The technological advancement witnessed in the fabrication of robots of all kinds has been extraordinary over the past few decades. What appeared as far fetched and clearly ahead of its time in the 1980s and 1990s is commonplace today. Film has often tackled the issue of high-tech progression in several sci-fi related genres, from schlocky horror to high minded psychological drama. With The Machine, Writer-director Caradog W. James puts his spin on a familiar if endlessly fascinating topic of machines replicating human behaviour.
Sometime in the future, there is a new Cold War, this one brewing between the United Kingdom and China. Rather than economic and political philosophies creating rift, the nations are head locked in a technological race, where each new breakthrough in machinery and robot technology awards a crucial upper hand. Vincent (Tobe Stevens, in fine form), one of the brightest computer scientist the country has to offer works underground (literally) for the government on top secret projects, specifically on improving cyborg technology. In essence, making machines that think like humans. A new protégée, Ava (Caity Lotz, unexpectedly impressive) is hired to assist him in achieving that objective but her participation in the project reaches far greater depths than anticipated, as do the consequences of the research for Vincent’s mentally challenged daughter.
Movies like The Machine do not come around as often as science-fiction fans one would like. True enough, there are other movies that feature android characters (as recently as 2012’s Prometheus) but a film in which the theme and all the ideas rest on the premise of artificial intelligence and takes them very seriously has not been in a while. Most movies with such characters often use them more to reinforce the sci-fi setting than as any serious launching pad for considerable discourse. W. James’ intent is to create a solid science-fiction based premise and use that foundation to throw pertinent questions to the audience through a great story.
It is in that respect that The Machine earns a lot of its credibility, telling a really interesting, emotionally rich story and getting into the nitty gritty of the morals related to the value one should accord artificial intelligence. Juxtaposed against the world of intense research and in-house politics Steve and Ava must wrestle with practically on a daily basis, the protagonist goes back home to attend to his sickly daughter. The latter’s only hope for salvation resides in the scientific breakthrough Vincent is working tirelessly on, therefore intertwining those two storylines, with developments in one having direct ramifications on the other. Vincent’s superior (Denis Lawson, still famous till this day for having played Wedge in A New Hope) has far more militaristic goals in mind with the creation of these superior machines, an objective to which Vincent takes umbrage, realizing with his latest creation that the potential to create a sentient machine has reached a whole new, ethically ambivalent level. The script incrementally raises the stakes in such an organic, believable way the the audience is always interested in each subplot.
W. James’, along with his talented crew, has created an extremely handsome looking movie despite whatever budget limitations they may have worked around. Surprisingly, from a visual and aural standpoint it is as impressive as most big budget films, notwithstanding a few instances where the digital effects reveal limitations. The cinematography featuring the play of light against cold, dark backdrops, the minimalist set design and, most importantly, the prosthetic makeup effects on the naked humanoid bots all sublimely bring the intense vision of this dark near-future from W. James’ mind to the screen. Complimenting the visuals is the at times synthetic-heavy, fantastically rhythmic and atmospheric score reminiscent (but not a copy) of Vangelis’ work on the classic Blade Runner.
Finally, the cast is uniformly excellent, with former Bond villain Tobe Stevens leading the way as cunningly astute, serious minded but also compassionate researcher trying to do, what else, the right thing amidst political and moral challenges coming in from left and right. His performance perfectly creates a character arc wherein his obsession over creating the next great machine morphs into an emotional journey beyond anything that could have been foreseen. His co-star Caity Lotz, without giving too much away of the plot, proves adept at playing a duel role, one which requires youthful ambition and rebellion, the other more ‘stiffness’ and a colder attitude so to speak.
The Machine was made for fans of serious, high minded science-fiction drama. Even by the final stretch when the film offers its one and only real action sequence, the bloodshed is completely earned based on everything that transpires beforehand. It is has an incredibly sound script translated to the silver screen by a director possessing both a distinct vision and the knowhow to realize his ideas. Definitely one of the best science-fiction films of the past few years.