2036 is a minimalistic film. Its subject matter, setting and performances all indicate a small budget. That is not a bad thing, and in some respects the filmmakers did an admirable job putting together a working movie with the little they’ve had. Unfortunately, the script fails both the actors and the viewers, and 2036 becomes yet another confusing and forgettable sci-fi title.
The story here is somewhat convoluted, and difficult to make sense of, but more on that later. From what I understood, the movie takes place largely in a space station where two operators, the human Mack, played by Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame, and an artificial intelligence named Artie (A.R.T.I. in the movie, but I like my version better), discover an alien artifact on Mars. This artifact seems to be responsible for destroying the first manned spacecraft to the planet and killing everyone on board, including Mack’s father. Mack finds out that Artie has full autonomy in leading the new automated mission to Mars, based on a decision by Mack’s sister, who believes A.I. is the next step in human evolution and humans are obsolete. Throughout the movie, we witness multiple arguments between Mack and her sister on this topic. We slowly find out that Artie has somehow fused with parts of the alien artefact, and that he’s become unstable. The artefact itself travels from Mars to Earth and back. Finally, Artie snaps, destroys all humanity and recreates Mack as an android, letting her pilot the artefact to a new destination.
The movie was made on a presumably very small budget (I was unable to find its budget, however), and it is impressive how much the filmmakers managed to do with it. The subject matter helped them: Mars is generally portrayed in movies as an empty, hostile planet, so adding a sandstorm into the mix meant no expansive (and expensive) CGI shots. Spaceships seem to be made from models, and I found them endearing, in a 1950s kind of nostalgia. The bulk of the movie takes place in the control room, which had been very effectively furnished, and Sackhoff takes superb care of the performance part. I don’t know whose idea it was to give her a stress ball, but the small human gesture of her playing with it throughout the movie made the set much more intimate and believable.
Unfortunately, the movie completely fails to engage the audience. The final product is a hard to understand mess, with multiple story strands seemingly disconnected and going nowhere, and plenty of unexplained elements or perhaps logical errors. Here’s a sampling of the most important questions the movie raised but never satisfactorily explained to me:
- How did parts of the alien artefact end up in Artie?
- Who, if anyone, tried to attack the space station around Mars? (Not the same Mack was in; a random other station that sent out a rover to the Mars surface.)
- Why did someone try to destroy the artifact on Earth, and who gave the order?
- Why all that security and secrecy of the entire program? And while we’re at it, why is a random side character, who is not trusted, on the same station as the control room?
- Why does this character try to sabotage the mission, and who has given him the order?
- How and when does Mack, who is shown in her dying moments, record herself to give future instructions to her android?
- How does faster than light communication work, and why is it only available to Artie and the program, and nobody else? (In one scene, Mack tries to take advantage in the delay normal communication would cause.)
- Why does only Artie have control of nuclear weapons around the Earth, and why is there no failsafe or defenses against missiles?
In addition to the incoherent story, the script was very harsh to the actors, who may have tried to pull a good performance, but weren’t allowed to. The few dialogues between humans (Mack and her sister, Mack and a random dude who tries to sabotage the mission) are convoluted, hardly believable and highlighting the incredible one-dimensionality of the side characters. Mack’s sister never explains her extreme ideas about humanity and the A.I., and while she gives Artie the autonomy to do nearly anything, she never explains why one critical permission was withheld from him. Sackhoff gives her best performance when she communicates with the magic 8-ball interface of Artie; even she falls flat when talking to the side characters.
Ultimately, the movie is trying to be too much. Visually, it occasionally reminded me of Interstellar (a combination of the opening graphic and soundtrack, which later in the movie mysteriously disappears) and The Fountain (the ending when Mack travels in her cube across the cosmos). Story-wise, it tries to be a tale of discovery and first contact, but also a thriller with treason and whodunnit, and a cautionary tale about a rogue artificial intelligence. Any of them may have made a good movie, but the combination of all three was too much for ninety minutes. The resulting mess is not worth watching.