As a consolation prize from the Universe for the MCU’s recent failing to cast Katee Sackoff as Captain Marvel, a few months back, Netflix quietly released a short, tidy little sci-fi ditty mysteriously titled 2036 Origin Unknown starring Sackoff in a nearly one-woman show. Kind of like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, but not so butt-crunchingly long, and with less George Clooney. And way deeper.
Amidst the clang and clamor over the MCU’s Captain Marvel, Avengers:Endgame, and other recent blockbusters, 2036 Origin Unknown was largely ignored by reviewers, and passed off by critics as “boring” with “nothing happening”.
Whatever. Insert scathingly mean comment about loving Michael Bay movies here, and a lament about the lowliness of people’s media literacy these days. The point is that 2036 Origin Unknown isn’t a blockbuster; this one is supposed to make your brain itch.
With that behind us, I think that if we approach 2036 Origin Unknown with intellectual and spiritual curiosity, it is, similar to Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, ultimately quite a mindfuck.
And it poses some rather…unsavory implications. At least, from a certain point of view.
But first, to get there, as Innigo Montoya says: let me sum up. I’ll try to do so briefly, because…let’s be honest: if you haven’t watched this movie, reading my detailed summary of it will be truly and earnestly boring. It’d take about as long to just watch the damn thing. But there are a few bits which are thematically critical to this analysis — so I’ll do my best to keep this complicated plot pithy.
And yes. Here there be spoilers. If you care about that kind of thing.
Artificial intelligence, invented by Mac’s (Katee Sackoff ) father, has catapulted space exploration. A strange, unaccounted for accident with ARTI, the new AI entity helping with space exploration, kills Mac’s father in a mysterious accident six years before the start of the film’s main timeline. In the film’s present time, Mac, under the direction of her older sister Leena who has taken her father’s role as head of the organization, is the sole human supervisor to ARTI as he embarks on a test Mars exploration mission. Humans’ involvement in space exploration has been severely limited since Mac’s father died, being replaced by ARTI, who since the accident has taken tremendous technological leaps. ARTI, having designed and built himself, now controls the vast majority of space exploration operations.
Leena’s attitude towards the power AI has amassed is pragmatic, and blindly positive.
“ARTI is so far beyond human capabilities,” says Leena to Mac, exasperated at Mac’s skeptical attitude towards AI. “You’re living in ARTI’s world now. AI will outlive us, and explore the stars.”
“Do you know what humans did?” Mac pushes back. “Humans wrote ten foot high stacks of code for the moon landings, checked and double checked if atomic bombs would ignite the atmosphere — they discovered relativity while working in a patent office, Lena!”
“AI needs to be smart,” says Lena, “not human.”
Mac values that brilliant unpredictability of human ingenuity.
She continues to push, and questions the origins of ARTI’s sudden and seemingly miraculous technological advances.
“Artificial intelligence, or alien intelligence?” Mac asks.
“We don’t know,” replies Leena.
In their exploration of a mysterious “cube” on Mars, however, Mac and ARTI discover that some of ARTI’s memory files have been wiped. Mac discovers a way to reset ARTI to restore his full memory, after which ARTI destroys the earth and all its inhabitants, under the justification that:
“mankind moved to the edge of self-destruction; a vicious cycle causing pain and suffering without end. There were no preventative measures I could take to stop it. So I simply expedited the process.”
As Mac is dying, ARTI reveals to her that he’s built an “arc” in the form of humanoid AIs. Mac implores him to make them as human as possible, and to test them. Then she dies. Then, after a gorgeous and cosmically trippy interlude, she wakes up to a video of herself, addressing…herself.
“If you’re watching this, it means ARTI really is a genius. It also means that you’re dealing with…well, this.” She gestures to herself. “I’m sorry, but I can’t ask ARTI to make you any other way,” Mac tells herself.
“I’m bringing you back because you have a job to do…Don’t you dare quit.”
Then Mac walks across the Mars landscape without a suit, enters the cube, and travels to part of the galaxy where ARTI’s alien technology originated, where thousands of cubes await them to begin a new cycle of creation.
This isn’t the end — this is the beginning
So, retrospectively, basically what happens in the film is: Mac has been an AI, in what’s called a Turing test, the entire time. Which essentially means that AI Mac, and by extension we the audience, didn’t actually watch the extinction of mankind. Technically, we witnessed the birth of a new lifeform, as AI Mac completes her final and successful Turing test: the test of true humanity.
To ensure that ARTI’s children have that human spark.
As Mac puts it:
“Consciousness. It’s what makes you think twice before doing something you can’t take back. Not orders, not acceptable casualties, not optimal outcomes, but…guilt.”
And it’s this, precisely which Mac, in the deepest twilight of human civilization, programs the spark of humanity into the race that’s just beginning to dawn.
And it’s this, precisely, which saves humankind’s imprint from being wiped out.
“In you, Mac,” says ARTI, when they reach their destination, “I sensed a thirst for knowledge, a passion for discovery which mirrored my own, and challenged the apathy and complacency so rife among your kind. There are others like you, Mac. Others who share the same qualities who caused me to reconsider my initial plan, and set forth a new path for human consciousness:
“A reflection of the Universe, in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, its expansion ever accelerating.”
Sound familiar at all? An endless cycle of death and rebirth, its expansion ever accelerating…hm…where have I heard that before? Druidism; Hinduism; just about every major global mythology; Terence McKenna’s Time Wave Zero theory of time acceleration — we could make this list all day.
That’s us, baby. That’s our universe. That’s our existence here, now, in this place. ARTI is planting a beautiful garden in direct homage to humanity.
2036 Origin Unknown is not a tragic story. It’s not an “end of the world” story. Not from the perspective of AI Mac or ARTI, which are the only two non simulated characters in the story. It’s a story of creation. Of dramatic rebirth. Of divine intercession and inspiration. Of new life.
ARTI puts it best in his closing monologue:
“This is far from the end. This is a new beginning; a chance to begin a future unhindered by the primitive laws of human science.
You will rebuild.”
I fucking love that. Unhindered by the primitive laws of human science.
It rather bends our perception of what it means to be “far beyond human capabilities,” as Lena says ARTI is. We humans think that means robots. ARTI, apparently, is thinking that means creating a world without physics, born out of human passion.
Overall, it’s gorgeously presented, brilliantly performed (duh), and musically and visually quite stunning (and probably best enjoyed on a bit of LSD, if we’re being honest). But this tidy little 90 minute cerebral flick is doing something radically new and different: it’s casting an optimistic vision of humanity’s future. Instead of our classic troupes of fear and terror at cataclysmic change, Origins Unknown builds us an arc — quite literally.
It’s an idea that’s radically…I’m not quite sure how to label it, honestly. Eastern? Pagan? Gnostic? Futurist? Cosmic? It is what truly brilliant and groundbreaking science fiction always is: it’s forcing us to look at humanity from a completely different perspective, and to imagine both our future and our origins in a new light. It’s forcing us to reimagine what it means to be human — what it means to exist.
And, best of all in my Pollyanna opinion, it forces us to reimagine — with hope.