Long-serving British visual effects creative Hasraf Dulull (Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, Storage 24, Poldark) has shifted focus to become the auteur of low-budget, idea-driven, somewhat po-faced space opera. Following The Beyond, this is a voyage to the future with big ideas about the place and fate of mankind and the rise of AI that still boils down to something which could be put on stage in a small theatre above a pub … albeit with the kind of seamless effects that used to be the exclusive province of big studio cinema. Dulull – who directs and co-writes with Gary Hall – fits in with a group of busy, ambitious, handmade s-f filmmakers that includes Shane Carruth (Primer), Duncan Jones (Moon), William Eubank (Love) and Daniel Fitzsimmons (Native); if 2036 Origin Unknown isn’t among the best of this mini-boom, it’s because the ideas might be big but are also a bit on the familiar side, and the actual plotting is sometimes clumsy. Nevertheless, it has a star turn performance from Katee Sackhoff – who spends most of the film alone with an AI whose interface (voiced by Steven Cree) is aptly described as looking like an avant-garde reading light, teasing out mysteries and teetering on the brink of great revelations.
In a prologue, the first manned mission to Mars ends with a crash-landing and the death of all the crew, including the father of heroine Mackenzie Wilson (Sackhoff) and NASAcrat Lena Sullivan (Julie Cox). The sisters find themselves both working on the successor mission, with overall control ceded by fallible humans and put into the waldoes of robotic ARTi … whose smooth, almost flirty arrogance keeps Mack guessing as to whether he’s gone the full HAL or is her staunch ally against a human conspiracy to undo her good work. Like Moon, it works best when it’s just a star and a machine onscreen, bantering as the plot unfolds through twists and starts … then, its story gets a touch too ambitious, and the fate of all humanity (plus some notional aliens or a handy machine uber-intellect with a foothold on Mars) comes into play and we learn again the Alien vs Prometheus lesson that it’s harder to care about the future of all life in the universe than it is the perils and traumas of a single, sympathetic representative human played by an interesting actress.