Seen any good Serbian sci-fi lately? How about AI Rising, a film that works wonders with two main actors, a couple of sets, some clever lighting, moody music and a small team of special-effects artists who know their stuff.
If there’s a criticism – let’s get this out of the way straight away – it’s that AI Rising might be straining so hard to be a “proper” sci-fi film on a modest budget that it risks looking like a kid in daddy’s clothes. It’s not an entirely fair charge but it can certainly be levelled.
It’s the Pygmalion story, really, done in a faintly Solaris style, with Sebastian Cavazza playing sexist “Yugoslav” (their term, not mine) astronaut Milutin, a man on a gigantic solo mission to distant Alpha Centauri, where capitalist megacorporations are hoping to make a fresh start after socialist controls have been “instated” on planet Earth to help restore order.
Accompanying him is a cyborg called Nimani 1345, played by porn star Stoya. Nimani 1345 is a robot with a variety of programs and parameters that can be tweaked by Milutin, according to what sort of companion he fancies that day, from Domestic and Friend Zone, through Corporate and Economic, to Submissive and Intimate. The male fantasy – a woman who does what she’s told, at least to Milutin’s way of thinking.
Though the film wastes no time in getting Stoya out of her clothes – as you’d expect from someone who once starred in a film called Power Fuck – and Cavazza over her, under her, front and behind, Milutin isn’t as entirely satisfied as a lot of viewers will be. He wants pushback, grit in the oyster, a more human experience, in short. To slightly over-distill Zoran Neskovic and Dimitrije Vojnov’s story, what’s the point of raping someone if they’re in rape mode? And so, in the film’s dramatic turning point, Milutin does something he shouldn’t do, bringing into play Isaac Asimov’s laws of cybernetics, number one being that a robot shall not harm its master.
Well, that’s the idea. The laws are mentioned twice, once up front, in a briefing scene on Earth, and later when the plot hits the crucial bump in the astral road, but they’re invoked only to be largely ignored, in favour of the Pygmalion aspect of the story (sculptor falls in love with statue).
As said, a Social Engineer (Marusa Majer) notwithstanding plus Kirsty Besterman’s voice as the obligatory softly spoken ship’s computer – trace that back to Kubrick – this is a two hander, Cavazza the sort of handsome, Clooney-esque middle-aged guy young men hope they’re going to turn into if ageing really is a thing, Stoya a lithe and borderline hard-faced presence, all the better for when things get grudgeful betweeen Milutin and Nimani.
A bit more jeopardy wouldn’t have gone amiss, since the film’s stretch towards the philosophical can get a bit like Existentialism 101, Solaris with most of the profundity removed. But then isn’t that sci-fi all over, with its promising-the-stars offer? See 2001, Interstellar, Ad Astra, ad grandiosum, ad infinitum.
The real marvel here is the sense of atmosphere, remarkable things being done with mood and lighting by director Lazar Bodroza and his DP Kosta Glusica. So much sci-fi veracity has been conjured with cleverly used flashing lights and a lot of flare in the lens, a visually striking counterpoint to the overall vibe of murk and shadow. This is not a film for epileptics, be warned. But it is one for lovers of the 1980s electro mood, Nemanja Musorovic’s score alternating between the outright bubbly, burbling almost Daft Punkish and the more ambient sci-fi stylings of a Brian Eno.
Impressive too how much is achieved with barely a glimpse of deep space, or the spaceship Milutin and Nimani are in. And though critiques of capitalism are a recurring theme in sci-fi movies – Silent Running and Total Recall to The Matrix and Snowpiercer – it’s refreshing to hear the word “Marxism” being bandied about. There is strangeness and uniqueness in here, amid the conformity to sci-fi norms. Let’s hope that director Lazar Bodroza’s next sci-fi outing, Aurora, gives him enough to space to really let rip.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022