“Slick as it is, the storyline is a somewhat puzzling combination of fresh elements mixed with distinctly run-of-the mill ones!”
Despite receiving very little fanfare, director Caradog W. James’ The Machine is a British sci-fi thriller presented with a substantial amount of spit and polish. There’s the occasionally ropey CGI shot, but then don’t most of Hollywood’s biggest tent pole summer blockbusters have at least one? It’s surprising that The Machine wasn’t given more of a marketing push. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a largely Welsh production which meant it didn’t get the advertising and distribution it could have? A shame as it’s a very slick and stylish sci-fi offering that would compete directly with any American competitor, if given the chance to.
Slick as it is, the storyline is a somewhat puzzling combination of fresh elements mixed with distinctly run-of-the mill ones. MoD robotics scientist Vincent (Toby Stephens), under the supervision of Thomson (Denis Lawson), is in search of an artificial intelligence to pair with his machine ‘super-brain’. An intelligence that will, it turns out, be housed inside a powerful android body, a prime example of the film’s tendency to combine fresh ideas with tired old ones. Yes, the idea of a robotic super soldier and all that involves could have been explored plenty of times throughout science fiction in all of its formats. However The Machine’s argument is nicely expanded upon to discuss the idea of successful robot soldiers leading to the creation of incorruptible diplomats and civil servants who can’t be bribed or injured and can evacuate populations at speed without risking more human life. In this case, the mixture of fresh and old pays off, but it’s far from perfect.
Vincent selects Ava’s (Caity Lotz) A.I. program to pair with his research, where he reveals to her that he’s planning to steal the technology to give his mentally ill daughter Mary another chance at life. As Ava discovers that Thomson only wants an obedient killing machine he has her assassinated. Vincent continues his work as Ava’s consciousness – somewhat obviously – begins to manifest in the Machine (also played by Caity Lotz). As she slowly becomes more human, she pleads to Vincent and to Thomson that she is indeed a living being and cannot be treated as government property. Most viewers will predict the denouement from here. Thomson tries to make the Machine less human, Vincent tries to protect her, The Machine eventually leads a revolt, with previous cybernetic experiments, against the humans.
This may sound rather low key, but there is a very nicely managed atmosphere and a sense of a bigger world outside of the military bunker in which nearly all of the film takes place. The constant references to a Cold War with the Chinese and the use of their supposed agents makes the idea of a war we won’t see a credible proposition. This is paid off well in the low-key ending which has a hint of a hazy, abstract or perhaps symbolic apocalypse so memorable from the Andrzej Żuławski weird-horror Possession (1981).
The interior setting of the military facility also feels deliberate for the most part. Its cost-cutting function only becomes obvious late into the film as we’re shown increasingly frequent glimpses of the outside world. Again, it’s your stock ‘Shady Military Research Facility’, but it is competently handled and its apparent lack of futuristic technology means it’s not clogged with incongruous decoration or disjointedly advanced-sci-fi equipment. It’s the attention to detail that stands out in the set design, with a film of dust and water giving the place a really musty feel and in doing so manages to make the surroundings a genuinely anxious place, especially towards the end.
The CGI of the Machine is in fine fettle too. When we first see it – immediately after construction and powering up – it’s certainly impressive. Rendered in graphics that wouldn’t look out of place in a mainstream release, and the building warm glow of red as it powers up contrasting against the cool blue is unreservedly impressive. But a dropped ball is when Vincent is ‘operating’ on the Machine’s head and the opening is rendered in CGI. It’s incredibly obvious and almost baffling as to why the makers didn’t plump for a practical effect which are always more believable up close. Just compare this to the ‘head operation’ sequences in the first two Terminator films, for example.
The visuals and atmosphere are ably abetted by the three main actors, who elevate their dull characterisations. Stephens plays Vincent well as a downtrodden man trying to keep his head held high, delivering a performance that speaks of a man trying to view himself as a scientist first, and a military employee second. He could use a little more emotion towards the end, but the escalation of visible emotion has always been something Stephens seems to have struggled with as an actor.
Lotz as the Machine is also believable in her primary role. She’s sufficiently robotic and delivers the required vulnerability and naivety befitting her childlike state of mind. Again, its a fine performance of a character, but the character is a terribly humdrum childlike robot character delivered a dozen times before.
It is the same unfortunate story with Lawson: he’s very good at the malicious, cold and corporate minded Thomson, but he’s a pale imitation of the Robocop Dick Jones character that’s present in all uninventive corporate sci-fi since that landmark.
Indeed the Robocop analogy is a timely one that befits most of The Machine. The film spends so much time emphasising the question of what does and doesn’t count as a living being that it forgets that these questions should be suggested by the actions of characters and events in the plot, and not literally debated in a conference room. Where Robocop suggests these questions through the story mechanics of Murphy slowly remembering his life before his death and reanimation, The Machine forces the film to revolve around these central ideas in dialogue. Robocop was able to wrap the same ideas up in a whole lot of fun, blood, satire and violence, whereas The Machine gets dangerously close to some kind of sci-fi Newsnight.
One element that does save the lead character and story from creative bankruptcy is the inclusion of Vincent’s daughter Mary. It’s a nice twist on the myth and is a powerful reason for Vincent to still be working for the MoD on this technology. It’s quite a shame that these interesting ideas didn’t form the basis of the story itself.
All in all the film is a reasonably built piece, the cinematic equivalent of a decent new-build house: absolutely no character, and clearly built with one eye on the budget, but it will keep you warm, stand up in a solid breeze and there’s very little that can go wrong. But then again, who aspires to live in a house with no character?
Director: Caradog W. James
Screenplay: Caradog W. James
Starring: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson
Release date: 31 March 2014
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