Prior to screening Eva, the new release from Spanish director Kike Maíllo, I happened to be driving along when the Dave Wallace remix of Everything But the Girl’s “Walking Wounded” (which can be found on Everything But the Girl’s Adapt or Die: Ten Years of Remixes) randomly cued up on my current playlist. The original track captured the long-time British duo (the husband and wife team of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn) who have traversed the musical landscape since the early 1980s, starting out in singer-songwriter mode before trying on pop sprinkled with light jazz and then finding a degree of success merging their melancholic longings with after hours electronic grooves, giving voice to the broken romantic arcs littering the clubs. “Out amongst the walking wounded,” Thorn sang, “is you and me / and him and her / somedays I think I could go insane.” So often, these songs tricked attentive fans, like myself, into wondering if we were somehow flies on the wall, inside the relationship dynamic between Watt and Thorn.
Yet it was the soundscape that intrigued me this time, approximating the atmospherics of waves crashing on the shore before the electronic beats and blips swirled in, creating a narrative on top that, curiously, did not cancel out or come into direct conflict with the natural world, even as more layers of sound began to flow and melt into one harmonious whole. And that was before Thorn’s vocals, laid down the emotional anchor.
“I could have loved you forever.”
I loved how this music served as the perfect thematic precursor to Eva, Maíllo’s film, the story of Alex Garel (Daniel Brühl), a withdrawn software programmer, a genius in the advanced field of emotional programming code for more sentient robots – both human and non-human animals. We’re talking about a period, likely several decades from now where robots complement human life and experience by literally being able to not only do complex tasks – cooking and cleaning and maintaining general order at a higher level – but are also able to provide appropriate and necessary emotional compliments to their human companions, in any given instance. The trick here though is to be able to do so without venturing too far into the more unstable realm of free will, which is specifically outlawed. The fail safe built into these robotic models is a simple question: what do you see when you close your eyes? The query triggers a seizure-like shutdown in the physical plane, but a shattering of the delicate programming architecture that is far more artfully rendered than our traditional conception of the logistics and code mapping sequences we tend to see in computer-driven systems. Part of the beauty of this film’s world is that we rarely see Garel or any other programmer interfacing with an actual keyboard or screen. In this world, such development is virtual and a manipulation of glass-like trinkets in the air. Gone are the digital schematics of Tony Stark’s Iron Man helmet and such; this is about bridging robotics with the human.
In essence, it is also akin to the electronic remix – a la Wallace’s take on “Walking Wounded,” which, to be honest, was a next-generation play on an earlier merger of the human and the machine. The great irony is that Wallace’s further immersion in the electronic atmospherics does strip away the frail humanity of the original track; it augments that sense and feeling, granting it new life.
Alex, in the film, is asked to come back to the school where he began his groundbreaking work, to finish a project, a next-generation attempt to develop a robot with greater feeling and intuition and child-like wonder at the discovery of new experiences. This new bot would, in fact, be a child, a boy, based on a human model, but the model has to be just right, because as Alex points out, “an ordinary child will create an ordinary robot.”
Not coincidentally, the search for the perfect specimen leads Alex to an impetuous and gifted young girl named Eva (Claudia Vega) who happens to be the child of his former lover Lana (Marta Etura) who is married to his estranged brother David (Alberto Amman). Lana and David are also exceptional programmers in their own right, although Lana has given it up to teach (on the university level) and raise Eva, while David has built a career developing less intuitive robots for mass consumption.
Watching Alex as he recruits Eva and then goes about the task of testing her, in order to construct the emotional framework for the new model inspires thoughts of the parallels between his work and that of remixers like Wallace, culling the seeds of life and experience from the ambient sounds around them by reconfiguring them in new contexts. For “Walking Wounded,” he took a pre-existing union of a melancholic voice and beats and enriched both aspects without sacrificing either, producing music that was even more human and more electronic simultaneously. Alex longs to do much the same, without succumbing to the pitfalls of soapy sentiment in a story that teeters on the edge throughout its telling. It would have been easy to step away from that precarious precipice though and merely engage in CGI gamesmanship. Such an approach would have been welcome and obvious from the standpoint of landing butts in seats.
Eva never quite becomes a model for true next-generation speculative science fiction, because Maíllo thankfully embraces the curious longing to remain tethered to humanity rather than the cold logic of science. (tt stern-enzi)