It’s almost certainly no accident that the Spanish robot drama “Eva,” first released in Europe in 2011, is finally showing up this month in U.S. theaters. Hot on the heels of the disappointing “Chappie,” this Weinstein Co. release is a refreshingly artful tonic to Neill Blomkamp’s overblown sci-fi thriller about a rogue police droid that develops the consciousness and feelings of a human being.
Daniel Brühl (“Rush”) plays Alex, a brilliant but somewhat erratic designer of robots in a world where automatons are seamlessly woven into the fabric of life, popping up as an office receptionist, Alex’s butler, Max (Lluís Homar) — a fleshier but no less officious version of C-3PO — and even Alex’s cat, Gris. While tinkering with the blueprint for a prototype of a child robot, Alex becomes captivated by his niece Eva (Claudia Vega), a precocious little girl who starts hanging around his lab, and she comes to provide the conceptual model for the new robot’s emotional intelligence. Director Kike Maíllo visually renders the design process via a neat special effect: a hologram array of such character components as pride, curiosity and aggression, which are represented by a constellation of tiny, floating, ornament-like objects that seem to be made of virtual glass.
This reduction of the human mind to a cartoonish catalogue of feelings is a little simplistic, as is the sci-fi gibberish about “fluid logic” and “genetic algorithms” that Alex’s boss (Anne Canovas) engages in. But the screenplay (by Sergi Belbel, Christina Clemente, Martí Roca and Aintza Serra) is certainly no sillier — and probably a lot less so — than the hooey in “Chappie.” It also engages more successfully, and with more provocative results, with the question of what, if anything, a human soul might be.
The main action takes place against the backdrop of a love triangle: Alex was once involved with Eva’s mother (Marta Etura), who is now married to Alex’s brother (Alberto Ammann). Old feelings get stirred up, as do a few new ones. The relationship between Alex and Eva is sweet, and it grounds the film, even if certain secrets about it are telegraphed by the script.
“Eva” also spoils its less-than-happy ending, as the film opens with a shot of a woman hanging from an icy cliff. Despite this foreshadowing, the movie holds more small surprises than the super-size action of “Chappie.”
PG-13. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains mature thematic material, a fistfight and brief disturbing images. In Spanish with subtitles. 94 minutes.