John Cusack is the worst planet-destroying AI robot in history

Home Video HellHome Video HellHome Video Hell is where filmic outcasts—straight-to-video, straight-to-VOD, or barely released—spend eternity.

The condemned: Singularity (2017)

The plot: A slipshod mashup of post-apocalyptic survival drama, sci-fi techno-thriller, and giant-robot spectacle, Singularity is one of those low-budget genre flicks that actually manages to pull off some decent CGI, but whose visual appeal is unfortunately in service of a story that barely knows how to proceed from point A to point B without tripping over its own feet. There are a few genuinely cool shots in the film of robot behemoths, the size of Guillermo del Toro’s kaiju-fighting beasts in Pacific Rim, striding purposefully across a forest, or rising from the ruins of an obliterated city. Should you choose to watch this film, treasure those fleeting shots. They are the best performances in the movie.

A series of introductory title cards establishes the state of the world circa now: A “genius inventor” named Elias Van Dorne (John Cusack), along with his company VA Industries, has revolutionized robotics, and by 2019, three out of four homes hav a VA-built robot. (Shades of I, Robot’s USR corporation.) Unfortunately, this advancement was accompanied by the creation of military robots, unmanned creatures that have removed humankind from the need to fight wars directly. This somehow leads to mass civilian death the world over (explained by a line of text saying human violence “increased”—okay!), and demands for a solution from VA. In 2020, Van Dorne announces the launch of Kronos, the first true AI, tasked with putting an end to violence and solving humanity’s problems. It instantly launches missiles in an attempt to wipe out humanity. Five minutes in to the movie, the one guy we’ve met besides Van Dorne—a young man named Andrew (Julian Schaffner), seen caring for his mom—watches the carnage unfold. Smash cut to a title card: 97 YEARS LATER.

This is eight minutes into the movie.

Humanity is almost completely wiped out, and massive robots patrol the lands. Andrew crawls out of a hole in the ground, and suddenly Elias—who has apparently been absorbed or something by Kronos, and is now the AI’s real-world avatar, accompanied by his equally Kronos-repurposed brother and second in command—tells us a secret: Andrew is an “X9” android, virtually indistinguishable from a human. He’s meant to befriend a young woman named Calia (whom Elias has been watching), as she is traveling to Aurora—supposedly a secret human outpost hidden from the machines. This will lead Elias/Kronos straight to the remaining people, so he can kill them all and finally end humanity for good. If you’re wondering why Kronos needs Andrew at all when his satellite can just track Calia all the way there, you are already one step ahead of this film.

Over-the-top box copy: If nothing else, Singularity doesn’t make promises it can’t keep. The cover is devoid of any hyped-up copy, leaving only the film’s pretty generic tagline of “Resist. Fight. Unite.” to try and sell this thing. Well, that and the name “John Cusack,” which still carries some weight with a segment portion of the moviegoing public. (More on that shortly.)

The descent: Singularity appears to be either a very weird remix of a fully finished prior film or a clear case of poor planning. Only 20 years old at the time, writer-director Robert Kouba first put this project (then called Aurora) together via a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign back in 2013, presumably successful thanks to a number of decent-looking CGI-heavy shorts he made prior to this feature-film debut. (Of course, a mere three people make up roughly half of the total amount raised—I don’t know their identities, but I’m guessing a few of the “producer” credits on Singularity are well-deserved.) He shot the film in 2013 in Zurich and the Czech Republic. However, several years later—and perhaps a few annoyed Kickstarter backers later—Kouba went the route of Godzilla’s Stateside release, hiring Cusack and filming his scenes, adding a bunch of CGI shots to connect these new additions to the original footage, and renaming it Singularity. Thanks, one assumes, to Cusack’s participation, this movie is now widely available, from streaming sites to Redboxes nationwide.

