Do you think Colin Farrell starts his workdays by looking in the mirror and declaring, “I’m going Lobster Mode on ’em”? At the time, The Lobster felt like a significant departure for the pretty boy Irish actor, but he’s played enough emotionally hollowed sad sacks in the years since that Lobster Mode Farrell has become its own subgenre: The Beguiled, Voyagers, Widows, Killing of a Sacred Deer (obv), and now the sentimental sci-fi chiller After Yang. I expected Farrell’s post-Lobster run to show off much more range in his new turn as a Serious Actor, but he only breaks out of Lobster Mode when he’s working in goofball genre films (see: Farrell going Penguin Mode in The Batman). For the most part, if you’re casting Colin Farrell in a sincere drama, you’re going to get the same quiet, inward brooding with the same furrowed brow and the same gravely grumble of a voice he’s been delivering since he first worked with Lanthimos in 2015. He’s good at it, but it would be nice to see him perk up a bit.
The gloomy predictability of Farrell’s performance aside, I was thrilled by After Yang as an ultra-modernist sci-fi picture . . . for its first half hour. It leads with its best scene: a DDR-inspired opening credits montage where several families compete in an online dance-off in impossible, isolated photo-shoot voids. It really gets the blood pumping, only to coast from there on waves of loneliness & grief. Farrell stars opposite Jodie Turner-Smith as adoptive parents of a young Chinese girl (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). They are loving but inattentive, purchasing an android model (Justin H. Min, the titular Yang) as a babysitter & Chinese Cultural Ambassador, looking after their child while feeding her a steady stream of “Chinese Fun Facts.” Most of the movie is concerned with what happens after Yang stops functioning and is effectively decommissioned. Is he an appliance they should leave on the curb with the rest of their weekly suburban waste, or is he a legitimate member of the family deserving of a respectful burial?
Reductively speaking, this is the mawkish family-drama sci-fi of Bicentennial Man repackaged as a quieter, more cerebral meditation like Marjorie Prime. My declining interest in its central story was more a question of genre tastes than artistic success, as director Kogonada only uses the thrills of future-tech paranoia as a starting point for a much calmer, less sensationalist conversation. Farrell’s rattled patriarch starts the film skeptical of the inner lives of the clones & technosapiens that now live among traditional humans, a cultural conservatism that’s reflected in his life’s work cultivating & brewing authentic teas (in a future-world that’s converted to single-use packages of flavor crystals). He pays shady characters to break into the deceased Yang’s memory banks, fearful that they’ll find spyware recordings of his family’s intimate moments, but instead he discovers that Yang was his own separate person with his own inner life. Yang’s stored memories play like a film school thesis project from a young director who just saw their first Malick – collecting small, sunlit details from the world around him in a digital scrapbook that’s useful to no one else outside his head.
That switchover from cybertech paranoia to lingering questions about the borders between humanity & its closest imitators is admirable, but it doesn’t leave much of a narrative drive to propel the movie across the finish line. When it’s a seedy backroom thriller about A.I. surveillance, it has its hooks in my flesh. After the switch, it’s just mildly melancholic & sweet, with about ten consecutive endings it quietly drifts past in search of a grander purpose. It doesn’t help that Farrell goes full Lobster Mode in this instance, since his low-energy moping does little to fill the void left by the genre switch. I had some hope in the opening minutes that Kogonada made the actor jump around to shake himself loose & awake with some DDR choreo, but he immediately regressed to his Lobster state in the very next scene. At this point, I have to assume that’s exactly the performance he was hired to deliver, considering that he’s been reluctant to try anything else in recent years, at least not when the role calls for a Serious Actor.