Tribeca 2013: ‘The Machine’ is a fully realized, challenging science fiction film
Written and directed by Caradog W. James
The Machine wins right out of the gate by mentioning Alan Turing and his Turing Test in the context of a sci-fi thriller. Turing became one of the fathers of modern computing during World War II thanks to his engineering efforts on the side of the Allies, and his Turing Test measures whether a computer can dupe a human being into believing that it is human. The Machine starts by imagining a computer which is capable of passing the Turing Test, raising stakes that are realistically grounded and immense for the future of mankind.
In the midst of a near-future Cold War with China, artificial intelligence plays the same role that nuclear weapons played during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Toby Stephens (last seen in the States as the villain in Die Another Day) plays an expert computer scientist who administers Turing Tests for the British government in search of the AI with the most potential. He thinks he’s found it with Ava (Caity Lotz), a young American who has made a “quantum computer” of staggering intelligence, but when he builds an android named Machine in Ava’s image the consequences are equally staggering.
Lotz, whose highest-profile roles prior to this one were the little-seen horror film The Pact and a direct-to-video Bring It On sequel, does not impress at first. With freckles sprayed over her face and her bubbly affect, she bears a weird resemblance to Mean Girls-era Lindsay Lohan when playing Ava and seems equally out of place on these sets as Lohan would. There’s just something too bright and fresh-faced about her, such that it’s impossible to imagine Ava working for the military in these grungy underground bunkers.
It’s not until Machine is front and center in the movie that it becomes clear why Lotz was cast. She is phenomenal as Machine, that fresh-faced look changing into an innocence both endearing (in its willingness to learn) and unsettling (in that Machine could easily kill every human in the room). She masters the physical demands of the role, moving like a robot and using her facial muscles as though she’s still learning how they work. As Stephens’ superiors try to turn Machine into a soldier, the way that Lotz adopts a soldier’s carriage and movements is as chilling as any dialogue that she delivers.
It’s clear that The Machine is building toward an action climax, but it impresses much more with its thoughtfulness early on in Machine’s life. The point of the Turing Tests at the beginning of the movie is to teach the audience that it doesn’t matter if a computer gives the right answer, or even a logical answer, as long as the computer reasons like a human in order to give its answer. Similarly, if Machine can reason exactly like a human would, it would sometimes behave illogically in the way that humans do, which adds to the creepy, what-have-we-done feeling in the middle of the film.
Writer/director Caradog James goes astray in only one way with this film: he bites off a bit more than he can chew by introducing the concept of cybernetics. Stephens’ character originally works on AI with the hope of creating brain implants to aid soldiers and civilians with brain damage. It’s a fine concept, a mirror of the Machine concept: the implants were once human and are becoming something else, while Machine is a “something else” which is striving to become more human. But for most of this film the implanted humans are shifted to the background, which is unfair – theirs is a concept which deserved a whole movie for itself. It’s not a serious problem; if anything, James had too many ideas and too much ambition for one movie, which is a problem that most directors should aspire to have.
The Machine is perhaps the closest to Blade Runner that any film has come since 1981. As with Blade Runner, the question is whether a sentience artificially created is any less real than one that was born of flesh. In some ways The Machine is an even more effective film, since the artificiality of Machine is even clearer: can a collection of lines of computer code become consciousness? Even if they can, is the result a human consciousness or something new? The final scene of The Machine answers that last question in such a perfect, heartbreaking way that it leaves no question which film was the best of Tribeca 2013.