Impressively resolute in its bleakness but irredeemably scattered in its approach, the sci-fi movie Warning consists of half a dozen storylines that are so at war with each other, they never coalesce into a movie. Every one of the vignettes in Agata Alexander’s film could be expanded into an intriguing full-length film. In fact, one of them is basically a shortened version of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. But Warning presents these ideas too rapidly and superficially. As soon as they become interesting, the film moves past them, with little connective tissue in between. The result is admirable for how grim it is in its multifaceted way, but as a whole, Warning is too disjointed and underdeveloped to really make an impact with its dystopian cautions.
Alexander has a strong grasp on what we expect sci-fi to look like, and she and cinematographer Jakub Kijowski collaborate on a number of unsettling images. It’s unfortunate that they’re also so familiar. An astronaut floating in pitch-black space, a brutalist mansion nestled in the woods, a pair of nearly nude bodies joined via tubes and pipes, a cyborg moving with precise robotism. These are archetypical moments that have bounced around this genre for a long time, and Warning presents them effectively. Some of them are even unexpectedly emotional, like a pair of robot butlers doing a stiff waltz with each other to pass the time. Or unnerving, like a man in a VR headset, covered in what looks like black oil, writhing in agony from the intensity of a memory.
But while Warning assembles the cornerstones of the genre, Alexander doesn’t build upon them with much creativity. That’s particularly clear in the script, from Alexander and co-writers Jason Kaye and Rob Michaelson, who flirt with a common genre idea per subplot, but then jump to something new instead of digging deep. Yes, humans do consume more than they need, rely too often on nostalgia, and act in selfish, tribalistic ways — but reciting those facts doesn’t make for an actual story.
One of the best concepts Warning too-briefly imagines is that AI could be the same way, and that humanity’s worst qualities — pettiness, classism, hypocrisy — could pass on to the cyborg descendants we design. Yet Warning practically sprints away from anything that would require more effort than eliciting just a “Hm, interesting” reaction. And the way each subplot ends, with a “Doesn’t being alive suck?” message, indicates an unwillingness to push anything here further.
Set in a “not too distant” future, Warning takes place both on a version of Earth with a few more invasive technological devices and news reports about COVID-19 outbreaks, and in space far from Earth, but with a sightline to it. Artificial intelligence is everywhere, and has mostly replaced human-to-human contact. While fixing a satellite, maintenance technician David (Thomas Jane) communicates with an AI system that is quick to point out their comparative values. (His company has determined his worth as $500,000, while the AI’s is $40 million.)
Meanwhile, a massive space storm that produces eerie red clouds and surges in crackling lightning behind David while he works is also causing a series of thunderstorms on Earth. While David complains about his job, his life, and everything else to the AI, Warning moves to the Big Blue Marble.
In what seems to exclusively be the United States, people and robots try to carve out a fulfilling existence in a dismal time. Committed couple Nina (Annabelle Wallis) and Liam (Alex Pettyfer) visit his rich, judgmental parents for dinner. Robot shelter caretaker Brian (Tomasz Kot) tries to find placements for his wards, including the eager-to-please Charlie (Rupert Everett), who dreads being decommissioned.
Also: Ben (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Anna (Kylie Bunbury) are in a seemingly idyllic relationship, but some kind of black silhouette follows Anna around, challenging her idea of reality. Claire (Alice Eve, doing a version of Kristen Bell’s pre-enlightened Eleanor from The Good Place) obsessively relies on her God device (voiced by James D’Arcy) to regulate her life, and measures her self-worth in its accumulation of her sins and good deeds.
And in addition: Teenage Magda (Garance Marillier), in accepting a gig through a service called Second Skin, gets in over her head in a business relationship that proves sometimes men only want women for their bodies. (The film includes an unnecessary attempted-rape scene, shot from the POV of the woman being attacked.)
Certain subplots are better than others. The Ben/Anna story is a slog that yet another tiring man, and the Claire/God-device satire is toothless. In contrast, the Brian/Charlie story would make a heartbreaking animated film, and if the Nina/Liam duo were expanded, it might look something like the very good I’m Your Man. But there’s only one main narrative thread linking these characters, and it’s a repetitive one: Nearly every one of them wonders about the existence of God. The existence of a religious question in Warning isn’t a problem, but the shallowness (and assumptive Christianity) of its approach doesn’t leave viewers with much to counteract all the despair.
On the one hand, Warning seems to be saying that technology has replaced all our values and belief systems, so we’ve forgotten a core component of what humanity is. (Claire not knowing how to “manually” pray is that segment’s funniest moment.) On the other hand, a question this weighty deserves more energy than what Warning provides.
An angry monologue followed by a melancholy monologue followed by another angry monologue gets old quick, even if there is some amusement to Jane’s snotty line delivery of David’s appeal to God, “What’s the lesson here? What, I’m selfish? I already knew that!” Unfortunately, Warning is full of sci-fi conclusions that genre fans already know, and the film’s title says it all.