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Review: 2036 Origin Unknown – “An intriguing, clever piece of indie science fiction”

Advances in technology displacing humans from their jobs has been an issue going back to the early days of the Industrial Revolutions, as even the most skilled suddenly found themselves out of work and replaced by machinery, and it is an ongoing debate in the 21st century as recent articles have discussed the growth in expert systems and AI and how it may replace even the most skilled professions. And that’s one of the things weighing on the mind of Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson (Katee Sackhoff), a veteran space mission controller. Now an endangered profession, most of her colleagues gone, only Mack alone in her underground bunker of mission control. Well, not quite alone – Mack is there as the token human as ARTi, a new artificial intelligence, takes the lead on the latest Mars mission.

Mack is there just in case anything unusual or unexpected comes up, but she is now subordinate to this machine intelligence, and boy it rankles. Mack also has a personal investment in this mission – the previous mission years before crashed, killing everyone aboard, and included her father among its crew. This makes taking a back seat to an upstart machine even more galling for her. Her sister – also her superior in the organisation – speaks to her on the video screen and has little time for Mack’s concerns, or her problems in working with ARTi. AI is the way of the future, she tells Mack, so she has to suck it up – ARTi is smarter, quicker – he has already used his vast processing intelligence to create a new faster than light communication system, eliminating the several minutes radio lag in talking to the Mars explorer from Earth (handy for the characters, also a handy device for the film too, of course, getting rid of those long delays between each back and forth).

If this were just about Mack and ARTi, the mismatched old school and new wave, this would still be interesting, but Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull also layers in more here. Mack doesn’t trust ARTi, and perhaps she is right not to – after all, he is, quite simply, not human. How can she be sure he shares humanity’s best interests and isn’t working to his own covert agenda? Come to think of it, where did ARTi come from? Sure there have been slowly evolving basic AIs before but ARTi is the full deal – everyone else seems to just accept him and get on with it, but Mack is riddled with doubts. Then into this comes the eponymous “Origin Unknown” signal from Mars. ARTi’s mysterious origins, his intents, his strangely growing relationship with Mack, now this unknown signal, the tension starts to ramp up quite quickly.

While this is clearly a small budget affair Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull deploys his limited resources cleverly – there are some special effects scenes used strategically (the early Mars missions, the current one in orbit and on the surface). But the vast bulk of the running time here is one set, the underground bunker of mission control, with just Mack, and the glowing screen on a moving gimble that is ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree). It works almost like a theatrical production, a mostly single location, just the one person (well, one human person), self-contained; the enclosed mission control also adds to the claustrophobia and building tension rather nicely (at a lean 1 hour and 34 minutes the running time helps keep that tension simmering nicely too).

The dance of Mack and ARTi’s relationship recalls Dave Bowman enclosed alone with HAL 9000 inside the Discovery, and it felt to me as if Cree was well aware of this illustrious predecessor; there are little hints of HAL here, but more by way of paying respects, Cree’s voice performance makes ARTi his own character. While by no means perfect I enjoyed this a lot – like a lot of productions that don’t have vast budgets the film-makers have had to be inventive, and that shows here with the limited but effective single location for most of the film, the almost solitary cast, and employing some clever science fiction concerns, layering them on on top of the other. An intriguing, clever piece of indie science fiction. And Katee Sackhoff. Oh, yes.

The film is on iTunes, VoD and DVD from August 13th.

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