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D: Hasraf Dulull / 94m

Cast: Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree, David Tse

In 2030, the first manned space flight to Mars reaches the surface but is destroyed by an unknown force. Six years later, the company behind the flight, United Space Planetary Corporation, has scaled back the involvement of human personnel in its space flight programme, and has entrusted its missions to an artificial intelligence called ARTi (Cree); some employees have been retained as supervisors, though. One of them is Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Sackhoff), and she and ARTi have been tasked with investigating the fate of the earlier mission. Mack has a personal connection: her father was the lead astronaut. Sending a reconnaissance probe to the Martian surface, Mack and ARTi are shocked to find a mysterious cube-like structure. News of this is fed back to Mack’s sister (and high-ranking USPC executive) Lena (Cox), but instead of seeing it as an incredible discovery, she downplays the news and behaves in a way that makes Mack worry about the true parameters of the investigation. And when two things happen – a link is discovered between the cube and ARTi’s design, and the cube disappears (only to reappear somewhere completely unexpected) – Mack becomes convinced that her search for the truth has been severely compromised…

The second feature from visual effects supervisor Hasraf Dulull, 2036 Origin Unknown wears its heart on its sleeve right from the opening frames. This is a cinematic love letter to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with imagery cribbed from that movie’s Star Gate sequence, and an AI creation that may or may not be as infallible as it seems. Add in further imagery and ideas from 2010 (1984), and you have a de facto homage to the finest science fiction movie ever made (and its laboured sequel). Now this would probably have been a good thing if Dulull – who also wrote the script – had been able to concoct a coherent and/or credible story in the first place. Instead, he’s created something of a sci-fi monster in celluloid form, with an awkward, poorly assembled storyline, some of the most confusing and confused exposition heard in a sci-fi movie for some time, and pretty visuals that barely compensate for the dramatic liberties taken elsewhere. Dulull may have had good intentions when he began writing his screenplay, but somewhere along the line no one pointed out that the awful dialogue, the one-note characters, and the unconvincing scenario, didn’t add up to anything meaningful.

Take one example of how confused Dulull’s plotting becomes as the movie plods on from one “revelation” to another: the connection between ARTi and the cube is given centre stage at one point, but why or how that connection has been made remains unexplained, even after there’s a scene that explores the idea (but in as little detail as possible). Other unexplained anomalies abound – the importance of magnetism in relation to the cube, the involvement of government spook Sterling (Fearon), and why Mack has to bear so much responsibility for the death of her father. These and other issues arise too often for comfort, making the movie an uncomfortable watch for anyone used to seeing intelligent sci-fi, and not this amalgamation of other directors’ greatest hits. Despite this, the ever-watchable Sackhoff maintains her ability to make even the worst of material sound better than it has any right to be, and there’s good support from Cree as the slightly supercilious ARTi. The visuals are clearly designed to be the movie’s standout feature, and Dulull’s background in visual effects ensures their effectiveness, but it’s a shame that more attention couldn’t have been given to the hazy material.

Rating: 4/10 – a frustrating foray into the arena of mystery sci-fi, 2036 Origin Unknown is a hodge-podge of half-formed ideas and possibilities that are hampered by a muddled, perplexing screenplay; and don’t believe the poster: the “origins of our existence” aren’t explored at all.