Following a manned mission to Mars that ends in disaster, responsibility for the control of future missions by humans is gradually ceded to Artificial Intelligence via a system called ARTI. This low budget British film follows the drama around ARTI’s first full mission in control: the landing of a robotic vehicle on the Red Planet’s surface, where a signal from a mysterious cubic object is detected. At this point, scientist Mckenzie “Mack” Wilson (Katie Sackhoff) retakes control of the vehicle from ARTI (voiced by Steven Cree). Mack is sceptical about the replacement of humans by ARTI – a point she makes repeatedly to her boss (and sister) Lena, who is somewhat evangelical about the promise offered by AI.
As events unfold, it becomes apparent that the cube on Mars is of extra-galactic origin, and brings… an existential threat to the human race? The promise of a future free of violence? In either case, humanity is beginning to look out of it’s depth.
Most of the film is set within the mission control room, with just two characters – Mack and ARTI. Katie Sackhoff is excellent throughout, and her tightly focussed performance maintains a dramatic tension that’s quite unusual in many science fiction films. It’s a genre that frequently lends itself to big budget fluff draped in expensive and superfluous CGI, to distract audiences from thin plots and bad dialogue; but Hasraf Dulull‘s Origin Unknown doesn’t have that to fall back on. That’s not to say that this film looks cheap; the control room set is realistic and well designed, and the external shots – of Mars, of craft in orbit around Earth – are convincing. Where the film falls down is in the ambiguity of the ending – it would spoil the film to give away too much here, but at points towards the end I was frustrated by the thought – did that really happen? If it did, why is this character still here? While films that spell everything out in block capitals leave the viewer feeling as though they’ve been treated like an imbecile, the ending of Origin Unknown could have been more tightly scripted – it would have been a more satisfying film in that case.
It took some courage for the filmmakers to leave that openness though. There seems to be a perception on the part of many producers that any ambiguity in a movie is box office poison – every loose end must be tied up neatly, and the audience can’t be trusted to get the message unless it’s spelled out one syllable at a time. However, a low budget and a bit of nerve allows some freedom, and for the most part, Origin Unknown is a better film for both of those things.
One striking thing about Origin Unknown is this: one can imagine it would be relatively easy to adapt for the stage without losing any of its impact. That’s a testament to a level of dramatic tension and character development that you wouldn’t come across in, for example, cuts from the flesh of the apparently immortal Star Wars cash cow. But I suppose that’s a frequent difference between an action film and a genuinely well scripted drama like Origin Unknown.
2036 Origin Unknown is released On Demand & DVD from 13 August