Writer-director Gavin Rothery is plainly setting out to work in the vein of Duncan Jones – Rothery worked on Moon as a conceptual designer – and Alex Garland – especially Ex Machina – but nestled inside this apparent retread of many a cyberpunk Bride of Frankenstein rethink is the coiled spring of another story entirely that strikes in the last act, as if Rothery wants you to watch the whole film again playing a different character this time. There are many precedents, but this is a sleek, affecting take on some universal themes dressed up in contemporary high-tech clothes.
Alone on a vast, wooded, snowy estate in Japan, George Almore (Theo James) toils on a project for the ARM corporation – liaising only by video-call with his boss Simone (Rhona Mitra) – to create next-generation robots. He has two models up and running – the J1, a lumbering armless fridge, and the J2, a clunky but agile humanoid with a box for a head – and is working on a more human-seeming gynoid, inevitably tagged the J3. However, the widowed Almore is covertly using proprietary tech from another outfit, the Archive Corporation, in which the backed-up consciousness of a dead partner can be interfaced with for a limited time, allowing for proper farewells in the case of sudden bereavement. Against corporate regulations and violating many licensor agreements, Almore has been trying to embed the consciousness of his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin) in the robots, but the partial mapping has meant J1 is a toddler and J2 a sulky, jealous teen who bridles as the Ex Machina-look J2 becomes sleeker and sexier (especially when Almore cannibalises her legs to complete the new model). Also making the experimenter’s life more complex are sinister functionaries from both corporations (Peter Ferdinando, Hans Peterson, Toby Jones, Richard Glover) who are getting an idea of what he’s up to and don’t like it.
The paranoid corporate/mad science dramas go on while the real action is in Almore’s relations with what’s left of his wife and the machines he’s made to replace or reincarnate her – James, often cast as blandly handsome hero, is excellent after the manner of Bruce Dern in Silent Running, interacting with machines he treats as human (some of them might be, though not quite fully) and progressively cracking up as he starts to lose coherence as a personality (one of several threads you’ll revisit on a second watch). It’s almost entirely down to the way he and Martin (mostly as a disembodied voice) play it that this is in the end as emotional as it is cerebral. The fact that its look, both the bleeding edge science lab and the nestled-in-nature stuff, is consistent with the design of a whole run of recent science fiction films (including big budget Christopher Nolan films as well as odd little things like Elizabeth Harvest) is actually one of its strengths … it has a real sense of being a contributor to an evolving sub-genre.