If you’ve seen any of the renowned science fiction movies of the last 50 years, you will for sure find 2036 Origin Unknown to be very familiar, not only because of its many references to the movies before it but also through the themes writer/director Hasraf Dullul (“The Beyond”, “Sync (Short)”) & co-writer Gary Hall (“Pastel (Short)”) chose to rely on.
As the title (a clear reference – and not the only one – to 2001 Space Odyssey) indicates, the year is 2036, six years after a failed manned mission to Mars.
Astronaut Mackenzie Wilson, Katee Sackhoff (“Riddick”, “The Flash (TV)”) and advanced Artificial Intelligence ARTI (voiced by Steven Cree (“Outlander (TV)”, “Maleficent”) are supervising a new mission to the red planet when they discover an object of unknown origin with strange powers that could potentially change everything on Earth and beyond.
Nearly the entire movie takes place in one single room, the command room of Mackenzie and ARTI from which they can communicate with others and observe the discoveries of the rovers sent on Mars, all of it in real time thanks to the development of light-speed communication.
This makes for a tight thriller in close quarters carried by lead actress Katee Sackhoff who does a great job given the pressure on her shoulders – her acting is however at times hindered by (most probably) the directing, notably for a big, emotional ending speech that is far from carrying the weight it should have.
The supporting cast is also pretty good: Julie Cox (“The Oxford Murders”, “Children Of Dune”) plays Lena Sullivan, Mackenzie’s sister and boss who adds tension to the story as she holds different opinions than Mackenzie on how to run things, as well as holding her fair share of secrets.
Ray Fearon (“Beauty And The Beast“, “The Foreigner“) is Sterling Brooks, an investigator caught in the middle of it all; and Steven Cree wonderfully voices ARTI with a calm, monotone British accent that reminds us all too much of 2001’s HAL 3000.
ARTI isn’t the only reference to Kubrick’s masterpiece: there is actually so many of them that it would make you wonder if 2036 Origin Unknown isn’t supposed to take place in the same universe, as a sort of unofficial sequel or at least spiritual successor.
The black monolith, the morally ambiguous AI who spies on the crew and has the physical form of a black sphere with a pulsating shape (this time a triangle) in it, a scene in space where colorful lines move quickly through the screen, all these visuals that instantly bring to mind 2001 Space Odyssey are present here as well in what can either be seen as an homage and testament to 2001’s impact on sci-fi, or as an argument towards 2036’s complete lack of original ideas, instead desperately trying to grab on what made its predecessor so iconic.
The lack of original ideas is also present in the themes explored by Hasraf Dullul and Gary Hall.
What makes science-fiction good is that it makes us reconsider our world, future and humanity with new, original concepts. But 2036 Origin Unknown only re-uses ideas that are so prevalent to the genre that using them now could almost turn the movie into a parody.
What saves 2036 from this path is Dullul’s good control of tension, pacing and what to show and hide, as well as the talent of the two main actors (Sackhoff and Cree).
Obviously an important aspect of science-fiction is the special effects. With most of the movie taking place in one single room, the movie avoids the use of too much SFX in the first place, but when it does it is quite good.
ARTI looks great, just like the technology used by Mackenzie in the command room; only the scenes in space or on Mars feel relatively cheap but way better than could be expected from a low-budget movie.
With such a title and all its references, 2036 Origin Unknown positioned itself to be compared to 2001 Space Odyssey, a mistake that should have probably been avoided.
On its own, the film is entertaining and could possibly impress people who haven’t watched many sci-fi movies before; compared to other movies, however, it brings nothing more to the immense body of work that the genre possesses: instead, it only leads us down a very predictable road, but one that still manages to be engaging.