A Heist of a Different Color – Kaleidoscope (2023) Limited Series

In the Green episode of Netflix’s limited series Kaleidoscope, the lead character bemoans how people have a tendency to get stuck in ruts and find “new ways to do the same old shit.” While perhaps overly harsh, the show itself could be considered an exercise in exactly that. A very novel and innovative viewing method is employed to tell a story that, frankly, you’ve already seen a bunch of times before.

That’s not necessarily a rebuke against the show. It’s a fun story, told in an interesting and entertaining fashion. I enjoyed watching it. Still, it feels like a trial run for an interactive gimmick that might, hopefully, be employed on something more narratively or artistically ambitious in the future.

Kaleidoscope (2023) - The Crew
Number of Episodes:8
Release Date: Jan. 1, 2023
Watched On: Netflix

Kaleidoscope is a heist thriller about a team of criminals plotting to break into a highly secured vault and rob a rich asshole of everything he’s worth. You’ve seen that once or twice, or a thousand times, in movies and TV. The story is told in non-linear fashion, jumping around all over the place backward and forward in time to mix up the chronology of events. That’s not exactly a groundbreaking idea either. Heist movies have played around with fractured time jumps at least as far back as Robert Siodmak’s 1949 Criss Cross, if not earlier. Other famous examples include Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs, Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 Out of Sight, and many more. For some reason, the heist genre in particular lends itself to this approach, and many filmmakers have taken advantage of it.

That said, Kaleidoscope takes the flashback and flashforward gimmick a step further than anything prior. The eight-episode limited series is carefully designed so that the episodes can be watched in any order. Some take place before the centerpiece heist, in periods from 24 years earlier to the morning of, a couple after it, and one showcases the big robbery itself. Each episode is named after a different color, hence the show’s title. Mix them up however you want and, astoundingly, a coherent story still falls into place.

This could only truly work to its fullest via streaming. A traditional broadcast or cable network would have to force a specific viewing order. Even watching on DVD or Blu-ray would require too much manual disc flipping on the viewer’s part to be worth the effort. Netflix, meanwhile, has programmed its servers to randomize the viewing experience. Which episode you get first, and what follows after that, will vary depending on exactly when you hit Play. This adds up to thousands of different possible combinations.

Netflix recommends that you finish with the White episode, where the main heist takes place. I would agree with that. It’s not the chronological end of the story, but it definitely makes the best emotional climax. Unfortunately, the Netflix algorithm may not necessarily put it last. It popped up in my feed with a couple other episodes left, and I had to manually back out and pick a different one.

As for the show itself, Giancarlo Esposito leads the cast as a career criminal whose name is either Ray Vernon or Leo Pap. (He changes it at some point in the story.) In various episodes, you’ll watch him start his life of crime, spend time in prison, plot the biggest robbery of his life, assemble a crew for it, perform the heist, and deal with the aftermath. His main accomplice is crooked lawyer Ava Mercer (Paz Vega). As they plan the job, a dogged FBI agent (Niousha Noor) does her best to find and stop them first.

The mark is a smug prick investment banker named Roger Salas (Rufus Sewell), who guarantees his clients that he has built and installed the most secure, high-tech, impenetrable vault in the world to protect their assets. In other words, he’s asking for a smart criminal to crack the thing, and Ray/Leo believes he’s up to the task.

The rest of the supporting cast is filled with colorful characters well performed, but I have to give special credit to Jai Courtney as a hothead safe-cracker with rage issues. I’ll be honest, I developed something of a bias against the actor ever since his involvement in the miserable, franchise-killing A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), and I didn’t care much for him in 2015’s Terminator: Genysis either, but he’s a hilarious standout in this.

The details of the heist are pretty far-fetched and improbable, but no more so than, say, any entry in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. This genre inherently requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief. More importantly, all of the episodes are rather ingeniously scripted to support the episode-jumbling gimmick. No matter what order you watch them in, just enough details are provided in each to build a story that makes sense. They all contain clues and easter egg hints tying them together. You won’t get the full story until you see them all, and the order you wind up with will affect how much you know about certain plot points and how you feel about certain characters. Most of the episodes manage to hold back critical surprises even if you’ve already watched entries set chronologically later. As soon as I finished, I immediately felt compelled to rewatch some of the episodes to look for clues I’d missed.

Structurally, this is an impressive achievement. A lot of effort was put into making the concept work. Even beyond that, the series is well written in general with likeable characters, and the performers are all game to pull it off. I don’t have much bad to criticize. And yet, ultimately, Kaleidoscope still boils down to a rather formulaic genre offering very derivative of many others before it, just with a clever new gimmick layered on top. On that note, it can be both brilliant and underwhelming, simultaneously.

On the other hand, perhaps that familiarity is a necessary component after all. We can follow the plot no matter what order it’s delivered precisely because we already know all the story beats and how the pieces of the puzzle are supposed to fit together. Even if starting at the chronological end, it’s possible to guess, in at least broad strokes, what must have happened earlier to get to that point. Would this work at all with a more original or unpredictable story?

I don’t know, but I’d like to believe so. We’ll just have to see what somebody comes up with next.

Kaleidoscope (2023) - Rufus Sewell

Video Streaming

Netflix streams Kaleidoscope in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Atmos audio. Although all the episodes appear to have been shot in a consistent style, the results on my screen varied a bit from one to the next. Some episodes seem overly dark, with few bright highlights, while others have much more vibrancy and pop. Given the complicated nature of HDR on home video, I’m not entirely sure whether that’s an intentional stylistic choice, an issue with the HDR encoding, or possibly just my projector running into difficulty tone-mapping the picture. In any case, none of them look bad, per se. However, certain episodes impressed me more than others.

In general, the 2.40:1 image is pretty sharp with nice colors, though I think the series misses a lot of opportunities to play with color more. Considering the show’s title and the fact that every episode is named after a different color, you’d think the photography would work that theme into each one in some meaningful way, but that really only happens on a couple occasions.

The Atmos soundtrack is likewise good but not especially notable. The musical score has some strumming bass and often wraps around to the surround channels, but sound effects rarely stray from the front soundstage. The height speakers have little to no noticeable activity in most episodes, only coming to life during key scenes that involve a hurricane and a swarm of bees.

I have to note that the Violet flashback episode has some very sloppy lip sync errors, but I suspect that’s the fault of the digital de-aging effects that were used to make Giancarlo Esposito look twenty years younger. From what I could tell, the problem is limited to his character.

Kaleidoscope is primarily an English-language series, with periodic use of subtitled foreign dialogue. The subtitles appear mostly within the 2.40:1 frame, at least enough to be legible on a Constant Image Height projection screen. Annoyingly, the bottom row of text dips into the lower letterbox bar and will be clipped in CIH. Reducing the projector’s zoom a little helps, but will leave you with black bars around all sides of the picture. Viewers watching on a typical TV or 16:9 screen will have no issue with this and will probably never notice, of course.

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