Wednesday, March 12, 2014

'The Machine' (2014) directed by Caradog W. James

The Machine is has an rather cheesy script, some slightly iffy performances and a rather Torchwood vibe to proceedings.  But then I enjoy cheese, and I also enjoy ambition in film-making. So it's deeply refreshing to see a relatively low-budget indie film punching way above its weight, and not only that, doing it with style.  

Set during a future cold war between the West and China, The Machine is almost entirely set within an underground weapons research laboratory somewhere in Wales. Within they're developing the technology with the potential to turn the tide: implants for brain-damaged veterans, bionic prosthetics to replace severed limbs and artificial, problem-solving intelligence. But these are only facets of a larger, more complex project; an endeavour to create an autonomous android super-assassin - able to infiltrate the enemy and decapitate the leadership in one fell swoop.

^ a good shot
The lead researcher is the grumpy Vincent (Toby Stephens), whose young daughter has one of those tragic movie medical conditions whose symptoms only kick in at conveniently dramatic times.  He's trying to discover an intelligence that can beat the Turing Test, and finally finds it in Ava (Caity Lotz) - the developer of an intelligent, questioning and curious programme that's able to teach itself through conversation.  For a while everything's hunky-dory, and just perhaps there's a hint of romance in the air between these two two robot researchers...

Then some Chinese guy stabs Ava to death.  Vincent, feeling pretty guilty about the whole affair, decides to model the new robot's face and mannerisms on Ava - resulting in a very strong, very smart, very attractive and very naked killer robot. The rest of the film ponders pretty well trod philosophical ground as Vincent struggles as to whether to consider Ava a person or a thing, while the weapons researchers grow impatient as to whether this friendly, kind and personable thing they've created is ever going to shape up into the brutal murder machine they've been promised.

^ another good shot
There's next to nothing in The Machine that's new.  The film wears its influences on its sleeve; a jigsaw of bits of Blade Runner, RoboCop, Universal Soldier, The Terminator and I, Robot. But there's a difference between plagiarism and homage and this film largely falls on the right side. Tiny little references from classics abound; the way the cyborg soldier's eyes light up in the darkness; the men learning to use robotic limbs; the distress of a robot being lobotomised; or the simply the score, which doesn't so much reference Vangelis' iconic Blade Runner synths as transplant them wholesale into the film. I guess if you're going to steal, you may as well steal from the best.

It's easy enough to forgive this ransacking of the robot sci-fi genre though - because what's assembled out of these parts is worthwhile stuff.  Nicolai Bruel's cinematography is outstanding - every set-up considered and balanced, often straying into the genuinely beautiful.  Similarly impressive are the seamless visual effects, which to my eyes to take cues from the work of Chris Cunningham. The bionics and robotics in the film all pulse a deep red, glowing underneath the artificial skin around them.  There's no practical reason for this within the film (and maybe making your undercover robot glow bright red isn't such a smart move), but it looks amazing - a visually encoding the power, emotion and vibrancy going on within these creations.  When all this comes together it's stunning - a particular stand-out a scene where Ava dances on top of a thin sheet of water. In a film where damn near everyone is downtrodden, depressed and living a rather dank existence this moment is a ray of sunshine and beauty: a cocktail of perfect CGI, great choreography and dynamic camera movements.

^ basically what I'm saying is that this film looks good
Obvious effort has gone into making this film look as good as possible under a presumably limited budget - though one upshot is that this is one of the darkest military facilities I've ever seen on film.  Presumably the global recession in the film has curtailed the purchase of lightbulbs, because trying to get any work done in a series of gloomy rooms can't be good either for productivity or for your mental state. This underlighting gets a little annoying, though it's mitigated by the fact that lighting a film like this keeps the set dressing budget low, smoothing over any rough edges.

There's a lot to admire here, though at its heart The Machine is ultimately a good-looking and smart b-movie - territory that comes with its expected downsides.  Caity Lotz is the obvious stand-out performance, both as the optimistic and curious researcher Ava and her robot doppelganger. In the latter half of the film she's impressively controlled physically, making us believe in a creation that's very definitely not human, but neither completely artificial.  Unfortunately she's by far the stand-out, with Toby Stephen's scientist hero neither particularly likeable nor convincing as a genius roboticist.  Worse is Denis Lawson's chief baddie Thomson - the administrator of the facility.  He's mired firmly in one-dimensional villainy; acting like an evil prick for no obvious rhyme or reason.

These criticisms aside, The Machine is a hard film to dislike. At a shade under 90 minutes it's admirably concise, never wasting our time with any extraneous characters or subplots, keeping a laser focus on the central narrative at all times.  It's an ambitious endeavour to produce an indie film with this much VFX - let alone to end up with an end product this stylish. So, though it approaches the genre with a kleptomaniac's eye, The Machine is one of the best British science fiction films I've seen in a long time and more than deserves to find its audience.


The Machine is released in cinemas on March 21st, and on DVD/Blu-Ray 31st March 2014.

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