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‘Breakthrough’ Review: Shane Carruth Comes to TV to Show You the Future (and Why It’s Doomed)

The NatGeo docuseries' latest installment battles for the heart and soul of tomorrow, with a little assistance from Nate Silver and Nostradamus.

BURBANK, CALIF.- Go-Players at table in psychedelic setting. (Photo credit: Asylum Entertainment/Kurt Sayenga)

“Breakthrough: Predicting the Future”

Asylum Entertainment/Kurt Sayenga

It’s fitting that “Predicting the Future,” the latest episode in the National Geographic docuseries “Breakthrough,” probably didn’t turn out the way that anyone involved had planned it would. Not ten minutes into the episode, there’s polarizing statistician Nate Silver, in an interview from weeks, maybe even months, before the 2016 presidential election, with his take on the numbers.

“Most people, when you say 70/30, they don’t quite know that means. They don’t know what that 30 percent feels like,” Silver says.

Six months into the reality of that 30 percent probability, there’s a dark push-pull happening in this episode. As professionals from various predictive industries — actuaries, astronomers, city sanitation experts — give the audience a glimpse into their corner of the future, there’s the unspoken acknowledgment that people may not like what they find. As a result, “Predicting the Future” ends up presenting the viewers with competing visions of the future, ones of possible improvement and ones of fatal certainty.

“Predicting the Future” is co-directed by Shane Carruth and executive producer Kurt Sayenga. Carruth, the much-lauded filmmaker behind “Primer” and “Upstream Color,” brings some of his trademark touches to some of the later segments. But most of the talking-head interviews, including the Silver one, stand in much brighter contrast. Glass-walled office buildings and sun-drenched golf courses provide a cheerier, less dire setting for these individuals to give overviews of how predictions tie into their professional efforts.

But, for every advance in technology that helps improve efficiency or enables us to adjust our way of seeing the world, there’s another side that only reinforces the idea emphasized explicitly by Aaron Eckhart’s narration: “We’re all going to die.”

That dark, inevitable result is a better match for the visual flourishes that separate this from other standard, ongoing TV docu-series. When the episode jumps from looking at the humans behind these efforts into the artificial realm, the Carruthian touches start to take over. Neon-lit server rooms, playing host to ominous games of chess, are closer to the abstractions of The Future than the more straightforward interviews of professionals describing their day-to-day jobs.

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The best moments in this installment of “Breakthrough” come when there’s a sense of momentum, moving us towards the future all of these people are describing. It keeps returning to handful of lines of code on an oversized monitor, but when these are intercut with some enigmatic visuals of swirling ink moving through translucent, paint-like liquid, it may be a touch beyond the abstract, for all the grounded “Moneyball”-style number-crunching happening around it. But it’s also a reminder that some of these straightforward, model-based futures are also subject to anomalies. For an hour aiming to be built on sureties, it’s a nice visual representation of the inherent unpredictability that comes with it.

Let it not go unsaid that “Predicting the Future” also features beloved character actor Ed Begley as Nostradamus, decked out in full 16th century fake beard and robe. This dramatized version of Nostradamus strides through a Pasadena coffee shop, the physical embodiment of what this episode unrepentantly dismisses as imprecise, outdated modes of seeing the world of tomorrow. (This is a far cry from the reverential treatment Nostradamus got in “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.”) Begley is as game as always, even when these segments seem as oddly placed in the flow of the episode as Nostradamus himself would in any year past 1566.

Between the references to the 2016 election and a giant meteor with Earth in its sights — the two are represented far enough part so that viewers can draw their own metaphorical conclusions — this episode is a tiny tug-of-war for our psychological well-being. Part nihilism, part championing of the powers of technological innovation, there’s some insightful light shed on the common ground these two philosophies of the future share: all we really know is there’s a lot we still have left to discover. And it probably isn’t pretty.

Grade: B

“Breakthrough” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic.

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