'See' Review: So Many Trees, Not Enough Forest

Yeah, I'll say it -- 'See' lacks vision.

See

[Note: Only the first three episodes have been made available before the series premiere.]

There are two giant entities joining the streaming wars this week, but while Disney+ has the advantage of established content they can milk in the form of new shows set in the Marvel and Star Wars universes, Apple tv+ has… well, it has lots of money to play with, and that means they can take big, risky swings at original content. The upside is that the result could be a smartly entertaining show with a stellar cast, but the downside? Judging by the first three episodes at least, the downside is a big genre series that lacks both an established IP and the weight to become one. See drops viewers into a post-apocalyptic world populated by the blind, but its central conceit and effort towards world-building feels messy, rushed, and unsure of itself. So yeah, I’ll say it — See lacks vision.

A virus struck humanity in the 21st century wiping out the vast majority of the population. The roughly two million survivors were left blind, a trait they passed down through their offspring, and now centuries later the concept of sight is a mere myth and mere mention of it constitutes heresy. Tribes of humans wander the Earth, each their own pocket of misery and struggle, and each ultimately beholden to the cruel reign of Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks; Blade Runner 2049, 2017). The Alkenny tribe prefers to stay out of reach, but after taking in a pregnant woman named Maghra (Hera Hilmar; Mortal Engines, 2018) their troubles grow too strong to ignore. The tribe’s leader, Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), marries her and raises her newborn twins alongside her, but the discovery that the children can see sets their world ablaze.

Some in the tribe suspect Maghra and her offspring of witchcraft, while witch hunters sent by the queen violently descend on the Alkenny in pursuit of the children’s real father. The tribe has to go on the run while dealing with traitors, invaders, and the possibility that they hold the key to humanity’s future.

See is the brainchild of writer Steven Knight (Locke, 2013) and director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, 2007), but while both talents have shown the ability to wrangle a story into submission before, their efforts here — at least through the first three episodes — feel uncertain and unconcerned. The result is a series that feels like a soft rehash of too many others without ever feeling like its own entity. It looks good and takes full advantage of Canada’s natural landscapes, but little of interest is happening within so far.

The world-building is perhaps its biggest issue as, some token efforts aside, See doesn’t convince as a world built around the blind. The twins grow quickly through these early episodes into teenagers, and having been gifted books in English — it’s the language they all speak fairly fluently despite characters bearing exotic names — they teach themselves to read from scratch until they understand literary themes, biology, and astrophysics. It seems like a stretch. There are some interesting touches including clanking bracelets used to identify yourself and messages exchanged via a beaded, knotted string, and a rope grid strung throughout their village feels useful, but the attempt to establish a violently perverted kingdom sees all the tropes employed without merit or explanation. People are a sad species and would no doubt fall in line, but no effort is given to exploring how this world is held together by people who can’t see and have never seen what’s standing before them. It might make more sense if the world outside was presented as ruthless and unlivable, but one (entertaining) bear attack aside it seems pretty damn habitable out there. We see a single mutated animal and hear mention of “monsters” created through incest, but neither appear as if they’re necessarily going anywhere.

The lack of threats outside of the queen’s antics leaves quite a bit to be desired as we’ve seen this story before, and the basics of it can be lifted and dropped into any time period. The most successful fantasy tales balance the familiar with the creative — even Game of Thrones has dragons, sorcery, and more to play with — but here it feels like episodes of The Walking Dead without a zombie threat. It’s just people trying to survive against other more oppressive people, and not even the Children of Men-like narrative of newborns to save the world is able to infuse it with its own life.

One element that does work, at least visually, is the action set-pieces. A clash of armies offers up bloodshed and fun tactical choices — even if it is unclear how they’re all able to strike and defend despite the cacophony of sound around them — while Momoa gets more than a few brutally efficient kills in along the way too. The scenes feel designed and choreographed for our viewing pleasure, which of course they are, but it makes you wonder who in the world itself is the intended audience. The queen’s penchant for Lou Reed music and masturbation during prayer is another element that entertains without feeling like it quite makes sense. There’s an argument to be made that all prayer is just masturbation for the soul, but it’s not entirely clear that’s what the series has in mind.

Seeing was believing, but now humanity is reduced to believing in magic and gods, neither of which are shown to be real as of yet leaving viewers with what amounts to an iron Age tale built on humanity’s ignorance. As it stands there’s little to compel moving forward, but one exception rests in the teenager Haniwa (Nesta Cooper; The Edge of Seventeen, 2016). While her brother is cautious and useless, she’s used her increased knowledge to fashion weapons, formulate thoughts, and develop a superiority complex. She teases at one point that she could kill anyone and everyone and no one would be the wiser, and there’s a sincerity in her voice. When it comes time for the breeding festival (don’t ask), she wonders disdainfully “why would I want the seed of a blind man?” The twins may hold the hope of humanity, but Haniwa’s moral cloudiness and suggestive darkness might just hold the hope for the series.

The first three episodes of See premiere on Apple tv+ starting November 1st with the first season’s remaining episodes arriving weekly.

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