Part science fiction saga, part sweary Star Wars, be prepared to experience major sensory overload. It is a visual feast and also deeply disorientating. Noticeably there is no exposition — the story is told through flashbacks, memories and from the protagonist Joshua’s (John David Washington) viewpoint. In watching it I really could have done with some scrolling letters telling me that ‘in a galaxy far far away…’ as a lot of the time I really wasn’t sure what was going on or who anyone was. It can also feel like watching a space based Vietnam War movie and be quite distressing.
At the same time the movie has the look and world-building of Dune. The look and attention to detail is superb. It is immersive. In a faux jaunty 1950’s style info-mericial about the development of thinking, feeling(?) AI — robots, we see that a war has developed between humans and AI. A nuclear bomb has been dropped destroying Los Angeles — known as Ground Zero. Partly this is the humans’ fault as they continually used robots and AI for all the grotty jobs they didn’t want to do.
We meet Joshua happy with his very pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan) in New Asia, free from war and bombs. Only there is a raid, which Joshua seems to know something about and tries to stop. The robot/AI police drop bombs first and ask questions later. In trying to escape, Maya and the child are killed and Joshua spends the rest of the the film trying to find her. Beware the ominous blue lights as the AI are gonna get you.
Woven into this is a Blade Runner style arc and some Buddhism. The spiritual side of the movie is never fully explored — i.e. are AI alive or merely being turned off? Do they really not feel anything as everyone says? AI seem to think that they do and want to stay alive — as some of them have formed a resistant group and are trying to stopped their villages being bombed. Unlike Blade Runner, we don’t really see the AI-side of things, beyond their fighting to stay alive. Nor is the question of whether the miltary/police are standing in the way of evolution (as the scientists seem to think) ever answered.
Some militaristic police, led by a sterling Alison Janney as Colonel Howell are trying, with Joshua’s help, to track down a weapon — which turns out to be a child who can control all machines. They want to get the weapon (and probably turn it off) before the peace-loving AI do? So now we have space, sci-fi noire and a cute Golden Child subplot sloshing around — and sort of Dune, at the same time. Joshua turns out to be a military/police plant who was spying on the peaceful AI and had married as part of his cover to gain extra insight! His inability to believe that his wife and child really are dead dominates the film.
In a raid on some scientists (to get the weapon?) a child is found — who really likes watching TV and has to endure a heap of trauma as violence explodes around them. Beyond the child’s tears for not being a real person and therefore ‘denied heaven by not being good enough’, we never really see how the child feels about all the horrors they’re witnessing around them. They remain serene and intermittently use their powers — such as when they can’t push a capsule door open (which is surely electronic and they could just do the thing they’ve done before). Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie gives an amazing performance though as the movie goes full Mandalorian.
Joshua’s ongoing ethical dilemma is having control of the child — as they seek to evade the militaristic police, bombs, shut downs and guns — and his equal unwillingness to stop the weapon by shutting Alphie off. Alphie is usure of their powers and has to be persuaded to use them — such as taking control of vehicles, turning off power supplies and controlling space shuttle terminals.
For a time, Alphie gets some calm as they dwell in the peace-loving AI village — here the people see a child and a wonder, not a weapon. We also learn why Joshua is so protective of the child — Maya was cared for by AI as an orphaned child and has learned the power of cloning. Though he never acts as more than a strange friend, maybe he is actually a father after all. Whilst not fully explored, what life is and who deserves to live are big themes in this Dune-like world — and the AI very much believe themselves alive and want to live rather than being used as things and receptors for the memories of dying humans.
Overall, it looks amazing — I haven’t seen such world-building in quite a while. Gemma Chan and Joshua David Washington give amazing performances — everyone does. However there’s just too much going on and some parts of the plot aren’t explored or followed through fully. Is the film Mandalorian, Dune, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Pacific Rim; Live, Die, Repeat: The Edge of Tomorrow ? Or as it chooses, all of the above?
Whilst sold as a quest, it is incredibly violent and works more as a space-based Vietnam War movie. It is grim to see so many scenes of civilians being targeted, bullied, bombed and shot at — especially children. How the robotic AI came to be living in villages which can be so identified and brutalised is never really discussed, nor why they’ve created Buddhist style temples celebrating robots/AI and The Mother (Maya on a life support system). Is AI a spiritual being, can it be saved seems to be the bigger question — and I’m not sure we get an answer. Something also seems to be fighting to get out about the impact of war on civilians and militaristic states, but never really gets a voice.