'Uncanny': SBIFF Review

Uncanny Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shoreline Entertainment

Uncanny Still - H 2015

“Uncanny” is an understatement

Mark Webber leads a small cast in Matthew Leutwyler’s dystopian speculative drama

The darker side of artificial intelligence emerges in Uncanny, a deterministic drama played out on a domestic scale. Limited in scope and lacking either compelling casting or visual pyrotechnics, Matthew Leutwyler’s seventh feature is likely to find its best reception in ancillary.

Ten years after graduating from MIT at 19 with dual degrees in mechanical and computer engineering, robotics wunderkind David Kressen (Mark Webber) is still holed up in fortress-like Workspace 18, a contemporary high-tech Los Angeles lab sponsored by billionaire Simon Castle (Rainn Wilson). But now the time has come to share his innovations with the world outside and Castle has invited science journalist Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths) to visit Kressen’s live-work space over a week’s time to witness his masterwork, a humanoid robot that he’s dubbed “Adam.”

A former robotics engineer before taking up journalism, Andrews’ initial skepticism regarding Kressen’s AI creation quickly gives way to admiration, as she marvels at Adam’s lifelike appearance, realistic vocalization and superior programming that facilitates surprisingly normal conversation. While interviewing both Kressen and Adam, who acts as Kressen’s lab assistant and shares the same last name, Andrews develops a growing affinity toward the inventor, as well as his creation, particularly as Kressen helps rekindle her enthusiasm for applied science. 

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As their relationship becomes more personal during her repeated visits to the self-sufficient lab, Adam begins demonstrating physical attraction toward her and exhibiting the type of emotionality typically associated with humans rather than robots. Whether Adam is actually undergoing a monumental leap in self-programming that may make his behavior more sophisticated or is perhaps discovering potentially unpredictable and threatening urges, Andrews is caught squarely between the two enigmatic personalities. 

Scriptwriter Shahin Chandrasoma, a physician who has used robotics in surgical procedures, refashions typically dystopian themes on a smaller scale appropriate to independent filmmaking, but this downsizing is only occasionally appropriate. The absence of distinctly futuristic technology or clearly identifiable social developments in the lager world beyond the film’s immediate setting also deprives the narrative of crucial context. 

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The script's reductionist characterization, which essentially splits Kressen’s personality between ego and id, then pits David and Adam against one another in a rivalry for Andrews' affections, remains too simplistic to become fully involving. Webber assumes the role of the brilliant but socially inexperienced scientist with ease, shifting smoothly between confident expert and awkward nerd. Tasked with the challenge of portraying a “humanoid AI,” Rogers’ performance remains frustratingly tentative until the final scenes reveal an inspired plot twist. Griffiths confidently plays the diligent journalist, but wavers when Andrews is required to show more emotional range, particularly in an unnerving climactic scene toward the film’s conclusion, which then reveals Wilson’s limited role as the narrative’s twisted manipulator. 

Leutwyler exhibits a good grasp of the material’s possibilities, but budget constraints and limited locations don’t provide much opportunity for stylistic expression. Varied setups and lighting schemes allow DP Ross Richardson to achieve some semblance of visual variety, enhanced by Leutwyler’s nuanced editing. 

Production companies: Emergent Behavior/Accelerated Matter

Cast: Mark Webber, Lucy Griffiths, David Clayton Rogers, Rainn Wilson

Director: Matthew Leutwyler

Screenwriter: Shahin Chandrasoma

Producers: Sim Sarna, Nora Bafus, Gabriel Geer, Shahin Chandrasoma

Executive producers: Para Chandrasoma, Miranda Bailey, Brian Miller, Darrell Bafus

Director of photography: Ross Richardson

Production designer: Eddie Matazzoni

Costume designer: Sharon Sampson

Editor: Matthew Leutwyler

Casting director: Michael Testa

Music: Craig Richey


No rating, 87 minutes