2030: the Martian One shuttle departs for the red planet; a journey of eighty days on its new ion drive, the passage and arrival proceed as calculated, but following the descent through the thin atmosphere an incident occurs and contact is lost, the mission and all aboard declared lost.
2036: even as the space race has accelerated thanks to the new hyper-light communications technology, the shape of the challenge has changed with the United Space Planetary Corporation replacing their human staff with Artificial Intelligence Support – ARTI – with only a handful of supervisors retained, among them Mackenzie Wilson (Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff).
Assigned to the Martian One investigation and in charge of the follow-up mission, Mack is furious when she finds her decisions are overruled by ARTI, launching the unmanned probe ahead of schedule without her approval; yes, it is responding to an incoming dust storm and has possibly acted correctly, but the final decision should have been made by a human, not a machine responding to stimuli with a pre-designated protocol.
Mack’s sister and superior Lena (Children of Dune‘s Julie Cox) comfortable delegating authority to what she regards as the pinnacle of human achievement, Mack believes that ARTI should be a tool rather than a leader, and when ARTI discovers a large cuboid object which it declares “origin unknown” and not covered in its programming it refers back for instruction and is requested to investigate further.
Directed by Hasraf “Haz” Dulull from a script co-written with Austen Atkinson, from the glorious opening titles the spectre of 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs over 2036: Origin Unknown, the conflict of the human mind and the artificial and their differing goals paralleling an encounter with an object of vast and unknowable power, obviously alien and of mysterious purpose and intent.
Also like 2001, the human characters are isolated and take second place to ARTI whose personality recalls Moon‘s sympathetic but not entirely altruistic GERTY, Mack and Lena expressing little astonishment or jubilation at what could be a first contact situation, or at the very least a profound discovery on the surface of Mars.
Mack confident, independent and antagonistic towards anyone who questions her authority, her absolute expertise in her field allows her to get away with her borderline insubordination, a role which plays to all of Sackhoff’s established strengths but which doesn’t challenge her or require her to be anything other than a familiar presence to guarantee an audience.
Told primarily from a single location, Mack’s underground mission control where she interacts with ARTI and the distant Martian lander, the majority of the budget of Origin Unknown has gone into the overwhelming computer graphics, the display screens, the orbiting platforms and the surface of Mars, and the quality varies from engaging and compelling to early Babylon 5 in the movement of the landers.
The “big dumb object” a standard of science fiction literature which is less often conveyed in film, it requires a strong central idea to power it but as Origin Unknown lapses into conspiracy theories it flounders and becomes unsure where to go, unable to achieve the weight and majesty of 2001 and settling for something considerably more mundane.
Perhaps wisely realising that competing with one of the greatest films of all time was an overambitious target, while not without flaws Origin Unknown is smart and literate, questioning the relationship between carbon and silicon based intellects with intelligence and humour and carried effortlessly by Sackhoff, and certainly it is vastly superior to other recently released equivalent science fiction such as The Titan.