This review of Brian and Charles was originally posted in conjunction with the film’s debut at the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival. It has been updated and reposted for the movie’s theatrical debut.
One of the oldest questions in science fiction — posed as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and as recently as this year’s After Yang — asks, “If we create artificial life, what happens when it realizes its agency and looks beyond us?” The answer is often dark and foreboding, resolving in the cruel manipulations of Blade Runner or the bloody revenge of Ex Machina. Her presents a less violent but still melancholy vision of AIs that quickly surpass humans and regard them with benevolent indifference.
The gentle 90-minute comedy Brian and Charles is different. For writer-performers David Earl and Chris Hayward and director Jim Archer, adapting their 2017 short film of the same name, this drama of creator and creation plays out in quirky hijinks and modest personal growth, and asks questions that are of no less import, but much more relatable.
Brian (played by Earl), a loner and tinkerer living amid the desolate beauty of the Welsh hills, has invented — almost by accident — a robot companion. Charles (Hayward) is seven feet tall and comically inelegant, with a washing machine for a torso, topped with a quizzical mannequin head. Brian is delighted with the company, especially after Charles teaches himself English by reading a dictionary overnight. But he’s also instinctively secretive about his creation, and he forbids Brian to leave the house or meet any other humans. Eventually, he relents enough to allow Charles to tour his garden. “Does the outside stop at the tree?” Charles asks, with the halting diction of an automated phone line. Suddenly, a flock of birds bursts into the air and flies off. Startled and uncomprehending, Charles turns and challenges Brian: “Can birds do what they like?” Brian doesn’t know how to answer.
Before this moment, it isn’t clear that the film is playing for anything but laughs. Brian and Charles starts as a sad-sack mockumentary of the kind that has been ubiquitous since The Office debuted on British TV in 2001. Later, Archer seems to forget the mockumentary setup, but it’s a forgivable slip, because by then, the characters have taken hold of the film. As Brian, Earl shambles around his muddy cottage and addresses the camera in a throaty nerd voice about his useless inventions, like the “fishing nets for shoes” he attaches to his own feet. He’s not much more than the deluded butt of a joke until he finds a mannequin head in a pile of rubbish. Staring at it sparks something in him: inspiration, fueled by a deep loneliness.
The robot companion he builds doesn’t work until, one dark and stormy night, it mysteriously springs to life — and the film with it. Charles is the heart and soul of the movie. The cheapness and ungainliness of his costume is a good source of clumsy slapstick and surreal visual humor, but there’s something endearing about him too, especially for British viewers who might find his wispy white hair, bow tie, and lopsided squint reminiscent of the legendarily eccentric TV astronomer (and GamesMaster) Sir Patrick Moore. (Charles started life as a voice calling into a radio phone-in show that Earl hosted in character as Brian, before Hayward built the costume himself for stage appearances.) Hayward’s uncanny vocal performance imbues Charles with the curiosity, naivete, stubbornness, and blind loyalty of a child, all without breaking the weird cadence of speech synthesis for a second. He’s a touching creation.
Brian takes longer to step out of the lonely-oddball stereotype and into focus. There’s nothing unconventional about the journey toward self-respect that Charles inevitably inspires in his maker. Brian and Charles follows reassuringly familiar feel-good beats, whether in Brian’s faltering romance with the equally shy Hazel (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey) or the mild-peril plot involving a local family of bullies. Archer adopts the kind of off-key, low-fi style that’s common in indie cinema, but it’s clear that secretly, he likes to play it by the book.
The warmth and tenderness with which the film explores the relationship between Brian and his creation are real, though. In the end, the philosophical inquiries the filmmakers present in Brian and Charles are even older than those of Frankenstein, and as much about plain old parenting as they are about the AI singularity: What does it mean to take responsibility for another life? How does it change you? And how do you ever hand that responsibility back? Archer, Earl, and Hayward may not have original answers for these questions — they stick to messages like “If you love something, set it free.” But the modest ambitions of these messages doesn’t make them untrue, and Brian and Charles delivers them with simple grace.
Brian and Charles debuts in theaters on June 17.