Uncanny review

Unable to escape comparisons to Ex Machina, Uncanny is nevertheless a fantastic, thought-provoking AI film in its own right...

This review contains spoilers for Ex Machina.

Uncanny has been in development since 2012, and features three characters in one location, one of whom happens to be an AI, and touches on aspects of the Turing Test, technological singularities, and portrays an unsettling example of the male gaze.

You can see why its creators were a bit miffed about Ex Machina coming out.

However, while there are obvious similarities between the two films they are different and complementary enough to make for a great Creepy AI double-bill event, something to remember wistfully when the robots ultimately take over in thirty years’ time.

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Instead of an almost unreachable setting, most of Uncanny takes place in a secure research facility called Workspace 18, a city-based penthouse. David Kressen (Mark Webber) has been there since he was headhunted as a teenager by Simon Castle (Rainn Wilson, watching on monitors from elsewhere) to work on world-changing technology. And lo, here is Adam (David Clayton Rogers), an AI who can pass as human. Enter tech journalist Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths) to do a week long profile of the project.

Uncanny features only four actors, and Rainn Wilson is mainly limited to looking enigmatically at monitors. Griffiths, sustaining an American accent for the most part (though, to be fair, it’s hard to maintain a different voice when yelping) is a dab hand when it comes to quickfire repartee, though is called upon to laugh nervously enough for it to become a distracting quirk. However, her performance convinces you to go along with the film’s plot, as she has a great chemistry with Webber and makes their improving relationship seem plausible.

As David, Webber starts off by playing Sheldon Cooper without the laughter track. He’s a smug, patronising genius who’s hard to like, whose only company for a decade has been someone he built. Adam, by contrast, is all childlike innocence and introversion when we first meet him. Joy’s presence changes all three of them, bringing David out of his shell and revealing more likeable facets to him. Webber plays this excellently, bringing out the incremental changes in David subtly as he talks to another human being and starts to wonder what he’s missed out on, and as his relationship with Adam moves away from its initial ‘geeky brothers living in a lab’ vibe.

Clayton Rogers gives a restrained performance as Adam, one where his aversion to eye contact and twitchiness don’t feel forced or overdone. This becomes clear in the second half of the film, where the tension gets released and the dynamic changes. Initially blank and synthetic, Rogers’ performance also changes subtly as he starts becoming more human over the course of week. While David’s emergence from his bubble is more positive, Adam makes mistakes, and has trouble coping.

The film has a lot of fun with its Biblical references, some more subtle than others, and in having a male AI has a different angle to Ex Machina in terms of gender. Here, the creator doesn’t build robots with a view to sexual attraction, but the robot itself becomes sexually attracted to Joy. The resulting behaviour initially feels like that of an infatuated and confused teenager, but gets more disturbing as the film progresses. It’s not a film that feels like it’s trying for any sort of message about gender politics, unlike Ex Machina. Despite this, although Uncanny features a laughably gratuitous cleavage shot, it generally manages to portray exploitation in a less exploitative way than Ex Machina does, while still being harrowing.

Uncanny is satisfying, first and foremost, as an immediately enjoyable thriller. Its sly sense of humour and well constructed story hold the attention, but it also manages to use imagery and subtext consistently well. The script, by Shahin Chandrasoma, is clever in an unshowy way, and similarly Matthew Leutwyler’s direction doesn’t scream ‘Look at me’, but tells the story with quietly efficiency. Considering the number of little techy doodads (sorry if I’m blinding you all with science here) on screen, the art department deserve props too (pun intended, not sorry).

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Certainly with a film like Uncanny, you’d be forgiven for leaving the cinema not focussing on how solid a production it is for presumably quite a low budget. It’s got a gripping story deftly told. It’s been put together with a lot of attention to detail, enough to reward multiple viewings. You could debate the ramifications of its conclusion on a metaphorical level, or simply admire the way it subverts expectations. Or you could have an argument about whether it’s better than Ex Machina, though this would be unfair.

Uncanny is definitely better, for my money.

Uncanny was showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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4 out of 5