The Machine: Film Review
March 21 (UK)
Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens, Dennis Lawson, Sam Hazeldine
Caradog W. James
A low-budget variation on Blade Runner themes, this stylish British sci-fi thriller explores the dark side of artificial intelligence with military-industrial complexity.
Do androids dream of robot love and electric children? That is a key question running through this brooding, stylish, highly atmospheric future-noir thriller. Although he clearly shot his second feature on limited resources, the Welsh writer-director Caradog W. James has already picked up numerous awards and distribution deals.
At times the slender budget lets him down, notably during some threadbare action sequences. But The Machine is still a classy slice of cerebral sci-fi with a literary-cinematic heritage stretching back through Blade Runner and Metropolis to Frankenstein. Opening on UK screens later this month, closely followed by DVD and Blu-Ray release, it should find a modest but devoted cult audience both domestically and overseas.
The setting is a near-future Britain blighted by both economic and literal gloom, a dystopian land of perpetual darkness and military-industrial paranoia. The West is battling China in a new Cold War, with artificial intelligence rather than nuclear weapons fueling the latest superpower arms race. Toby Stephens, best known as James Bond’s suave nemesis in Die Another Day, plays Vincent McCarthy, a computer expert seeking to perfect super-intelligent androids for his army paymasters.
McCarthy’s boss Thomson (original Star Wars trilogy veteran Dennis Lawson) dreams of making the perfect robot weapon, but the anguished boffin is motivated by more tragic personal reasons. The arrival of brilliant young American scientist Ava (Caity Lotz) helps him realize his project, as well as providing an obligatory frisson of sexual tension.
James scatters The Machine with homages to Blade Runner, from "Turing Test" interrogations intended to flush out undercover androids passing as humans to Tom Raybould’s pulsing, moody, Vangelis-like electronic score. Other cinematic echoes here include The Terminator and Metropolis, especially the scenes in which human Ava is replaced with a super-smart robot replica. There are also nods to more philosophical sci-fi classics, notably Tarkovsky’s Solaris, when artificial Ava asks McCarthy: "what makes my clever imitation of life any different from theirs? Apart from their flesh, what makes them any different from me?"
Mostly shot in underlit bunkers and industrial spaces, The Machine is full of striking imagery and noteworthy special effects for such an obviously cheap production: war veterans with chunks of their brain missing, cyberpunk assassins with dragon tattoos, ghostly visions of lost children mauled by metallic tentacles. A relative newcomer previously seen in Mad Men and the TV action drama Arrow, Lotz plays an impressive double role, particularly after Ava is reborn as a lethal robo-warrior. Lotz’s previous job as a dancer for Lady Gaga pays dividends here in her chilly, poised, highly physical performance.
But the film’s good intentions come unstuck in its second half, when McCarthy and Ava rebel against Thomson’s militaristic plans, triggering a string of confusing confrontations and jarring plot twists. Lawson is simply too genial an actor to fulfil his bad-guy brief, especially when backed up by such apparently flimsy forces. The climactic shoot-out also feels thin and low on tension, highlighting the budget limitations. High-minded musings on the blurred lines between man and machine never quite achieve the pop-philosophy level of Blade Runner or The Matrix.
Overall, however, The Machine is a superior genre work made on slender resources, and an intriguing attempt to map the nightmarish landscape of a post-human future. It seems certain to find a cult following, and will serve as an impressive calling card for James when bigger projects beckon.
Production company: Red & Black Films
Producer: John Giwa-Amu
Cast: Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens, Dennis Lawson, Sam Hazeldine
Director: Caradog W. James
Screenwriter: Caradog W. James
Cinematographer: Nicolai Bruel
Editor: Matt Platts-Mills
Production designer: Erik Rehl
Art direction: Jamie McWilliam
Costume designer: Chrissie Pegg
Special effects: Paul Hyett, George Morris, Matthew Strange
Sales company: Content
Unrated, 93 minutes