Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Caradog James
Writer: Caradog James
Producer: John Giwa-Amu
Stars: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson, Sam Hazeldine, Ponneh Hajimohammadi
A scientist creates a robot with an artificial intelligence capable of exceeding human consciousness, but the military is determined to develop it into a killing machine.
From “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to “Battlestar Galactica,” as well as so much science-fiction before, after, and in-between, the concept of artificial intelligence struggling to understand humanity has been explored six ways from Sunday and then some. Welsh filmmaker Caradog James does not break new thematic ground with “The Machine,” but the rich simplicity with which he frames his take on the sentient robot idea makes for a sleek production with streamlined storytelling.
Vincent is on the edge of a breakthrough in A.I. design so significant that machines may be just one step away from developing humanlike self-awareness. But with the western world suffering sleepless nights thanks to a new Cold War with China, the Ministry of Defense needs robots built for combat, not for evolutionary science.
When Vincent’s new research partner Ava is murdered by a Chinese assassin, Vincent models a new machine based on Ava’s consciousness. The new machine soon displays mental and physical abilities like no other cyborg soldier before her, hinting that Ava 2.0 may be transcending her programming and evolving into a new lifeform altogether. And when Vincent’s supervisor Thomson starts molding her mind for military combat, Ava’s struggle to comprehend the difference between man and machine leads to a greater conflict in understanding the purpose of artificial beings as a species.
The quicker way to summarize “The Machine” would be to simply say it is a classic case of an obsessed scientist whose idealism clashes with the military-minded moneymen more interested in manufacturing a killing machine. Except while that seems like a description fitting dozens of other sci-fi features as well, it only summarizes the plot without capturing the true essence of the movie itself.
In this case, style overcomes the familiarity of the premise. From the opening minutes, an earnest command of what the movie wishes to convey is evident in the presentation. The setting is an alternate near future with different rules governing the fiction, but there is a comfort in the environment portrayed that lets the viewer know s/he is in the capable hands of a filmmaker with a clear vision in mind.
That trust in what “The Machine” manages to visualize translates into an ability to see characters as the machines they are supposed to be, instead of the human actors underneath. When the men and machines challenge each other’s reasoning, logic, and thought processes through philosophy, it is clear that the film’s creator has thought through his intent. Dialogue is purposeful and the characterizations are specific. This is a script created to advance themes instead of scenes, and to highlight ideas instead of exposition.
Some of those characterizations come with drawbacks, although most are inherent in the way the story flows. Toby Stephens plays Vincent with a coldness that gives the character an impersonal distance, but it comes from an ambition driven by genius as opposed to an outright unlikable personality.
Caity Lotz is very good as the human Ava. She knows how to embody attractiveness beyond physicality, using subtle movements and expressions that convey intelligence and allure in equal measure. As the machine version of Ava, she and/or her director make a choice to give her robot a childlike voice. Clearly, the intent is to make Ava appear developmentally naïve instead of dumb, and robotic instead of empty. But personally, the high pitch delivery of that voice’s tone often becomes a distraction.
Denis Lawson completes the main trio of quality performances, though his character suffers from some on-the-nose conceptualization. Thomson is the type of stuffed-shirt official whose sparse office decoration consisting of a bonsai tree, brandy decanter, and golf-putting simulator tell you everything there is to know about his personality.
During instances like those, “The Machine” goes the obvious route and comes out the other side with details sticking out from the smartness evidenced everywhere else. In one scene, it is explained that Vincent is the only scientist capable of performing a certain complex operation. That operation turns out to be as simple as a one-inch incision and then excising a computer part the size of a peach pit in under 15 seconds. If he really was the only scientist capable of completing that easy task, no wonder the Ministry of Defense is that far behind in A.I. advancement.
But those moments are few and far enough between that they are swallowed by the shadow of everything “The Machine” does well. The contrast in the cinematography creates a look that fits the world. A slick synth score accentuates a sci-fi vibe straight from a time when cyborg and replicant thrillers reigned supreme on the home video market. Every element seen and heard is tied together by a film with a clear identity and a firm knowledge of how to visualize it.
Writer/director James and his crew are working with a limited budget, yet they never overreach to put something unattainable or unbelievable onscreen. The reduced resources that come from being independently financed force “The Machine” to deliver a focused narrative that does not distract with CGI fantasy. In fact, if the movie had a more expensive palette to paint with, it would likely still be smart enough to show restraint in capturing the imagination with its ideas instead of through intrusive special effects.
Review Score: 75