"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has."
- Epictetus, AD 55–135
This is the quote that opens Derren Brown: Apocalypse, a two-hour British television special that aired in Canada this week on the sci-fi channel Space. Described as an illusionist, mentalist, hypnotist, painter, writer, and skeptic, Derren Brown has hosted a number of TV specials involving hypnosis, mind reading, manipulation, and sociological experiments. The concept behind Apocalypse is actually quite similar to the motivation of the Jigsaw character in the Saw film franchise, as Brown selects a self-involved fellow who takes his life for granted and subjects him to his own personal apocalypse in order to make the "victim" appreciate what he has.
After issuing an invitation on Twitter seeking volunteers for an unspecified new show, Brown had in excess of 8,000 responses and whittled them down to a few hundred who were asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire. From that group, Brown sifts through the myriad answers and selects Steven, a 21-year-old layabout who lives with his parents in Buckinghamshire, England. In separate video interviews, Steven reveals that he is lazy and unmotivated, while his parents bemoan his apathetic and selfish behavior. Tears in her eyes, Steven's mother stated that she felt that he didn't love her anymore, yet for some reason she continued to wait on her able-bodied adult son hand-and-foot. So as not to arouse Steven's suspicions, he is told that he failed the audition and he returns home to watch TV and yell at his mother while she serves him with fruit. I think this family needs Dr. Phil, not Derren Brown. With the help and permission of Steven's parents and brother, hidden cameras have been placed throughout the house to document his day-to-day activities as the apocalypse approaches. The television, the radio, and Steven's smartphone have all been expertly hacked so that Derren can plant stories about a meteor shower that may harm the Earth. To make the story more believable, Brown ties the upcoming apocalypse into the annual Perseid meteor shower and has an "expert" confirm the story on a talk show broadcast just for Steven and his family. Steven's car won't start because of the interference caused by the meteors (actually, his dad monkeyed with the motor), the TV and his cell phone stop working, he hears a radio report about the meteors at a favorite eatery; by the time he boards a bus supposedly bound for a VIP concert from The Killers, Steven's brain is primed and pumped for the end of days. En route to the concert, a country-wide alert is broadcast warning citizens to seek shelter and there are a series of explosions outside the bus, meant to represent falling cosmic debris. Before the situation can get out of control, Brown strides up from the back of the bus and places his hands on Steven's head, triggering a mental cue he had embedded in Steven's mind earlier that renders him unconscious immediately.
Now, this is where the show may fall apart for many people. Unless you are a staunch believer in the power of hypnosis, the rest of the program will be pretty tough to swallow. In the proud tradition of Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead, Steven wakes up in a hospital room and soon discovers that he is alone, except for a 14-year-old girl he finds looking for her parents. He learns that a mysterious virus was unleashed by the meteors, turning the populace into ravenous zombie-like monsters, and agrees to protect the girl as they search for their families. Upon leaving the hospital, they outrun the "infected" and escape in the back of an ambulance driven by another survivor. After undergoing more harrowing ordeals designed exclusively to test him, Steven discovers that his parents and brother are still alive. Near the end of the second hour, Steven is put back under and later wakes up in his own bed, safe and healthy.
Awakened with a fresh new perspective on life, Steven heads downstairs to embrace his family and breaks down in tears. As per the show's graphics, Derren visits Steven "28 days later" (get it?) to see if his life has changed since he was psychologically scarred and traumatized by the team behind Apocalypse, including over 200 actors and a variety of special effects. Thanks to another handy mental suggestion embedded in his mind before the apocalyptic events, Steven suffered no adverse effects and had begun to turn his life around rather than wasting the time he has on Earth. This was a rather emotional scene and made me consider how I should value the life I do have, rather than pining for one I don't. It's an issue we all grapple with at different times in our lives, and I suspect my reaction was ultimately what Derren Brown was attempting to accomplish with Apocalypse.
Since the show aired in the United Kingdom in late October and early November, Steven was outed as an aspiring actor named Steve Brosnan and Brown has faced a battery of accusations that the entire stunt was faked, although Brown still denies these charges and claims that Steven was not in on the act. My own gut feeling is that it was likely all set up with Steven's knowledge, or at best, Steven saw an opportunity to advance his career and fed right into it with help from his family. If Steven is indeed an actor, his performance here was very naturalistic and it felt real, which adds to the uncertainty. A great audition tape for a burgeoning thespian, no doubt. Regardless of its authenticity, Brown was still able to manipulate the emotions of the viewer and instill a sense of appreciation for one's life. Now that the so-called Mayan Doomsday has come and gone, hopefully that's a lesson we can all learn.
FINAL GRADE: B-