None of which helps shake the impression that, Cusack aside, this is mostly an expensive amateur film made by Kouba and the same friends he’s been making shorts with for years. His social media accounts are all private, so I have access to neither his 56 published tweets nor 33 Instagram posts in order to more closely investigate. His IMDB page lists nothing on the docket for the future. Perhaps Singularity is his To Kill A Mockingbird.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Look, let’s just lay the cards on the CGI-rendered table. I’m a big John Cusack fan. Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler was my model of manhood as a child, adding both the kick of nostalgia and a strong dose of teenage idolatry to the mix. Grosse Pointe Blank was a formative film for me, so between that and his other endlessly rewatchable movies (Better Off Dead, High Fidelity), I’m pretty much willing check out anything he does. His track record has nose-dived precipitously in recent years—of which Singularity is almost certain to be the low-water mark—but his performances are usually solid, even in not-great movies. So when I saw his involvement, and then had several commenters on a previous Home Video Hell suggest this as an ideal candidate for the feature, its nomination was assured.

The execution: Singularity is pretty much Exhibit A for why digital effects talents are not interchangeable with writing, directing, and editing. For anyone with some skills in VFX software who’s ever watched a subpar genre film and thought, “I could do better,” here’s proof that’s probably not true. If you cut together the brief establishing shots of buildings exploding, massive robots, and other moments of CGI wizardry, you could assemble a fairly cool trailer. And that’s roughly what this movie is: A bunch of effects trying and failing to add an hour and 20 minutes’ worth of compelling narrative to create a film. Still, that small realm of expertise—combined with the bad but at least competent lighting, framing, and production quality, akin to a Syfy movie—puts Singularity well above recent amateur-hour HVH entries like Knights Of The Damned and Surge Of Power: Return Of The Sequel.

Indeed, there’s a hypnotic quality to the badness of Singularity, borne of seeing a truly jarring clash of CGI spectacle and atrocious acting and dialogue. A lot of the blame here should go to the script and its subsequent years-later adjustments, whatever they might be. God only knows what this thing was before Cusack got involved, but my guess is you could cut out most of his scenes, add another title card to the already voluminous pile of them, and you’d be good to go. From the moment Elias Van Dorne is taken over by Kronos (consumed by him? Operated like a puppet? It’s unclear, as are most of the details in this story), Cusack’s scenes mostly consist of him silently watching as our protagonists make their way across the wooded landscape. Occasionally he’ll interject with an “It’s working” or other largely useless line. His “performance”—mostly standing and frowning—is bad. I’m not sure how he managed to be bad at standing and frowning.

The screenplay tosses out half-formed ideas and pointless digressions like a word-salad shooter set on “extreme.” For example, at one point our young heroes come to a river they have to get across. Presumably, in the script, the line “I’m looking for a bridge to get us across” made sense in Kouba’s mind, as he envisioned some brutal rapids or the predator-filled waters of a wide and ominous body of water. Instead, three seconds after Calia announces she’s looking for said bridge, they end up making the bold decision to simply wade through... a stream maybe 8 feet wide:

Illustration for article titled John Cusack is the worst planet-destroying AI robot in history
Screenshot: Amazon

The film doesn’t even deliver exposition in a logical manner. We discover this in large part thanks to a new voice-over narration (which replaces the title cards) after the time jump, delivered by Calia and explaining that we’re about to watch the story of Kronos, Andrew, and how this unassuming X9 changed everything. Only she seems to be confused as to when she’s telling this story. All of her explanations point to this being told from the future, after it all went down, but then she’ll periodically stop to posit hypotheses she would presumably already know the answer to. Like, say, whether or not “rumors” of Aurora are true, given she already knows how Andrew changed everything.

And if Andrew is the android destined to change the fate of humanity, he was apparently designed by Kronos for minimum emoting ability. Another of Kouba’s returning collaborators from his shorts, actor Julian Schaffner has two main settings: slack-jawed and wide-eyed, or sometimes both at once. Most of the time, he just stares in open-mouthed confusion at whatever he’s seeing, be it a giant killer robot or a young woman asking him a simple question. At one point he’s asked to cry when confronted with a vision of his mother, and it makes you wish he had stuck to the dumbfounded expression he normally employs. (He also tends to run like Bob’s Burgers’ Tina Belcher, arms hanging listlessly, which is at least fun to watch.) Kronos also apparently thought a clever way to have his android blend in with other humans in a post-apocalyptic hellscape would be by giving him frosted tips with a bold dye job.

