A film review by Craig J. Koban May 2, 2014 

THE MACHINE jjj
 

2014, R, 91 mins.

 

Toby Stephens as Vincet  /  Caity Lotz as Ava/The Machine  /  Dennis Lawson as Thomson

 

Written and directed by Caradog W. James

THE MACHINE makes for a highly compelling companion piece to the recently released TRANSCENDENCE.  Both are ambitious cautionary sci-fi thrillers involving the merging of manís consciousness with artificial computer intelligence.  Whereas TRANSCENDENCE was a big budget studio affair, THE MACHINE is a British film made on the cheap (just under $2 million U.S.) and is a decidedly more low key and moody affair, which, compellingly enough, makes it simmer with a bit more intimacy and immediacy than Wally Pfisterís film.  Perhaps most noteworthy is how Welsh writer/director Caradog W. James evokes such a rich sense of atmosphere with his relative dime-store budget.  Beyond that, he seems to have a bit of a finer command over his filmís themes than perhaps TRANSCENDENCE ever had. 

Set in the not-too-distant future, THE MACHINE imagines a world that has become oppressed by the mighty hand of China, which has emerged as a superpower nation, leaving the rest of the world to find ways of subverting them as a global threat during this new Cold War.  In the U.K. a brilliant computer scientist, Vincent (Toby Stephens), has been working on a bold and ambitious plan to merge the computer world with the human one; in other words, he wishes to perfect the human brain and its capabilities with mechanized, A.I. enhanced implants.  The Ministry of Defense - in hopes that Vincent's pioneering work will lead to more lethal fighting men and women to combat Chinaís threat on the warfront - funds his work.  Secretly, though, Vincent is using his radical and potentially revolutionary research to save his dying daughter from a degenerative brain disease. 

 

 

In the midst of his research, Vincent is joined by Ava (Caity Lotz from TVís ARROW), another brilliant and determined computer scientist that expresses great interest in Vincentís work.  Predictably, Vincent and Avaís partnership and combined work efforts begin to conflict with the motives of the government that funds them, but during the midst of all of this an accident befalls Ava, which eventually leads to Vincent saving her, so to speak, by transforming her into ďThe Machine,Ē an incredible artificially intelligent cyborg whose consciousness is linked with her creatorís.  In many ways, the Machine is indeed lifelike and can pass as a human, but emotionally lacks the nuances of what made Ava a human.  While Vincent struggles to fully understand his new creation and find a cure for his sick daughter, the Ministry of Defense's executive (Dennis Lawson) decides that he wants the Machine all to himself so that he can exploit her as a killing machine on the warfront. 

Much like TRANSCENDENCE, THE MACHINE ruminates on themes that are indeed kind of ageless in the sci-fi genre, but James extrapolates much intrigue from them, and he does so without jeopardizing the filmís more humanizing elements.  The nature of what is human and artificial consciousness is, obviously enough, explored, but the film also comments on how modern society feels inexplicably linked to computer technology in largely counter-intuitive and destructive ways.  The Machine itself is kind of an intriguing creation, seeing as Vincentís sentient cyborg has potential to do good in a corrupt world, but is then corrupted by evil and nefarious forces that wish to twist her essence for their own immoral purposes.   These themes are then quite well tied into the subplot involving Vincentís desperate attempts to save his daughterís life; he finds himself sandwiched between the plights of both his natural offspring and the mechanical being he created, which provides for much of the filmís psychological grit and intrigue. 

Again, the thematic material of THE MACHINE is hardly new or revitalizing for the genre, but James has a manner of exploring and milking them to drum up just the right evocation of dread and unease throughout.  Vincent, played in a cold and calculated performance by Stephens, is perhaps a bit too ill-defined as a character to thoroughly root for (at 90 minutes, THE MACHINE does not provide much in the way of exposition or back-story), but his troublesome plight and his ever-growing disillusionment with his research helps ground us in the film and maintains our interest.  Caity Lotz has perhaps the trickier role (or should I say dual role?) as the scientist that becomes an artificial being; she does a good job of relaying the Machineís almost childlike confusion of the world around her while simultaneously showing her struggle with her very own nature.   

Whatís perhaps most remarkable about the film is how James creates a well-realized futuristic world with a budget that would barely cover the catering bills on the TRANSCENDENCE set.  With stirring and ominous cinematography by Nicolai Bruel and a John Carpenter-ian synthesized musical score by Tim Raybould, James crafts a vision of his future world the feels rich with mysterious textures that helps to lure you in right from the get-go.  The visual effects utilized in the film are also kind of thankless considering the limited resources in the filmmakerís hands, especially in filmís shocking opening scene showing Vincent experimenting on a wounded solider with brain implants.  The effects here rival, for what it's worth, just about anything found in a large-scale studio feature film and, best of all, they rarely seem to draw too much unwarranted attention to themselves.   

THE MACHINE, alas, does stumble here and there, which kind of subverts it from becoming the truly mesmerizing corporeal thriller that itís aspiring to be.  As stated, Vincent remains a kind of vague cipher in the film and is perhaps a bit too distant and bitter in his demeanor to become a thoroughly intoxicating and likeable protagonist to latch on to (which is, no doubt, a direct result of the relative shortness of the filmís running time).  That, and THE MACHINE stumbles into a third act and climax that Ė for as exemplarily orchestrated as it is - seems more interested in perfunctory gun battles and mayhem than with further exploring the filmís contemplative themes and characters.  Still, THE MACHINE emerges as a surprising antidote for those that felt that TRANSCENDENCE failed to generate much curiosity regarding its similar ideas of the relationship between man and machine.  THE MACHINE is a far smarter, thoughtful, and stylized sci-fi thriller than I was frankly expecting and director Caradog W. James has the goods of a natural and resourceful filmmaker. 

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