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2036 Origin Unknown review - poor, lazy scifi, clearly lacking the polish of its great ancestors

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Verdict: a solid effort, but just watch the good sci-fi it's emulating instead.

2036 Origin Unknown is a fairly experimental sci-fi film which loosely can be said to tell the story of a Mars mission with an AI controller and human assistant (hello, 2001: A Space Odyssey), which finds a monolith of unknown origin where one has no right to be, on the surface of an alien planet (ditto).

This review must be prefaced with an acknowledgement that this film is a diamond in the rough.  For one thing, it comes from a fairly new director (this is Hasraf Dullul’s second feature) and was shot in 11 days on a fairly modest budget. However, these things do not excuse that this is a poor film with clear issues in its pacing, plotting, internal logic, and acting.

The start of the film is quite promising, and it’s from the opening shots that you get the direction the film was aiming for, with an invocation of Karl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and the sound of thrusters muted by the vacuum of space. ARTI, the film’s AI character, is introduced with a bit of jargon-exposition (see “Good morning, mission supervisor MacKenzie” or “fusion-propulsion jet engines firing”), which is stereotypical for the genre and so works to draw the audience in. However, this taste of good sci-fi is about as good as it gets – for all its flaws, it does a good job of gesturing to the recognisable hallmarks of good science fiction cinema without truly possessing any itself.

For sci-fi, the visual effects are in places too ambitious while simultaneously too poorly-executed to be believable. The real tragedy here is that practical miniatures were made, which were then composited over, repeating the mistake of the 2011 The Thing prequel. Most of the composite/particle effects don’t look great either and the action suffers from a lack of practical effects in this regard. This omission was probably a budgetary necessity: why else would a machine gun fired into a room full of computers cause no ricochet, smashing screens, flying sparks?

There are also glaring problems lying in plot-pacing, character-writing, and acting.

The plot reaches for more intrigue than it has available and suffers from trying to tell two stories at once. On the one hand, you have the mystery of the previous crashed expedition to Mars, and you also have the conundrum of the AI takeover of the mission. The two jostle for attention and cause huge problems with the pacing, leading to a plot which is too one-thing-after-another, with a disjointed flow.

Aesthetically, 2036 is reaching for 2001: you have the same desolate, lingering shots of space and the planet’s surface, but because this film is so compressed, the essence of these shots is lost when overlaid with cutaway dialogue from an ongoing scene in editing, which feels very amateurish.

The acting throughout is poor and often hammy, with both McKenzie (Katee Sackhoff) and Lena (Julie Cox) very noticeably so, and the investigator side-character (Ray Fearon) also portrayed with simply a mediocre ability. In fairness, all three cases might be down to performing lines that don’t make sense. McKenzie, for example, is just too much of a prick for her situation – it was not believable that she could be professional or level-headed enough to be a mission supervisor in the first place.

It’s unclear whether the problems arise from the writing, the direction, the acting, or a deadly combination of the three, but it’s absolutely shocking that no one along that path thought that maybe a space scientist would have some kind of reaction to finding a perfectly formed cube on Mars. Katee Sackhoff’s performance oscillates between under- and over-acting, and the nonplussed discovery of the extra-terrestrial monolith is an example of the former, and just one example of several.

ARTI’s voice-acting (Steven Cree) is alright - with him, it’s the writing that’s certainly the problem. He’s just a really poorly-written AI character: a mashup of HAL9000 and Sonny, which follows that weird stereotype of socially inept AIs that, instead of disregarding social conventions, repeatedly ask characters if they are their ‘friend’. This is presumably supposed to be ominous in some way, but in every instance, including in 2036, it just comes off as inexplicable. His character just pulls in too many different directions of what we’re supposed to find uncanny about AIs that our concept of him as a character is nebulous and distended.

The rules of his character also haven’t been clearly worked out. When can MacKenzie tell ARTI what to do, and when can’t she? It’s set up at the beginning that ARTI has become the boss and MacKenzie a supervisor to the operation, but this modus operandi is not so much discarded as idly misplaced, as MacKenzie is shown to take charge willy-nilly, including in instances of pencil-and-paper maths and problem-solving, things you’d thing you’d make sure an AI could do before making it a mission controller.

In the end, it becomes apparent that the mystery underpinning the plot (or half of the plot) is predicated on information being artificially withheld from the protagonist and audience, like an episode of BBC Sherlock. Meanwhile the other conundrum, the AI story, has a very cliché ending that you’ll see coming from a mile away.

Overall, it’s a sterling effort for a low-budget beginner directing gig and actors on their first lead film roles, but almost every element of production needs improvement.

2036 Origin Unknown will be released in the UK on Digital HD and DVD from August 13th, distributed by Kew Media.

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