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Uncanny (2015)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/16/15 04:37:40

"Passes Turing, fails Voight-Kampff"
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2015 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: "Uncanny" jokes about the Turing Test casually enough to make even longtime science fiction fans marvel a bit at how the phrase has started to enter the general lexicon in the last few years. The go-to reference for this short of thing used to be the Voight-Kampff test from "Blade Runner", and its goal of trying to identify a genuine emotional response is the one that takes center stage here. Am interesting setup, to be sure, but also kind of a problem.

The film is built around tech reporter Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths) being given an seven days of access to the lab space of David Kressen (Mark Weber), a prodigy who had been designing the future since graduating college at the age of eighteen seven years ago. He shows Joy a bunch of cool stuff - lightweight bone replacements, synthetic skin, prosthetic eyes - and then introduces her to Adam (David Clayton Rogers), who is what you get when you connect all of those innovations to a cutting-edge artificial intelligence. He's evidently sophisticated enough to become envious when Joy starts showing more ingest in the scientist than the science project.

It's hard to figure out exactly why, though, even without playing the stereotypical "she's an attractive, accomplished woman and he's a real nerd" game. David just isn't very charismatic at all, and even without the readily-apparent irony of Adam seeming like the warmer one of the pair, his clumsy social-stuntedness never comes off as endearing enough to really buy Joy being attracted to him enough for it to become a major cog in the plot. It takes all kinds, sure, but there's a spark missing, and neither director Matthew Leutwyler nor writer Shahin Chandrasoma quite seems to have a handle on what Joy seers in him.

The seven-day time frame also becomes tricky; as much as the emotional relationships need that sort of time to play out, there just aren't seven days' worth of things for Joy to do on this assignment, and the audience can feel the filmmakers killing time while other things play out. The regular "day x" chapter marks only drive that impression home, and while Leutwyler does fairly well in putting things that will make a little more sense later out in plain sight without tipping his hand too much, it's a close thing, and a fidgety viewer will probably see a few things as actively not making much sense rather than fitting in better later.

Fortunately, a good cast can make up a fair amount of ground in this short of chamber piece. The trio that gets the bulk of the screen time here is not bad at all. Lucy Griffiths probably plays Joy in a more straightforward manner than her background suggests - Chandrasoma seems to add pieces to Joy's backstory as needed but just what sort of an effect that fragmented life has had on her is often elusive. Still, she's easy to settle in with, especially as a contrast with David and Adam. Mark Weber and David Clayton Rogers each do well to give their respective characters different angles on not knowing how to react to other people very well, managing stiffness that feels more like personality than questionable acting, along with a touch of menace when necessary.

Things take a bit more of a turn toward the uncomfortable at the end than the audience might expect, although it's ironically less of a problem than it might have been had the attraction between Joy and David been sold better early on. That's an odd way to feel at the end of a movie, and that makes "Uncanny" less compelling than it should be. It's still interesting, but this story is getting common enough that it needs to be a little better to stand out.

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