Written and directed by Caradog W. James
Some maudlin producers must be kicking themselves given recent events, as the post-credits blurb of the new science-fiction future-shock film The Machine sets the context of a near-future Britain locked into a new cold war with China. Can’t we simply revert back to the 1980s-era Soviet aggressor, just like the good old days? In fact, this visually striking but slightly constricted work has clearly been deeply influenced by the selfish decade’s most accomplished sci-fi movies, as Blade Runner and Escape From New York echo through the chrome-plated antechamber, with a deeper umbilical link to the titular feminine form shadowing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Brilliant neural programmer graduate Ava (Caity Lotz) successfully secures a job at a secret government installation after her creation passes the Turing test, impressing senior robotics employee Vincent (Toby Stephens), who has been frantically searching for an assistant to help him in his secret experiments. The department is engaged in clandestine battle-poised operations to automate and enhance the lethality of wounded veterans who have returned from war, with the slightly pesky moral obstacle of their innate humanity and moral coding being obliterated at the altar of digital control by evil corporate overlord Thomson (Denis Lawson). When tragedy strikes and Ava is mortally wounded, Vincent resurrects her in titanium-shielded form, as a tussle of wills between Thomson and Vincent clashes to assert their domination over a new generation of cybernetic superiority.
Following his eye-catching 2006 debut My Little Eye, director Caradog W. James musters the best robotic beast he can with his limited budget and resources, invoking digital life in a Frankenstein patchwork of influences both cinematic and straight from the articles of Wired magazine. While The Machine feels a little slight in terms of posing deeper questions that inevitably arise around malleable digital intelligence and fails to offer any new insights or predictions, from a purer sensation level, it might win new recruits among the genre faithful. It harbours a throbbing, Tangerine Dream-esque score from Tom Raybould, and a sleek lens-flare lighting scheme from Nicolai Brüel, a pattern recognition from recent cult favourite Beyond The Black Rainbow and the rebooted Star Trek franchise. The plot, however, requires no hacking, and even the most automated independent observer will fail to predict how the binary narrative of Vincent’s terminal-daughter plotline and his leadership in neural programming might just spool out.
Similarly, the film’s pacing seems a little stilted and distracted, as major narrative shocks are punctuated with scenes that seem to have been inserted from further into the narrative, a jumbled coding entanglement that prompt minor malfunctions alongside some rather illogical dialogue quirks. (“It’s a genetic truth that all women are terrified of spiders and clowns,” for example.). The Machine begin to agitate when the corporate espionage plot lurches into next-generation pyrotechnics, as a few well-rehearsed combat scenes presage a well-manufactured climax, with a final image perhaps offering some sly commentary on the potential infrastructure of a post-nuclear family. UK-funded science-fiction cinema is rare, so despite the glitched script, it’s still important to salute to James and his crew for at least activating a visual treat with some impressive technical achievements, hopefully a portent of finer things to come.
THE MACHINE – in Cinemas / VoD 21 March and DVD/Blu-ray 31 March www.themachinemovie.com
— John McEntee