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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘A Murder at the End of the World’ review: PI meets AI

Emma Corrin plays a hacker sleuth in “A Murder at the End of the World.”

By James Poniewozik

An eccentric tech billionaire invites a slew of notables to a private retreat, where a detective must solve a mysterious death. If the premise of “A Murder at the End of the World” jumps out at you, it may be because you not so long ago encountered it as the premise of Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”

Or it may jump out at you because “Murder” is the latest creation from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij of Netflix’s “The OA.” That series was a poetic and baffling testament to the force of human connection, involving interpretive dance and a telepathic octopus. The murder mystery, in comparison, is among the most literal, plot-reliant of genres. Could Marling and Batmanglij really have made something that … ordinary?

FX’s “Murder,” which began Tuesday on Hulu, is neither as weird as you might hope or as conventional as you might fear. (Or vice versa.) It takes an Agatha Christie scenario and spins it into a chilly, stylized cyber-noir with ideas about artificial intelligence and some familiar Marling/Batmanglij themes of global consciousness. Think of it as “Glass OAnion.”

The detective here is a relative newcomer. Darby Hart (Emma Corrin), an intense young computer hacker, tracked down a serial killer with Bill Farrah (Harris Dickinson), a moody amateur investigator she met online and fell in love with. Her true-crime memoir earns her some literary notice, as well as an invitation from Andy Ronson (Clive Owen), a tech magnate who is convening a meeting of “original thinkers” — artists, entrepreneurs, an astronaut — at a sleek, remote hotel that he had built in Iceland.

The purpose of this Arctic TED Talk is, ostensibly, to cogitate on the existential threat of climate change to humanity. Andy, however, has another intelligence at his disposal — an advanced AI called “Ray” that manifests in the holographic form of a neatly goateed man in black (Edoardo Ballerini). Andy believes in the transformative power of this technology and others, but transformative to and for whom?

Darby questions whether and why she fits in with the luminaries at the gathering. But she accepts the invitation for the chance to meet a tech idol: Not Andy, but his wife, Lee Andersen (Marling), a renowned coder who dropped out of public life after a Gamergate-style harassment campaign and lives in seclusion with Andy and their young son (Kellan Tetlow).

But another guest grabs Darby’s attention: Bill, now a famous artist, whom she has not seen since a falling-out at the end of their investigation. Before they have time to catch up — don’t say the title didn’t warn you — somebody turns up dead, and Darby’s wiring for suspicion kicks in.

Misogyny and technology are the twin themes of “A Murder.” Darby was drawn into the serial-killer case by her talent for hacking and her empathy for forgotten female victims. A common theme of her investigations is how little credibility she is granted as a young woman. When she pulls her hoodie over her head, yes, it is a universal visual symbol for “hacker,” but she also might as well be drawing an invisibility cloak.

Then there’s AI, which pervades the story like it does Andy’s icy retreat. In some cases technological reality has moved faster than the TV production process. A scene in which Ray produces a Harry Potter story in the voice of Ernest Hemingway astonishes the guests, for instance, but you’ve likely seen a dozen similar examples over the past year.

Still, “A Murder” has a multifaceted view of AI, not just as a threat but as a possible helpmeet. On the one hand, Andy is another arrogant billionaire who looks to software to compensate for the deficiencies that annoy him in humans. But the surveillance features built into the retreat’s setting, however creepy, are also a trove of clues. As Darby digs into the mysterious death, she finds herself using Ray as a source and even an aide — part Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, part IBM’s.

The present-day whodunit isn’t especially inventive, but Corrin carries the story with a nervy, febrile performance that invests Darby with the life that the dialogue sometimes fails to provide. And the series has atmosphere to spare, making the most of the stark volcanic beauty of its location in Iceland. (It also shot in Utah and New Jersey.)

The flashbacks to Darby and Bill’s serial-killer chase, which take up much of the seven episodes, are emotional and involving; Dickinson gives Bill an open-wound vulnerability. But rather than adding resonance to the whole, these scenes end up outshining the long, talky story they’re meant to flesh out.

“A Murder,” in its main arc, feels like a bit of an artificial life form itself. The blandly drawn retreat guests get no more than a stroke or two of characterization and are weighted with self-serious dialogue. Andy mostly plays to bullying tech-mogul type. And while Marling always uses her enigmatic air as a performer to good advantage, Lee is more of a riddle — how did a coding revolutionary become a tech tradwife? — than a rounded character.

Marling and Batmanglij’s work has often been more about the delivery of ideas and intangibles than plotting or naturalism, however. At its best, “A Murder” has grandeur, chilly beauty and intellectual adventurousness (and it pulls off a satisfying final twist). It might have been more effective if, as with so many limited series lately, it were tighter and shorter. In this sense, technology is the culprit: Streaming-TV bloat has its fingerprints all over this case.

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