When you find out that a real-life innovator of rocket science was a janitor who got sucked into Aleister Crowley’s spooky occultist Thelema scene in 1930s L.A., your first reaction is naturally to seek out the most salacious corners of this oddball life. The best quality of CBS All Access’ Strange Angel is that it tempers that initial impulse with so much humanity that you’ll think, Well, sure, if the circumstances were right, even I could perform so much bloody, sexy magick that my friends and neighbors could confuse me for a Red Hot Chili Peppers album.
Much of this is thanks to a first episode (of three made available for critics) from David Lowery, of A Ghost Story and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints fame, who directs the absolute occultist hell out of the Mark Heyman-written series’ pilot. He finds enough humor and warmth in his varied shot selection and orange lighting to tell a heartfelt story that could just as easily sink into subpar exploitation and nothing more.
Here, Jack Parsons (Jack Reynor, proving why he was in the running for a young Han Solo) is a dreamer raised on the same pulp as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: Men for whom Amazing Stories and Weird Tales didn’t simply justify a stargazing youth, but also demanded an adventurous adulthood. Jack’s imagination may frustrate everyone around him, but that only makes his drive for rocketry more potent.
Similarly, the startling premise needs good filmmaking to make it stick past its tabloidy sales pitch. Lowery (who also executive produces the series, alongside Ridley Scott and Heyman), with an assist from editors Sue Blainey and Jennifer Barbot, woos you with practical craft while the outrageous story struts seductively by. Match cuts that imply deeper relationships instead of explaining them—Parsons and his wife, Susan (Bella Heathcote), fall into bed after a hand-rolled smoke—are just as visually engrossing as the quick montages, reminiscent of director Edgar Wright’s how-to visual storytelling. Red-tinted fantasy sequences are stylized (in framing, color grading, and slow-motion application) almost as excitingly as something like 300, back when Zack Snyder’s schtick was a departure from the action mainstream instead of its definition.
These all bolster an utterly charming performance by Reynor, who always seems to be looking upwards, talking out of his ass, and pretending to be better than he is: an American through and through. He sweeps by day and launches makeshift rockets with his milquetoast but brilliant friend Richard (Peter Mark Kendall) under cover of dark.
That’s just swell, inventing concepts that would be the beginning of rocket science. Liquid fuel, unique testing procedures, rocket designs. Enough plot for an Oscar-bait movie, certainly. But you want to know about the blood, sex, magik stuff, right? As Parsons says when discussing his pulpy reading material, the themes of the story are quite clear, but without the lurid details, who’d bother opening the cover? This point, made ironically obvious as Strange Angel itself burns too much fuel on domestic drama and scientific wheel-spinning, applies to the series itself: It changes from well-made underdog story to a heady, aspirational, self-serving bacchanalia of religion, sex, superstition and networking that fits L.A. like a velvet glove.
When a creepy, seemingly anarchist neighbor, Ernest (Rupert Friend, with wild eyes and a delectable tendency to stand too close), moves in, takes an interest in Parsons’ experiments, and then cuts the throats of some innocent wildlife for a blood ritual, Parsons’ late night adventures take a turn from the stars to much more earthly delights. And it starts with our hero falling off a roof after seeing some Eyes Wide Shut-level shit. It’s scary, funny, and—most importantly—fun to watch.
Those thrills don’t last forever, nor could they. The series would be too volatile otherwise, unable to sustain itself for 10 episodes, let alone multiple seasons. Rather than burn up on the launch pad, it goes slow and steady—perhaps too much so. Yes, the pacing can be excruciating, but only because the opening tease is so tantalizing. Plenty of silly biopic-isms sneak into the script (“Don’t you remember how we met?”), but the writing is generally straightforward, engaging, and just-off enough to keep you guessing. Presumably, some of the promised thrills pay off and the collected characters become catalyzed by Ernest’s beliefs in different ways. I can only speak to where that looks to be going. But I can say that, on nothing more than an unfulfilled promise and a few well-performed weirdos, I’m sold enough to keep watching this genre-shifting historical fiction—though I’m not devout enough to spill blood yet.
Strange Angel premieres today on CBS All Access.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.