‘Beacon 23’ Review: Lena Headey and Stephan James in an MGM+ Sci-Fi Saga That Casts a Spell

There’s a specific picture that comes up time and time again in MGM+’s Beacon 23, of a lone man standing just outside a lighthouse as a massive wave comes crashing from behind. Whether the man makes it inside, whether he drowns, why he was out there in the first place are left up for the viewer to imagine, based on their own hopes or fears. But the not-knowing casts a certain mood in itself.

It’s a fitting prop for a series that similarly proves more interested in raising questions than answering them, and that likewise suggests the uncertainty might be the point. Its endless searching can prove frustrating at times, particularly when the sci-fi drama stumbles over basic flaws in its storytelling. But those with enough curiosity and patience to wait out its rough patches — and those with a taste for cerebral sci-fi — may find themselves falling under its plaintive spell.

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At first, the mysteries presented by Beacon 23, adapted by Zak Penn from a book by Silo author Hugh Howey, look straightforward enough. Sometime in the 23rd century, in some desolate corner of the galaxy, a soldier named Halan (Stephan James) lives alone on a sort of celestial lighthouse. One day, a government agent named Aster (Lena Headey) crash-lands nearby, claiming she’s been sent to study strange rocks recently discovered in the area. Though Halan brings Aster safely on board, neither quite trusts the other. For that matter, neither appears entirely able to trust themselves. The stories they share of who they are and what they want ring false, as if covering up more sinister or tragic truths.

A fair amount of Beacon 23 revolves around Halan and Aster as they’re forced to navigate this new and unwelcome togetherness through crisis after crisis. The structure forever seems to be under threat by scavengers or terrorists or vaguely nefarious officials, forcing Aster and Halan to bust out knives and blaster guns and, in one case, a suitcase-sized charger to power up the military implants embedded in Halan’s body. Aster isn’t the only one looking for those specimens, and the question of what they are exactly emerges as a central mystery.

Meanwhile, the persnickety AI who runs Beacon 23, Bart (Wade Bogert-O’Brien, in a superb voice-only performance) keeps screeching to anyone who’ll listen that Halan is a villain of the highest order, while Aster’s more level-headed personal AI, Harmony (Natasha Mumba), grows increasingly concerned by her erratic behavior.

Beacon 23 starts out wobbly, with early episodes that tend toward blandness when they aren’t tipping toward either self-seriousness or unintentional silliness — there’s only so many times you can hear people screech about rocks before it starts to seem goofy. (Thankfully some start calling them “relics,” which at least has a cool sci-fi ring to it.) The biggest issue is the series’ tendency to get ahead of its own characters, dictating dramatic shifts in their motivations before they’ve had enough time to earn them. In one hour we’re wondering if Aster and Halen’s dynamic is headed in a certain direction, and by the next it’s leapfrogged so far ahead it feels like entire scenes must be missing. James’ brooding performance and Headey’s flinty one salvage some chemistry nonetheless. Some of the guest stars fare less well, and even Beacon 23‘s stronger chapters get tripped up on wooden acting or underdeveloped character arcs.

Nevertheless, Beacon 23 hits its stride around the midpoint of the season as it reveals its true main character to be, well, Beacon 23. The series begins skipping back in time to unveil the history of the structure and the souls who’ve occupied it in the past, several of whom were profoundly affected by “the artifact,” an inexplicable phenomenon of light that keeps popping outside its windows. What the relics and the artifact will turn out to be remains unclear after the first eight hours sent to critics (of a ten-part season), but the journey to an answer is clearly paved with ambitious themes like belief, religion, technology and possibly immortality.

I suspect its weirdness will gradually divide viewers into those intrigued by this heady brand of sci-fi and those alienated by it. It worked for me because Beacon 23 grounds these lofty ideas in achingly familiar human drives. The reasons people are drawn to the outpost vary: Some are motivated by duty, some by a desire to make a home, others by the promise of a way out from their starving, polluted, war-torn home planets. But most seem lost in some way, sure the beacon can provide a sense of purpose that’s been missing from the rest of the universe somehow. Like the tech baron (Eric Lange) frustrated by the limits of the human body, who’s sure it holds the key to transcending them. Or the revolutionary (Marc Menchaca) who fears humans have grown too disconnected, and believes the beacon offers a way to unite the species once more.

Maybe it can. Probably it won’t. Can you blame these souls for trying? The stated purpose of Beacon 23 is to keep spaceships safe by steering them away from dark matter. But as the man in that picture surely knows, even a lighthouse can only do so much to stave off the oblivion lurking just beyond it.

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