4 stars = Outstanding
First things first: "Caprica" is a prequel to Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica," but it stands on its own. You don't need to know Boomer from Apollo for "Caprica" to make sense, but "Galactica" fans will appreciate some nods to this new show's predecessor.
The "Caprica" pilot ($26.98, Universal Studios) arrives on DVD Tuesday, nine months before it will debut on Sci Fi Channel as the premiere of a 20-episode series.
Unlike the space-set "Galactica," "Caprica" is more of a planet-set drama about two families, a society in transition and the role of religious extremists in terrorism. No spaceships rocket through the pilot. But like the best science fiction, "Caprica" uses its alternate-world setting to comment on issues and ethics facing the real world today.
Set 58 years before the events in "Galactica," "Caprica" gets off to a raunchy start in a club where topless women writhe, men fight one another and blood is spilled. (This is not the version of the pilot that will air on Sci Fi.)
Turns out this club is not real but a virtual reality world -- shades of the short-lived 1995 series "VR.5" or 1999's "Harsh Realm" -- where teenager Zoe Graystone (Allesandra Toreson) hangs with friends Lacy (Magda Apanowicz) and Ben (Avan Jogia). But the threesome don't share an interest in the club's debauchery. Rather, they believe in the notion of a cleaner life and the worship of a monotheistic deity. (The conventional religious belief in Caprica is polytheistic.)
In the VR world of Club V, Zoe has created a virtual copy of herself. Zoe comes by this talent from her father, Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), who is creating a robotic warrior for Caprica's military. He's destined to have a hand in advancing the role of the robotic Cylons that so bedeviled the crew in "Galactica."
Other characters include Graystone's wife, Amanda (Paula Malcomson, "Deadwood"), who doesn't get much screen time in the "Capirca" pilot, and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, "Rome"), an administrator at the school Zoe and her friends attend.
What's striking about "Caprica" is that in a brisk 90 minutes, writers Ronald D. Moore ("BSG") and Remi Aubuchon ("24," "Summerland") and director Jeffrey Reiner ("Friday Night Lights") craft a fully realized society as well as distinct characters. "Caprica" gives a more forceful, potential-filled first impression than the "Battlestar Galactica" pilot/miniseries.
Reiner always shows Graystone in harsh, cold colors befitting a scientist. His potential partner, Joseph Adams (Esai Morales, "NYPD Blue"), is shown in warmer color tones. The pair comes together following a terrorist incident that takes a personal toll.
Like "Galactica," "Caprica" is dark but not as claustrophobic or bleak. It explores issues of technology and its impact on a human society -- Graystone tries to import a virtual reality soul into a robotic body -- as well as the all-too-human traits of bigotry and ethnic discrimination. (Adams explains to his son William, who will grow up to command the Galactica, that the family changed its name from Adama after immigrating to Caprica from the planet Tauron.)
But at "Caprica's" heart lie the issues of religious conflict and terrorism. Lacy learns some adults secretly share her monotheistic beliefs and make apologies for a terrorist's actions: "Labels like 'terrorist' are what this corrupt and deafening culture calls people who are trying to fight the real evil in the world," one character says.
"Caprica" bonus features include four brief video blogs from the set of the pilot (an oblivious young actress says Caprica "is a little similar to Earth except it's in space"), a few deleted scenes and commentary by the pilot's director and executive producers Moore and David Eick. In the audio commentary, producers reveal they excised an extramarital affair story and that they had internal arguments over the design of a robot servant seen in Graystone's home.
-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV editor
3 1/2 stars = Very good
To millions of people who haven't seen Kate Winslet's performance in "The Reader," she will always be known for her one-dimensional role in "Titanic," the biggest box office hit of all time. For those who caught her as the former Nazi prison guard Hanna Schmitz in "The Reader," Winslet demonstrates why she could reasonably make a claim for the mantle of the greatest actress of her generation.
"The Reader" is a coming-of-age tale in postwar Germany. Michael (David Kross) is a 15-year-old suffering from scarlet fever when he is befriended by the then middle-aged Hanna, a suspicious street car ticket puncher who goes to unbelievable lengths to preserve her dignity and her deepest shame. When Michael and Hanna begin an intense, summer-long love affair, the boy has no idea where his hormones will ultimately take him.
"The Reader" unfolds over several decades. When Michael encounters Hanna again nearly a decade after she abruptly left him, he is a law student. Hanna is on trial for burning hundreds of Jews in a church. Reconciling the woman he once loved with the woman on trial is the heart of "The Reader." Michael struggles with Germany's collective guilt and the crimes Hanna is specifically accused of committing.
The young lawyer-to-be also holds the key to exonerating Hanna as the author of a report that implicates her as the mastermind of the atrocity.
Ralph Fiennes plays Michael in his later years. He continues to wrestle with Hanna's impact on his life and what it means to forgive someone for what can never be truly forgiven. When he begins a correspondence with her decades later, he doesn't know whether he loves or hates her. All of this complexity is conveyed in facial expressions and body language. This movie is about what isn't always said in the open. Fiennes and Kross provide a worthy counterpoint to Winslet, who is magnificent.
The DVD has a few deleted scenes and a feature on how director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare adapted the book to the screen. A behind-the-scenes look at how Winslet aged through the decades through the miracle of makeup caps this thoroughly satisfying package.
-- Tony Norman Post-Gazette staff writer
2 stars = Mediocre
Frank Miller ("300," "Sin City") adapts Will Eisner's comic-book series about a former rookie cop who returns mysteriously from the dead as the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to fight crime, especially the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). The Spirit and the Octopus roll around in the muddy, junk-strewn water, clobbering each other with heavy objects. Because we learn in the first 20 minutes that the antagonists can't be hurt no matter what they do to each other, the film descends into anticlimax and stays there. Overall, Miller demonstrates that he is familiar with Eisner's work but that he isn't the least bit interested in staying true to the spirit of the series.
'House of Saddam': This four-hour miniseries from BBC and HBO presents Saddam Hussein (Igal Naor) as the Tony Soprano of the Middle East, complete with a meddlesome mother. Although somewhat structurally flawed, "House of Saddam" still manages to tell a complicated historical story as an entertaining political melodrama. It's "Dallas" in the desert with oil as the common commodity.
TV on DVD: "Exosquad", season 1; "Knots Landing," season 2; "Malcolm & Eddie," season 1; "Wings: The Complete Series."