A decade ago, a baffling headline made waves throughout social media and film forums: director Steven Soderbergh, relatively young, announced his retirement. It was difficult to take this news seriously, as Soderbergh was and is respected for his efficient work schedule — sometimes putting out more than one film in a year — as well as his passion for the minutiae of the craft. To imagine him in simply a related field like theater was unbelievable, for here was a man who discussed lens size in mainstream interviews and made his watch log (often rewatching a film, sometimes his own, three times in a day) public. Though, it was this very passion that prompted his threat of retirement, as Soderbergh saw the signs of an industry changing for the worse as superhero tentpoles and streaming deals left the mid-budget, craft-oriented directors wanting. With his one-two punch return of 2017’s star-studded audience-pleaser Logan Lucky and 2018’s more experimental and efficiently low-budget Unsane, it was clear that Soderbergh could still be Soderbergh, regardless of industry changes. The reductive characterization of “one for me, one for them” filmmaking, where a box office success’s profits are used to fund an arthouse venture, could, in some small way, have been frequently ascribed to Soderbergh; but it’s clear that all of his projects are for him. And he’s shown no signs of slowing down, as just this year, Soderbergh has delivered another signature one-two in the form of miniseries Full Circle and Command Z.
Full Circle circumnavigates back to some familiar Soderbergh territory as the six-episode Max show transforms from a heist thriller to a meditation on the never-ending reverberations and side effects of the decisions of the very wealthy. Though specifics are reserved for an emotional final episode, screenwriter Ed Solomon (a previous Soderbergh teammate from his No Sudden Move  script) steadily reveals the story of a Guyanese crime boss, Mahabir (CCH Pounder), who has built a small Queens-based insurance scam empire — not for profit, but for revenge. The plan would be to kidnap and kill young Jared, grandson of food celeb Chef Jeff (Dennis Quaid) whose family seems to have wronged her family in the past. However, two new foot soldiers, Xavier (Sheyi Cole) and Louis (Gerald Jones), complicate the kidnapping — which, by the way, is also a magic ritual filled with circular iconography — by feeling a little weird about the task of child murder. Though Soderbergh and Solomon never intend for audience sympathies to switch to the crime syndicate, it’s clear that Jared’s parents (Timothy Olyphant and Claire Danes) are clearly receiving a karmic debt from shady political and business dealings from long ago. There are enough ghosts of the past in the series to label it an urban Gothic and enough turns, twists, and reveals to make this paragraph purposefully vague.
Though there’s not as much action here as is found in his Ocean’s trilogy or as much political intrigue as what’s baked into The Informant or Erin Brockovich, there’s a bit of fun in the hammy detective of Zazie Beetz’s Harmony Melody (a name they make fun of before the audience can). The energy she throws into the stock genre character of a play-by-their-own rules agent of the Postal Inspection Service, a rather cinematically unrepresented branch of the government, gives zest where the script lags, ultimately saving the more slow-moving portions of these episodes. Soderberghisms creep in for better — super wide-angle lenses that show off the entire space of a room — and for worse — that particular digital yellow that this writer has never loved — but what’s most important are the largely invisible craft-level decisions that make such a labyrinthine political narrative make sense. It’s a nice little show that takes a few risks without any of them landing flat or being particularly impressive.
If Full Circle represents Soderbergh’s safe, mainstream talents, then Command Z fits in with his collection of bigger swings: Schizopolis (1996), Bubble (2005), and Unsane (2018), among a few others. A delightfully novel, no-budget sci-fi, Command Z features three future chrononauts (Roy Wood Jr., JJ Maley, and Chloe Radcliffe) who are organized by the digital ghost of Michael Cera’s head to change the events of 2023 through acts of possession. Each episode — some eight minutes long, others twenty — catalogs another attempt at controlling a member of the 2023 public (a young daughter, a dog, beloved Cum Town denizen Stavros Halkias) to convince big business’s heavy-hitters to reverse their climate-killing actions, often to minimal effect.
Most of Command Z’s fun comes from its flaunting the stupidest rules of contemporary science fiction. There’s no multimillion-dollar CGI budget or even production design — most of what’s featured on-screen are two sparse rooms, a dryer, blue jumpers, and a few actors who grumble about how the world being underwater really affects their commute. The show also takes a few potshots at the sticklers for science-based veracity by completely disregarding arguments about time loop problems or the scientific basis of time travel equipment (here, part of the activation process consists of consuming goo-based psychedelics and playing the theme song for Mahogany ). Thankfully, it really takes to heart that blithe bit of advice for logic gaps in sci-fi screenplays from Thank You for Smoking (2005): “But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.’” Though purportedly a comedy, most of the jokes elicit New Yorker cartoon-level nods instead of actual chuckles or outright laughs, but the show’s charm more than makes up for the more regrettable one-liners. That the entire thing was released through Soderbergh’s website, and that the money spent on virtual tickets goes to Soderbergh’s choice of charities, shows what’s really going on here — a message movie that’s willing to remove the soapbox and replace it with a stage.
Watching these two projects back-to-back reminded this writer of another director who straddled the line between journeyman and auteur: Sidney Lumet. Like Soderbergh, Lumet could make a movie about nearly anything on any time restraint and any budget, though he had his pet projects and preferred genres. And, like Soderbergh, the auteur-y components of a Lumet film don’t announce themselves and are relatively hard to articulate, if they exist at all. Lumet knew when to stand back and simply let the people hired for their jobs take the spotlight — actor Al Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, production designer Tony Walton’s production design in The Wiz and Murder on the Orient Express, or Andrzej Bartkowiak’s camerawork on Prince of the City — though there’s certainly an art to doing that, as Lumet himself outlined in his Making Movies. Soderbergh, though a bit more hands-on with his visual signatures, similarly knows a good team when he sees it, allowing the quality of each of his projects to ride on this mix of ingredients. Watching his projects is similar to sitting down for a tasting menu at a restaurant that displays the chef’s name: diverse plates abound, a singular theme arises, bad dishes are made with a respectable know-how, and the good ones will bring you back.