A favourite of Hollywood since the days of the HAL 9000 in 2001 A Space Odyssey and Colossus of The Forbin Project, the boundaries and blurring of lines between human and artificial intelligence and the conflict arising between those disparate yet linked entities has been explored more recently inTranscendenceand more successfully inBattlestar GalacticaandCaprica, but with strong notes of Blade Runner and Nineteen Eighty-Four in his debut feature film, Welsh born writer/director Caradog W James brings the issues closer to home with The Machine which stands its ground in sterling British form.
With the ongoing cold war with China causing the deepest recession in the west in recorded history, the near future tone is plausibly bleak and pulls no punches in showing the cost of this war as genius scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens of Die Another Day and Black Sails) tests his brain augmentation technology on a severely injured solider. The experiment does not go well, with shocking results.
Vincent’s motives extend beyond the his contracted obligation to the Ministry of Defence, hoping that if successful he can transform the quality of life of his severely disabled daughter, but his work is overseen by his supervisor Thomson (Denis Lawson, Star Wars, Perfect Sense) a creepy official with nefarious aims but lacking a moral compass. His goal is to have Vincent build a fully functioning combat android which they intend to use as the super soldier to end the war.
Frustrated and hitting dead ends, some literal, Vincent recruits artificial intelligence software developer Ava (Caity Lotz, The Pact II, Arrow), though her enthusiasm is dampened when she is approached by a grieving mother outside the research facility seeking information on the death of her son; the woman is attacked by security, and when she tries to intervene Eva herself is placed in custody. To Vincent she is his best chance of advancing his research, but to Thomson she is now viewed as a possible dissident within the base, a threat to the project. Her brain is of value, her life is not.
While Lotz is adequate as computer programmer Eva her performance as the android which is built in her image is more interesting in that it offers more scope. The childlike machine coming alive and learning about the world is a far from an original concept but is done well and is the turning point in the narrative. Minimal but effective use of CGI gives an impressive birth scene to the android which avoids a clichéd T-1000 style exoskeleton and strikes a balance between organic and machine, with shadow and silhouette rather than overt used to demonstrate vulnerability without sexual overtones.
As the machine is tested and trained the film inevitably skirts the questions of what it is to be human with disappointing brevity, preferring to maintain the pace through action rather than heavy exposition. A childlike being deliberate exposed to emotional trauma in order to coerce cooperation and demonstrate its effectiveness as a weapon, Lotz expresses the confusion and conflict of her avatar as the movie finds its stride, shifting focus from questions of what it means to be alive to the darker side of humanity. But what if the subjects tire of being tested? The machine is not alone: led by James and Suri (The Raven’s Sam Hazeldine and Pooneh Hajimohammadi), the injured soldiers who have survived the cybernetic augmentation challenge their masters.
The Orwellian style is reinforced throughout, from the subtlety of the red leather couches more at home in Westminster than a military base to the direct and disturbing room 101 test scenario designed to bring out the emotions the android has inherited from the brain scans of Ava which form the basis of its personality. With the action frequently presented vicariously through CCTV monitors where those in charge watch the principal characters, the message that ‘Big brother is watching you’ is inescapable.
The soundtrack is a perfect tribute to Vangelis, and Tom Raybould could only have been channelling him in what is clearly a reference to his work, fitting the mood of the movie perfectly and enhancing the dark atmosphere of the production. A consequence of a modest budget is the care taken over the special effects which are for the most part wonderfully subtle, the touch screen technology just one step into the future giving a grim realism rather than the remove of the fantastical.
All gates and cages and underground chambers, the primitive sets and locations contribute to the claustrophobic feel of a controlled world, and it is only in the final act the limitations of the production become apparent in a battle which is heavy on bullets but low on dramatic impact, noticeably breaking the illusion, but The Machine remains an impressive and confident debut from a promising director supported by a strong cast. Though the story may be familiar, the strength of the movie is that it tells it well with a good balance of effects, action and style.
The Machine is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital streaming