There isn’t a planet in the celluloid Galaxy that gets more attention than the mysterious red world, where countless films have tried to unearth the riddles of what may lie beneath the surface of the terrestrial planet, with its thin atmosphere composed primarily of carbon dioxide. The Martian, On The Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Total Recall, John Carter, Doom, The Last Days on Mars – the list goes on. There is an inherent hope amongst sci-fi fans that one day man will set foot on its dusty terrain, and the idea of its mysteries have inspired many a screenwriter for decades. Hasraf Dulull’s latest offering, 2036: Origin Unknown, is an independent, low budget effort that takes a stab at conquering the myth of the red planet – so it’s unfortunate then that the person wielding the metaphorical knife seems to have severe palsy, staggering around in the dark like a near sighted cyclops, bumping into furniture and cursing under its breath as he drops the blade on his foot.
The premise starts off simply enough – in 2030, the first manned space mission to Mars jets off from Earth with a small crew only to lose contact, get pulled from the stratosphere by a very dodgy looking CGI ‘sparkly wavy cosmic energy’ and is not heard from again. Six years later Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson (played by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) is one of the few remaining mission controllers based at a secret facility run by the United Space Planetary Corporation (USPC). There’s some exposition about how AI has become so supreme over the course of six years that humans aren’t really required to man space missions anymore, so the computer A.I. ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) pretty much runs the show. It just so happens that Sackhoff is the daughter of the one of the lost astronauts from the 2030 mission, so there’s a personal motivation to find out whatever she can about Mars.
Right away the confusion begins – we’re first introduced to her character outside the secret facility looking up at the stars, presumably in the desert, and an opening text card that flashes across the screen states that she was on earth – but when she enters the building it looks like she’s in a satellite orbiting over Mars. Eh? This could be explained with a plot reveal later on in the film, but it just seems a little convoluted at such an early stage. There’s antagonism between Mack and ARTi – as she thinks machines should be a tool for humans to use as opposed to control human beings. (The first of the three robot laws set up by Issac Asimov – that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm) is totally thrown out of the window in this movie. Just a minor quibble of mine. Mack communicates with one of the few other characters in the film, her sister (who also seems to mission controller on Earth – man, the Wilson family are all about space, ammaright?) but it’s clear that there’s some unresolved Daddy issues and the sisters have a terse relationship with each other.
ARTi is clearly meant to be the draw and emotional backbone of Origin Unknown. Reminding me GLaDOS from the videogame Portal 2, ARTi is giant, lumbering eye on the end of a stick that hangs from a track on the ceiling – it’s the tried and tested formula of artificial intelligence and human beings bonding over the course of a film (see Ex Machina, Her, Morgan and The Machine) only not as fun and less clever. The script lacks any weight, with the relationship between Wilson and ARTi coming off as hollow.
The main problem with 2036: Origin Unknown is that it tries to cram way too many different ideas (each taken from far superior films) into the 1hr 34min running time. From its monolith-like cube found on Mars (2001: A Space Odyssey) to a ship being run by a sentient AI system (Moon) countless references to the Turing Test (Ex Machina) and a lost parent narrative (Contact) nothing here really elevates the dynamic from other films. In fact, as you’re watching 2036: Origin Unknown you’ll be reminded constantly of these other films and I found myself at several instances wanting to watch those instead of this. It’s a shame, because the concept could have gone in such a different way. There is a stinger at the climax of the film, but it’s so convoluted and clunky I was just ready to watch the credits roll. There are far too many red herrings thrown in for good measure to make the audience second guess what’s gone on before – it’s almost as if Dulull was trying to philosophise Quantum Indeterminism with AI nanotechnology, amongst synthetic augmentation but it all comes out as indistinct mumbling, like an aged grandfather that won’t let you leave the room until he’s told you at length about his latest visit to the doctor to get the cyst removed from his testicles. Is Mack human? Did the Earth explode or was it all a simulation? Did ARTi invent both Hyperlite communication and the cube?
Trust me, you won’t care.
Battlestar Galactica fans will be intrigued by Katee Sackhoff back at the helm of a sci-fi film, and she controls the screen with aplomb. Once again, it’s a shame that her dialogue with ARTi comes off as stilted, as she is continually sucked into terribly written schlock. This ultimately results in a story that you just simply have no reason to be invested in. No character is written any deeper than what it takes to shove the plodding plot along, and you never have any reason to connect with any of them. The thing about movies like this is how well the director can contain their ambition with the budget given, but the cheap looking CGI here will pull viewers right out of the experience.
I love cerebral sci-fi. Unfortunately 2036: Origin Unknown isn’t thought provoking; it’s simply a wayward, derivative misstep of the writer/director to properly tell a story.
REVIEW BY ANTHONY SELF
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
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