Long-delayed 'Eva' impressively imagines the future of A.I. to make up for its frivolous story
Eva The Weinstein Company
Director: Kike Maíllo
Screenplay: Sergi Belbel, Cristina Clemente, Martí Roca and Aintza Serra
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Claudia Vega, Marta Etura, Alberto Ammann, Anne Canovas and Lluís Homar
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Eva is what happens when intriguing sci-fi meets dopey melodrama. It's enough to make you wonder, frustratedly, why a film of such obvious smarts and so poetic an imagination feels the need to rely on hackneyed plotting to get its point across. Yes, I'm sure it's an easier (or at least broader) to sell, wrapping the technological existentialism inside a soapy package - and of course there's a long cinematic tradition of using that kind of melodrama as a Trojan horse for deeper concerns. So maybe Eva is simply falling in line with that tradition. But it feels more like scraping the bottom of the narrative barrel.
The film has too many interesting things on its mind to waste so much time on a transparent (and badly handled) love triangle and all the entanglements that come with it. Especially with a mere 94-minute runtime. We see something that could have been kinda great being persistently brought down by lower, cheaper impulses.
Worse yet is how transparent the screenplay - which, perhaps tellingly, has four credited writers - sets all of that melodrama in motion. When Alex Garel (Daniel Brühl) returns to his hometown after a decade of radio silence to reunite with his brother David (Alberto Ammann), we can already see the wheels in motion. So it's virtually inevitable that the woman he dramatically locks eyes with will turn out to be not only his ex-lover, but his brother's wife. And just to make it a perfect soap-opera stew, the movie throws in the happy couple's 10-year-old daughter - hey, that's the same amount of time that Alex has been gone! - whose ambiguous paternity will quite obviously be a turning point in the plot.
To be fair, there are tweaks to the formula that keep the personal subplots from being entirely cursory, but there's also a number of eye-rolling scenes and shots among some combination of Alex, David and Lana (Marta Etura) that get in the way of more stimulating material.
All that being said, there's still a lot here to be enthusiastic about, and it's that portion of the material that elevates Eva into a higher class of science-fiction, even as its narrative backdrop keeps trying to diminish it. The film envisions a future, just a few decades from now, in which artificial intelligence is commonplace - to the extent that, at one point, David laments how boring robots are. We see robotic pets all over the place - Alex has a cat, Gris, to keep him company. In fact, it's often the only company he has any use for. The animals are one of the film's many great inventions; their various metal plates and bolts look like the type of industrialized armor you might see in a modern superhero film (Iron Man in particular comes to mind), and their movements - reminiscent of those of the mule-like carrier robots in Jake Paltrow's Young Ones - are superbly lifelike in a way that is nonetheless just a shade off-putting (by design).
Alex is, or was, one of the most important minds of the artificial-intelligence revolution, and in a return visit to his old university (where Lana also works, because obviously) he agrees to continue work on a groundbreaking project he began years ago. The idea is to create a "free" robot child that will have the full emotional makeup of a human being. In order to do so, he'll have to match the physical, technological model he's built with a human personality, for which he will need an emotional/psychological model - enter Eva (Claudia Vega), an indelibly charismatic young girl with intelligence beyond her years. She is the perfect model for Alex's experiment (and Vega is a perfect bit of casting - so many scenes of the film wouldn't work at all without her performance), though his attachment is of course complicated by the familial (niece? daughter?) connection.
Director Kike Maíllo finds really lovely ways to visualize ostensibly non-physical sci-fi concepts - namely the psychological formula that Alex is in the process of creating. The film presents it as an intricate and highly functional hologram made up of spheres and springs and levers that look like they're made of some rare, translucent crystal. The pieces - which often take the form of twigs, branches and berries, an appropriately animate visual representation - signify different portions of the consciousness being created. We see Alex constantly tweaking the formula to get it right, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the way Kiefer Sutherland's Dr. Schreber created memories in Alex Proyas' Dark City. The psychological constellation that results is a beautifully elaborate piece of ornamentation, its fragility an apt reflection of the human emotions it personifies.
The tech possibilities Maíllo creates are where Eva really delivers. Aside from the pets that populate so many scenes, we also have humanoid robots like Max (Lluís Homar), Alex's university-sanctioned assistant who takes up residence with him (and develops an adversarial relationship with the cat). Max is a tad excitable and emotionally uptight - that is, until Alex makes him drop his personality settings to a lower level, a bit like Interstellar's TARS with a human face.
The detail that sticks with me most is a line of dialogue that serves as an A.I. kill switch whenever a human determines that its robot property is malfunctioning or otherwise getting out of hand. "What do you see when you close your eyes?" And then the robot will drop lifeless to the ground, never to be resuscitated. You say those words, you're starting all over again. It's such a simple line, but the effect is chilling, even moving - even when it's used to put down nothing more than a small mechanical horse.
Structurally, the film suffers from its in media res opening, which clumsily gives away a major event and works against the story once it finally catches up chronologically. Beyond that, there are two particular moments in Alex's workshop that parallel each other so directly (and deliberately) that it makes all too obvious something that the film still insists on waiting to "officially" reveal. But even with the messy execution, the way those two rhyming scenes apply to the characters involved is pretty interesting. If anything, it crystallizes both the strengths and weaknesses of Maíllo's filmmaking. He doesn't really show much command of storytelling - when to reveal information and how, or even what's emotionally involving and what's not - but the concepts his plotting supports are fascinatingly conceived.
Unfortunately, Eva is also what tends to happen when The Weinstein Company gets its hands on a movie it either doesn't know what to do with or is no longer interested in. It was made way back in 2011 but sat on the shelf for years before finally being dumped into a few theatres this spring. (They also let Zhang Yimou's Hero sit around for a couple of years, and a John Cusack-starrer called Shanghai is infamous in some Internet circles for the fact that, despite being relatively expensive and having been completed and screened in 2010, it still has not seen the light of day in the U.S.) In any case, I'm glad Eva - which I'd never heard of until a few days before I saw it - finally got to have its day, however limited its release may be. Movies about artificial intelligence should only continue to multiply in the coming years, and this one might serve as a striking time capsule.