D and stretches itself to say something about conformity (I guess). Serling was concerned about McCarthiasm, racism, the soul-staining power of hatred; they’re concerned about 3D movies.
However, that’s also a huge part of the joy of 404, at least when it works. They’ve borrowed Twilight Zone‘s format, but maintained none of its self-seriousness. They’ve followed Black Mirror’s lead on commenting specifically on technology but placed more of an emphasis on hope and heart than Charlie Brooker’s far more cynical and calculating series ever sees fit to, outside of “San Junipero,” of course.
Case in point: At its core, “Cinethrax” is about an old film nerd (Oswalt) coming clean about just how much he values his relationship with his niece (Hyland), regardless of how much he might instinctively object to her growing need to simply fit in with her friends (by seeing the latest installment in a braindead tween film franchise). Sure, there are plenty of jokes both at the expense of gen-x film snobs and clueless millennials. Plus, yes, it all builds to sci-fi craziness, and if you come to see Oswalt be an old curmudgeon like only he can you won’t be disappointed. But it’s the bond he shares with his niece, and the turmoil they go through as a result of the experience that makes this episode work. The twist and overall message are each a tad too obvious, but Oswalt and Hyland give the whole thing just enough heart to make it watchable.
BTW, as an old film nerd myself, I can relate to the humiliation Oswalt’s character feels when one of the young snooty theater workers proves to actually know something he doesn’t, specifically the full French title of Lumiere’s “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.”
Part of the reason 404 feels like such a weird hybrid of so many other TV shows is likely because the RocketJump people are fans just like us. Their Hulu reality show was just them making 8 different short movie mash-ups, such as Fast and the Furious as a western. They talk like any average comic book convention-goers, throwing “oh, then it would cool if this happens, like something out of [insert name of movie/TV show]” ideas off of each other; they just happen to follow through on those crazy ideas and deliver actual videos and TV shows.
Thus, there are any number of influences acting upon “Matchmaker” and “Cinethrax” at the same time. “Chronos,” by comparison, feels more disciplined as if this was the episode they really buckled down on because of how much it spoke to them on a topic close to their hearts: nostalgia.
Awkwards‘ Rickards plays a physics students failing to live up to her considerable potential and at risk of flunking out of college if she doesn’t finish a term paper by midnight. Small problem: she hasn’t even started yet. Ambudkar is her classmate and friend-who-secretly-wants-to-be-more-than-friends. They end up on adventure together when her procrastination improbably puts them face to face with a live action time traveler lifted straight out of a 90s cartoon she used to watch, and through him she re-learns the empowering message the cartoon always imparted to its viewers: “You can achieve incredible things. The greatest power in the universe is right in-between your ears.” Along the way, they travel through time, run into their past selves and then into their past selves’ past selves, encounter a scheming supervillain and are schooled on the Logan Prescott-Theory (which postulates an entirely different view of time travel than we’re used to seeing in fiction).
In short, Rickards experience every fan’s dream: being lifted out of your life and dropped into the fictional world of the show you watch. However, she is forced to realize the value of escapism has its limits, and if you don’t return to your life you might soon find you’ve lost everything. Her hero’s journey is not to go off and fight bad guys but to finish her damn paper, graduate college and allow the pop culture fantasies of her youth to inspire her to create the reality of the future, like so many of the NASA astronauts who sought out the impossible because they first saw it on Star Trek.
The rest of the season: