EIFF 2015 – Uncanny
Matthew Leutwyler’s Uncanny deals with the scientific and philosophical questions associated with developing an Artificial Intelligence.
Many will be reminded of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina from earlier this year when watching this film and it’s hard not to notice the similarities between the two films. It is only the fact that I’m watching these films in the same year that invites comparison as Ex Machina is hardly the first film to tackle this subject. The execution of Uncanny is very similar though.
The basic setup is that Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths) is a tech journalist sent to spend a week with the reclusive David Kressen (Mark Webber) so that she can craft a series of articles on what he’s working with. While she’s there she gets to spend a lot of time interacting with an Artificial Intelligence that David has invented named Adam (David Clayton Rogers). Through her discussions with David and Adam the film continually poses questions surrounding whether Adam is simply mimicking human behaviour and emotion or becoming sentient in his own right.
Strong arguments are made for both as David behaves in a way that seems vaguely human but not quite there yet most of the time with flashes of what could be considered emotional responses. To counter that there’s lots of discussion on the actual science of what makes him work. The script cleverly doesn’t lean one way or another for most of the narrative and leaves it up to the viewer to decide for themselves what’s happening.
Structurally the story focuses on the 7 days that Joy gets to spend with David and Adam with each day having an important revelation or discovery associated with it. As the film progresses Joy -and by extension the audience- learns more about David’s work and how influential it will be in the future. There is lots of recurring imagery to tie everything together such as a daily chess game that may represent Adam’s growth as a person and general mechanical work showing that geniuses are always focused on their work. Everything is carefully explained in detail and it made me wonder how theoretically possible any of the science in this film was.
In terms of the characters the film does a great job for the most part. David is written to be eccentric and socially awkward. He says what he thinks without worrying if it will offend until he sees the reaction. The film tells us that he went to work after graduating at a young age so his social skills are awkward. As such there is a clinical nature to his dialogue that feels almost robotic in itself which makes sense given the setup of his character. Mark Webber does a really good job of making this character seem believable and keeps him just unsettling enough to be wary of him without venturing into the territory of being too odd.
David Clayton Rogers is great as Adam. He is very convincing as a machine made to look human with the machinelike movements and mannerisms nailed down to a tee. Most of his dialogue is focused on his curiosities about humanity and the somewhat creepy interest he takes in Joy. The audience is constantly assured that no offence should be taken by anything he does or says as he is simply learning. There’s a certain childlike quality to him that feels unsettling coming out of what looks to be a fully grown man but that appears to be the idea. Joy is somewhat uncomfortable being around an artificial being as it is something she needs to get used to. As before she is the audience surrogate so in theory her journey towards acceptance follows the same path that the audience takes.
Joy is an interesting character as there’s a constant sense of regret about her. It becomes known that she had a bright future in a similar field ahead of her but abandoned it for some reason. She can empathise with the urge to be creative to the point of changing the world and the experience causes certain long repressed desires to awaken in her. She sort of gets a taste of what she is missing and starts to think over some of her life choices. I enjoyed Lucy Griffiths’ performance as she came across as intelligent with lots of personality. She had enough normality about her to make for an easy audience surrogate but some of the dialogue she was given did her absolutely no favours. Some of the lines she had make more sense coming out of David or Adam’s mouth but felt clumsy when she delivered them. It would be a more minor niggle if it didn’t happen so often but there were lots of lines that I didn’t believe. Aside from that she is an engaging character who is well performed.
There’s a very strange atmosphere about the whole thing. The setting of David’s lab comes across as spacious when it needs to be but eerily claustrophobic as well. Many scenes rely on the fact that there appears to be a lack of privacy associated with the setting. Everywhere that Joy looks she sees either David or Adam and they move so silently that they are able to sneak up on her. I felt a little unsettled when watching it and I liked that as I was constantly on edge for something strange to happen.
I’ve been very careful not to spoil parts of this film designed to be a surprise. I had worked out the surprise fairly early on so it is very well foreshadowed but I thought that it was a little too obvious. I won’t say any more than that but I have based what I have written on an understanding of the film and characters before certain things are revealed. Also, please make sure to wait through the credits for a mid credit stinger.
A well constructed film that gives another perspective on the popular concept of Artificial Intelligence and the potential for it to become sentient.
The cast all do a good job of playing their characters with special attention given to David Clayton Rogers who successfully puts across an artificial being with hints of humanity. His performance is ambiguous enough to keep the audience guessing. Mark Webber is very capable as an eccentric genius with awkward social skills and Lucy Griffiths’ is engaging as the audience surrogate sent in to evaluate the other characters and the situation.
Griffiths is given some really clunky dialogue that doesn’t quite work for her but beyond that I had no issues with the writing. Much of what was said is focused on the science of what makes Adam work to counter the possibility of him gaining sentience. It’s a debate that rages through the entirety of the running time and is handled very well.
The film puts across a really unsettling atmosphere. David’s facility is both expansive and claustrophobic depending on the story needs and there’s a constant sinister subtext running through the whole thing that kept me on edge throughout.
In general it’s a very smart sci fi film with a bit of a curve ball thrown towards the end. I can’t quite decide if it works or not but it was something I guessed fairly early on so it is well foreshadowed. I won’t spoil it here but it’d be interesting to find out if anyone else saw it coming or felt like it made sense within the framework of the story. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys this sort of story.