Illustration for article titled John Cusack is the worst planet-destroying AI robot in history
Screenshot: Amazon

You’ve heard the expression that a lot of actors will often rise or fall to the quality of the script? If that’s the case, perhaps Schaffner is secretly a great artist undone by the screenplay, a demonstration of how a single line of dialogue so completely at odds with the premise of the narrative is capable of pulling a viewer completely out of the story. To wit: Observe this scene in which Andrew and Calia explore a long-abandoned church, and Andrew offers up the bit of information that his folks used to drive him to church every week. You know, just a perfectly plausible childhood memory from 97 years after all societies and technology were wiped out, and killer robots roam the land hunting the remaining humans. Calia accepts this as obviously as she would Andrew’s mentioning he knows how to walk on two legs and makes sounds with his mouth.

But it’s not just plot-related concerns which beggar belief at times. Even more unsuccessful are the times Singularity asks us to believe these sentences that would come out of the mouths of humans in the first place. For example, here’s a scene where Andrew has just freed Calia from the clutches of Kronos’ brotherly henchman, and she realizes that even though he’s a machine—cue the strings—he’s also good. Swiss actor Jeannine Wacker occasionally manages an adequate performance (even if it occasionally seems like she cast more for her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, arrow-dispensing weapons and all), but she slips into zombie mode when delivering this dreck:

Keep in mind, she’s supposed to be the human, and he’s the robot.

Not that the robots fare much better. You’d think awkward stilted dialogue would be more more coming from a sentient A.I.—not so! Kronos often utters banalities and head-scratching statements that are meant to hint at a deeper, more profound intelligence, but which instead come across as absurdly inappropriate. In the initial wave of violence right after Kronos comes online and immediately begins bombing cities and wiping out whole populations, the accompanying speech it delivers causes involuntary derisive laughter. “This is Kronos. Do not be afraid,” it intones, as missiles explode and buildings crumble. It’s like an unironic parody of the little green men from Mars Attacks! assuring people they mean them no harm as they run around vaporizing bodies.

It’s no spoiler to say Singularity ends in a massively unsatisfying way, in a ham-fisted attempt to set up a sequel that does nothing to address any of the underlying conflict that ostensibly drove the plot. There’s no justification as to why Andrew had to be built in the first place, given Kronos’ near-omniscient view of the remaining humans. There’s no clear stakes for Kronos, which already has the whole world under its control and really needn’t worry about a few stray people running around here and there. The whole thing is a journey in search of a purpose, one of Roger Ebert’s Idiot Plots writ large in menacing sci-fi gadgetry.

Luckily, there’s still gratuitous slo-mo, the last refuge of the scoundrel filmmaker. Not since Dead Again In Tombstone has a Home Video Hell entry managed to insert such a wholly pointless use of the stylistic device, employed here to take a scene which was already running slow as molasses—Andrew’s reaction to a giant killer robot makes a sloth appear agile—and make it seem even more exhausting. Once could argue that by slowing everything down, it makes Andrew’s bafflingly delayed response to the possibility of gory death seem not so pokey. One would be wrong.

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: There’s a chance it could survive as a curio of how to make decent CGI on a shoestring budget. This thing puts comparable films like Skyline to shame, providing just as solid effects on 1/100th the budget. But probably not—it’s simply too monotonous and numbing an experience. But Kouba could have a bright future in visual effects, should he desire it.

Damnable commentary track or special feature? The reason I felt comfortable simply streaming a rental was because when I looked at the DVD available for purchase, under “Special Features” it listed, “Closed Captioned.” That is a degree of barebones packaging I haven’t seen since the ’90s.

Here is Singularity encapsulated perfectly in a single exchange:

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.