Eva Dir. Kike Maíllo

[The Weinstein Company; 2011]

Styles: science fiction
Others: AI: Artificial Intelligence, I Robot, Bicentennial Man, Frankenstein, Blade Runner, Chappie

In modern video games, players experiment with rudimentary artificial intelligence. In role-playing games or simulations, for example, the player is given the opportunity to imbue his or her avatar with a personality. This aspect of play is interesting because it quantifies traits with numbers (e.g. I might give my character 3 points of aggression and 5 of curiosity). Eva, a Spanish fiction science-film that was originally released in its home country years ago, imagines robotics and artificial intelligence as a similar kind of experiment. Director Kike Maíllo and his four screenwriters mix seamless special effects with a domestic drama, but given the low stakes of the conflict, this is the sort of exercise that is more thought-provoking than involving.

Daniel Brühl, a Spanish-German actor who usually speaks English or German, stars as Alex, a brilliant roboticist who returns to a sleepy university town that’s in the throes of winter. His brother David (Alberto Ammann) greets him warmly, yet Alex is too awkward and guarded to explain the purpose of his visit. With the help of his former professor Julia (Anne Canovas), Alex creates the SI-9, the first “free” humanoid robot that’s capable of independent thought. The robot has a child’s body, minus the emotional intelligence, and Alex eventually decides to base it on his niece Eva (Claudia Vega). Eva’s mother is Lana (Marta Etura), which complicates the situation since Eva and Alex meet in secret, and Lana was once together with Alex. Ethical and moral lapses converge on each other, which pushes Alex toward madness.

The most interesting thing about Maíllo’s low-key approach is the lived-in quality of the special effects. They do not call attention to themselves, exactly, and instead suggest a world that’s both otherworldly and familiar. Alex has robo-cat with free will, and the way it wanders in and out of the frame is perfect example of how the future is the present to whomever lives there, no matter what new technology they have.

The other big special effect is how Alex constructs the soul: Maíllo imagines it as a series of intricate, translucent baubles, each one representing one particular facet or quirk. It is a compelling metaphor for the human brain, and the better scenes involve Alex, either with Eva or his SI-9 prototype, trouble-shooting a robot that has a sophisticated personality but none of the experience. This is a workmanlike approach to science-fiction, the kind with measured awe that nonetheless asks intriguing questions.

Eva stumbles as it conflates Alex’s discovery with a perfunctory domestic drama. There is an abundance of foreshadowing around the Alex/David/Lana love triangle, to the point that it’s payoff has little dramatic depth (“Space Oddity” is the soundtrack for a slow dance sequence, again proving that the BBC’s Apollo 11 context for the song is the only one that works). There are some surprises, as there must be, but they land like an afterthought instead of a shock. To Maíllo’s credit, the storytelling has the same lived-in quality of its world-building, except the choice is a misfire, albeit one with good intentions.

More importantly, there is not enough character development to sustain the melodrama, a fact that’s compounded by the way Eva (the character) is written. Too precocious by half, she’s the latest example of a pre-pubescent character who speaks as if they’re read nothing but Whit Stillman screenplays. Brühl and the other actors have more realistic performances, so the only standout is Lluís Homar, who plays Alex’s helper robot Max. Homar plays Max as if he’s just a hair on the wrong side of the Uncanny Valley, and his otherworldliness is the film’s only source of humor. The way Alex speaks to Max, with a mix of amusement and mild annoyance, might be eerie foreshadowing of how we treat our robot servants before they become our overlords.

Eva won several Goya awards — Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars — which no surprise, given how the film is a showcase for the country’s beautiful landscapes. The film takes place in a small town within Barcelona’s province, Catalonia, and the snowy exteriors are more welcoming than they are austere (some exteriors were shot in Switzerland). The frozen exteriors and warm interiors are an organic antithesis to the robotic tinkering/God-playing that defines the film. No matter how we attempt to dominate machines, everyone’s happier in a state of harmony. Eva is all about this harmony/acrimony cycle, among both robots and people, so the problem is its lack of attention toward the latter.

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