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All words: Alan Pyke

You could watch Eva at least twice in the time it would take you to sit through Steven Spielberg’s A.I. And you’d have at least twice as much fun, provided you’re willing to trade Jude Law and some sci-fi robustness for subtitles, emotional authenticity, and a pre-apocalyptic vision of advanced robotics in human society.

Brilliant roboticist Alex Garel (Daniel Brühl) comes out of a 10-year retirement to return to the advanced lab where brother David (Alberto Ammann) and his wife Lana (Marta Etura) are still building bots and teaching the next generation of scientists. The institute’s director, Julia (Anne Canovas), has called Alex back because his special creative touch is required for a secret project, a new generation of machine called the SI-9. It will improve on David’s creation, the SI-8, embodied in Eva by a charming valet named Max (Lluís Homar).

Director Kike Maíllo wraps that plot in a wonderful 90-minute visual journey. The camera is never quite still, but almost never moves quickly. Like Alex’s mind or a robot’s personality development, the lens is constantly moving, evolving. The robotics effects are sparse yet believable, which is especially noteworthy given that Eva was made in 2011 but is just now getting brought to U.S. cinemas. The real mastery is evident in Maíllo’s control over the color palette of the film. Some scenes play out in the icy blues and rock-riven whites of the snowy mountains surrounding the institute, but the vast majority of Eva’s world plays out in tired, earthy browns, dusty oranges, and champagne-like golds. The laboratories and living spaces Alex is comfortable in are dim, ratty, a visual mimic of his own desire to insulate himself in a certain numbness.

For all those formal strengths, there’s something patchwork and a bit ragged about what Eva is trying to be as a story. It’s two parts A Beautiful Mind-style difficult-genius worship, one part A.I.-style Serious Robot Futurism, and about six parts straightforward love triangle. The resulting cocktail goes down smooth enough. But while its exciting for a few sips, it’s also a bit forgettable as a drink.

It helps quite a bit that Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!, Rush) and Etura (The Impossible) are so arrestingly gorgeous to look at and listen to. Lluís (Los Abrazos Rotos, La Mala Educación) steals more than one scene as the butler robot, and Alex’s decision to turn Max’s emotion settings down two notches and snuff out the fun bits of his personality is as painful as any other moment in Eva. Young Claudia Vega packs the titular child, Lana’s daughter Eva, with every centimeter of quirkiness and wit and daring possible.

Canovas’ own refined allure and contralto gravitas in the role of the head of the robotics institute are enough to make that place feel authentically academic, secretive, and sophisticated. Her performance patches what would otherwise be a dangerous crack in the script. Sergei Babel’s story barely even waves a hand toward the broader questions of what this institution is, why it is entrusted to conduct boundary-pushing robotics research, and to what rules and government security forces it answers.

Daniel-Bruhl-EVA-2011

And why should it? This is a romantic family separation story playing dress-up in a serious science fiction film’s clothes. It builds a reverent Philip K. Dick reference into its world – the sentence “What do you see when you close your eyes?” acts as a universal killswitch for Eva’s robots, and as a wink to Dick’s “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” for the cinema audience – and includes inventive but too-brief sequences of actual futuristic engineering.

It would be a mistake to criticize the slightness of the Hard Sci-Fi robotics stuff too harshly, though. Given the choice between leaden expositional dialogue and subtler stuff that leaves some big questions unasked, only a masochist would choose to be spoonfed by a screenwriter. And there’s just enough to establish that the future earth of the movie has addressed the key Aasimovian questions of how humanity would regulate advanced humanoid AI machines to prevent the rise of the machines. From Max the robo-valet’s chagrin at Alex’s charming robo-kitty Gris, we learn that the cat is a creature of unregulated free will, and that such programming is illegal because it is viewed as unsafe. The SI-9 is to be “the first free robot,” Julia says, implying that the project’s secrecy is due to its nature as an attempt to go beyond the boundaries of human safety as the relevant authorities currently draw them.

But ultimately this is the story of three brilliant, estranged scientists trying to make sense of a decade of unresolved romantic tension. Alex, David, and Lana deliver on that premise, and the obvious but un-hurried questions about Eva’s paternity that arise from the love triangle are still gripping even if they feel too familiar, too classically cinematic. It all plays out through that hospitable, charming, but tense form of social grace that seems to come so naturally to Spaniards amid emotional complexity.

The movie would fare much better without an opening coda that gives too much of the game away. But some of the scenes that read initially as charming but too-conventional human bonding sequences, like one where Lana bathes Eva while her daughter tries to pry gossip about Lana’s history with Alex out of her mom, are easier to appreciate in retrospect as clever and subtle world-building elements.

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