Sunday, June 10, 2018

2036 Origin Unknown: It’s No Longer 2001 Anymore

This is the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose influence is still keenly evident in science fiction films, but not this one. It is something completely different. Instead of the renegade HAL 9000 computer, there is an artificial intelligence program named ARTi, who seems to have its own agenda. It and Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson are not investigating an unlikely monolith. No sir, they are probing a cube that mysteriously appeared on Mars. Plus, it is thirty-five years later in Hasraf Dulull’s 2036 Origin Unknown (trailer here), which is now playing in New Jersey.

Several years earlier, Wilson watched her beloved father perish in the first manned space flight to Mars. That prompted the space consortium to move almost exclusively to drones and artificial intelligence. She is one of the last human holdovers. For her latest mission, she will share war-room oversight duties with ARTi, but her earthbound bureaucrat sister Lena Sullivan makes it clear the machine has the final say.

This spurs quite a bit of bickering between Wilson and ARTi, but they manage to put it aside when events start to jeopardize the mission. At first, it is merely adverse planetary conditions, but they soon detect signs of external forces in play. There might even be some spillover from the world war possibly erupting on Earth, or perhaps someone is just trying to deliver a cease-and-desist notice from the estates of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

To give credit where it is due, Katee Sackhoff is quite good as Wilson and Ray Fearon nicely cranks up the intrigue as Sterling Brooks, the inspector general sent from the quasi-public-private space agency. Steven Cree is also fine providing the voice of ARTi, but his calculating tones will never have anything like the cultural resonance of Douglas Rain’s silky sounding HAL.

You better believe there are echoes of 2001 in 2036, but its worst crime is piling on the humanity-hatred trend so depressingly prevalent in recent indie SF. Not unlike Singularity and Genesis, 2036 basically suggests humanity is too sick to survive and deserves what’s coming to it. In this case, Dulull and screenwriter Gary Hall leave a small backdoor open for humankind, but it is a heck of a slender reed. So that’s it then. According to Dulull and Hall, your children and grandchildren are better off going up in a global fireball, so just resign yourself to it already.

2036 is conspicuously derivative in multiple ways. Sackhoff and Fearon deserve a better vehicle and we all deserve better science fiction. There was a time when the genre was optimistic and believed humans could do great things in the universe. Even 2001 suggested wonderous and transcendent things lay ahead for us as a species. How do we as a geek culture get back to that Star Trek kind of optimism? Of course, shucking away the Social Justice Warriors’ corrosive intolerance would be a good first step. Not recommended, 2036 Origin Unknown is now playing in Jersey at the Williams Center and is also available on iTunes.