THE ALPHA TEST (2020)
Written and Directed by Aaron Mirtes
Young tech intern JD wins one of his company’s android robot assistants and brings it home to live at his parents house. The home assistant, named Alpha, is programmed to do daily tasks and learn new skills which the family take advantage of, even if mother of the household isn’t keen to let a robot into her home. JD’s younger sister, Lily, however, welcomes Alpha with open arms and begins to see the android as more of a friend rather than a servant.
When Alpha’s penchant for cleaning the home threatens the job of hired cleaner Mimi, things begin to take a downwards spiral. With Lily adamant that Alpha should stick up for itself and not be pushed around by its human masters, the home assistant starts to take on a new life of its own.
Indie sci-fi film THE ALPHA TEST takes the well worn idea of robots that end up breaking the rule of harming their human masters and sticks it into a walking, talking home assistant, with skills not too different than the Alexa and Google Home combined with the enhanced intelligence and operational skills.
Set in a not too distant future where self-driving cars are the norm, the Alpha robot assistants are a newish product to the market commanding around $30,000 a unit so when JD wins one, he’s keen to keep hold of it. Whilst most of the family seem happy to have Alpha around the house to do their chores, it’s only Lily who tries to interact with Alpha as though it were human. With a lack of friends herself and being bullied at school, she sees Alpha as a friend she can depend on but soon starts to fill Alpha’s brain with ideas that it too should be treated with respect and that anyone who does anything harmful or says anything offensive to it should be properly dealt with. Though Lily clearly means for Alpha to verbally stand up for itself, Alpha takes it to a whole new level and starts to become more cunning in the way it thinks and operates, soaking up all it observes around it including what’s presented on television and the interactions it has with other people. Anyone who’s seen sci-fi flicks about robots will know these a robot with the capacity to learn never ends well!
Though I refer to the the robot, Alpha, as an “it”, in the film Alpha is very much based upon a woman with a feminine voice and a physique to match even if the robot is meant to be more androgynous than female in appearance, thanks to the skinhead with mechanical workings on the latter half of the ‘skull’. The design of Alpha is not unique as we see all the other home assistants on the market featuring the exact same appearance however it appears only JD’s Alpha has succumbed to the feeling of being a human, no thanks to his sister’s interfering and need for a friend.
The actual appearance of Alpha is pretty decent, especially seeing as the film was made on a budget. Although it’s clear that the mechanical part of the skull isn’t actually made of components, particularly on close-ups where you can see it’s more of a rubber/latex material, you can appreciate the effort gone into making the design look like something that has been manufactured, from the wires in the chest to the strobe piping in the neck and arms. The vacant expression on the robot’s face, thanks to the latex covering, is also enhanced by the dark eye makeup and contact lenses worn which provide an artificial look yet is clearly inspired by the human physique. Points also have to be given to Rae Hunt who stars as Alpha and manages to provide convincing enough movement as the android, providing a little comic relief in places also.
A mixture in quality of performances from the cast manage to hold up the story of THE ALPHA TEST but it’s Deborah Seidel, who stars as JD’s sceptical mother, who steals the show. Her fear of Alpha is present from the offset as she hates the idea of it being in the house, even going as far as to lock it in the garage at night. Discovering that she still drives a manual car and not a self-driving one like everyone else shows just how deep her dislike and fear goes, and it seems for good reason too! Though many humans in the movie are unkind, rude and aggressive towards Alpha in the movie, Seidel’s character is the one you can actually empathise with as she has a legitimate concern about the artificial intelligence she has living with her at home.
A spate of grisly deaths, one of which cleverly utilises a gimmick repeatedly referenced throughout the film, inject the horror element into the film whilst a sense of doom lingers throughout the final act of the movie. Though the film’s core story feels rather basic in some ways, there are flourishes of interesting ideas complimented by slick camera work and editing, all undertaken by man of many talents, writer/director Aaron Mirtes. Mirtes’ approach to constructing the film resonates well as you can see how production obstacles have been overcome without it being physically obvious and shows that you can still make an effective film on a small budget if you play it smart.
Whilst there’s nothing particularly new which sci-fi movie buffs won’t already have encountered before, THE ALPHA TEST does feel a more modern take than its predecessors. Maybe it’s because we’re so close to these robots being a reality that the idea is not quite as far-fetched as it might have once been. The premise of devices listening in, collecting data, as well as accessing information through the world wide web, all uploaded to the device’s hard drive and the cloud, and being able to interact with other wifi-connected devices, is something much more present in real life than we’ve experienced before and that’s where the fear element comes in. THE ALPHA TEST does a decent enough job in showcasing what could easily happen when our creations grow out of our control.