Archive for November, 2017

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*Update: As of January 18, Mosaic is available for desktop users.

There has long been talk of applying the choose-your-own-adventure format of children’s storybooks to cinema. Various attempts have been made, largely by blurring the dividing lines between video games and movies, but none that have made significant splashes in the pop culture pond.

And that is what makes “Mosaic” — the new smartphone app-slash-television miniseries by Steven Soderbergh — all the more interesting; not for what it accomplishes but for what it suggests for the future of the medium. Having made my way through most of its episodic chapters and arrived at one of its two conclusions, I would say the story “Mosaic” tells is simply OK — perhaps 3 out of 5 stars if I’m generous — but its structure is fascinating to a degree that elevates the otherwise thin plotting.

The comparison to choose your own adventure books is incomplete, but fair. As a viewer, you’re not able to dictate shifts in plot the way a reader can; instead, you select the perspective of a character to follow through the next sequence of events. I’ve seen other critics describe it as “choose your own *protagonist*,” which is more accurate, as you travel through a static story and ultimately arrive at the same conclusion, albeit with certain pieces of information arriving out of sequence or simply alluded to as off-screen occurrences depending on the route you choose.

 

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But the presentation is also jarring, particularly in the early stages. By way of synopsis, “Mosaic” is a murder mystery, concerned with the whodunit after a celebrated children’s book author, played by Sharon Stone, vanishes following a New Year’s Eve party at her rural estate in “Summit, Utah” (a barely-veiled Park City, which in real life is the county seat of Summit County, Utah).

“Mosaic” doles out its exposition late, and then awkwardly. You start on your path by meeting Stone’s Olivia Lake, and are then presented with a choice between two characters at the end of each chapter — various flashbacks and additional scenes that add clarity are offered as optional detours within chapters — and if you primarily follow Garrett Hedlund’s Joel, as I did, you won’t even know who died, when, or how until quite late in the series.

And because the audience still needs critical information independent of their protagonist selection, Soderbergh is obligated to write in lengthy, momentum-killing monologues that state on-the-nose what has happened just in case you missed it the first time through.

There’s a lot of talent on screen here. In addition to Stone and Hedlund the cast includes Paul Reubens and Beau Bridges in non-POV roles. But no one really does much of anything, as the central gimmick of “Mosaic” means making 15 episodes (roughly 30 minutes each) out of story that can be told in 7.

Soderbergh plans to release a more traditional tv-format through HBO early next year, and I think the actual content of “Mosaic” will be better served that way. But I still wouldn’t recommend watching the show. I would, however, recommend downloading the free “Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh” app for exploration of the selective perspective model.

Why bother? It’s a reasonable question to ask since I don’t think the content is particularly good television. But while the recipe may not have worked out right, there’s no denying that Soderbergh has cooked up something special with “Mosaic.” And with more and more of our television viewing habits shifting away from live broadcasts and toward a binge-able, steaming model, it’s not to much of a stretch to imagine a future where you choose to dwell on the shenanigans of a supporting character a little longer before rejoining the main plot. Or what about a future season of Stranger Things in which you have the option of watching the show in its entirety from Eleven’s perspective, or Mike’s, or a demogorgon?

When the next episode in a series is just a mouse-click away, why limit audiences to a linear progression? In any movie or tv show there are scenes and footage that end up on the cutting room floor. Why not let viewers choose their own 13-step path to the finish line. We’ve already scene this is some DVD and Blu-Ray releases, where a click of the remote inserts a previously-deleted scene. “Mosaic,” in essence, is the natural evolution of the extended cut, in which there is no definitive “version” of a story.

Maybe I’m overreacting, and the many failings of “Mosaic” will put an end to this type of experimentation. I doubt it. I think Soderbergh, and others like him, are just getting started. So download the app, and check it out.

Grade: C+

Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh is currently available as a free download on iOS and Android devices.

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