Offering a different kind of near-future dystopia, “Warning” lets the clock run out on humanity’s stint in the background, while in the foreground we examine ways technology might usurp our lives in the guise of “improving” them. This first feature for music video director Agata Alexander, credited as “a film by” producer Cybill Lui Eppich, is a refreshingly offbeat series of faintly interlocking stories that hang together better than most omnibus-type constructs.
This is sci-fi cinema of a relatively subtle, intriguing stripe, without the usual emphasis on fantastical or action imagery. Still, it’s slickly engaging enough to please more open-minded genre fans, and brainy enough to attract those who want something other than another laser shoot ’em up. Lionsgate is releasing the Poland-shot, English-language production to limited U.S. theaters as well as digital and VOD formats on Oct. 22.
David (Thomas Jane) is a lone maintenance man working on an orbiting satellite when some kind of electrical accident casts him adrift. Free-floating in space, he frantically communicates with his robotic-sounding HQ, seeking a rescue that doesn’t seem forthcoming. With a few days’ air supply, he eventually moves from terror to exhaustion to reflection, pondering what he’s made of his life — a life almost certainly about to end.
We return to his plight occasionally as stories unfold on the Earth whose blue orb looms large yet unreachable in his helpless view. First, there is the fate of Charlie (an unrecognizable Rupert Everett), a “fully operational companion robot” whose model is now outdated, though warehouse minder Brian (Tomasz Kot) dutifully tries to get him a new gig. It’s no use: Charlie is an antique, his 1950s Catskills-comedian personality designed to comfort rest-home seniors from a generation now defunct. Representing today’s youth, alas, is Claire (Alice Eve), a pampered single so accustomed to having every decision made for her, she scarcely knows how to exist when her “God” (an Alexa-like domestic voice-command automation system) breaks down.
The stakes are higher between two young couples in love. Ben (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Anna (Kylie Bunbury) appear to be living an idyllic romance — or is someone simply scrolling through a computerized record of their time together? Eventually we glean that the obsessive scrutiny such technology might permit can destroy a relationship. Another kind of “progress” comes between Nina (Annabelle Wallis) and Liam (Alex Pettyfer): She is mortal, while he is of a class that can afford to choose immortality. When he brings her home to meet the very wealthy parents played by Annabell Muillion and Richard Pettyfer, their reaction is one of old-school social snobbery with an alarming new edge.
Near the bottom of the economic ladder, there’s Magda (Garance Mallier from “Raw” and “Titane”), stuck living in a trailer with an alcoholic, self-piteous mother. Desperate to escape, she agrees to be the “Second Skin” for a portly, middle-aged male client who’s paid a small fortune to mentally inhabit her attractive young form for 48 hours. The process goes smoothly enough, but this vicarious thrill reels out of control in a hurry.
Throughout these tales, we’ve noted glitches in the technological web humanity is overdependent on. That they are warning signs of a wholesale planetary catastrophe gets underlined in a brief final segment with Charlotte Le Bon and child actor Aleksandra Zagrodzka.
Though more dependent on ideas and strong casting than spectacle, “Warning” brings sufficient sci-fi visual interest to the table, with good if modestly scaled FX work, and elegant widescreen lensing from Jakub Kijowski. Jagna Dobesz’s deft production design encompasses such details as the Rorschach-like patterns on the walls at Magda’s fateful hotel assignation. Screenplay and editing smoothly interweave the disparate story threads, some of which run out quickly, others running to the end.
The cautionary and philosophical musings here are thought-provoking yet unpretentiously presented. Alexander and company are fortunate to have Jane, an actor easily capable of the involvement and pathos needed for David, whose “Gravity”-like predicament lends the film a means to address those issues in more verbally explicit form. “They say it’s easier to live in an illusion than reality,” he says, spelling out “Warning’s” central critique — then its bemused, melancholic response, with “I thought all of this made sense, but none of it does.”