***1/2 (out of 5)
April 25, 2014
Caity Lotz as AVA
Toby Stephens as VINCENT
Sam Hazeldine as JAMES
Pooneh Hajimohammadi as SURI
Studio: XLrator Media
Directed by: Caradog W. James
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
I’m a sucker for certain types of science fiction. One of my favorite pulp stories is one in which a scientist creates something in the lab that is meant to further the human race, but it ends up going horribly awry. It’s an old concept, going back to the time of “Frankenstein,” but it offers great insight into the hubris of humanity. It’s a timeless story for me, one that offers a cautionary tale of science.
“The Machine” hits those points, along with many other speculative concepts, which makes it work. The story follows a programmer named Vincent (Toby Stephens), who is trying to develop a reliable form of artificial intelligence. He has his motives, which are tied to helping his disabled daughter, but the end result is to develop programming that doesn’t just mimic human thought, but rather replicates it.
After joining forces with another programmer named Ava (Caity Lotz), they believe they have succeeded in the objective. However, after Ava is fatally injured and the AI is put into practice using her own image. Unfortunately, the funding for the project comes from the Ministry of Defense, which starts to exert control over the project and threatens to make it into a weapon.
While imperfect on several levels, “The Machine” is an ambitious project that has a slick production design and solid special effects. In some respects, it actually goes farther than a typical production would that came out of the large studio system.
Going all the way back to “The Planet of the Apes” and before it, Hollywood has struggled with depictions of nudity even in the realm of appropriate science fiction. There’s no way to escape the fact that the machine that emerges from Ava’s artificial intelligence is going to be naked, and this isn’t just to fulfill some pragmatic logical component. The baring of the character offers it vulnerability. It shows it in an early stage of birth, where we all enter the world naked and screaming. Artificially forcing clothes on the character would lessen the impact of its own innocence.
This also links the machine closer to that of Vincent’s daughter, who is developmentally disabled and incapable for a normal life. While not immediately clear to the casual viewer, it’s understandable that Vincent grows so fond of his creation, because he has birthed another daughter… and this one has been created (at least partially in his own mind) as the savior of his real one.
Limited by budget, the production focuses its visual effects budget on the machine itself rather than grand scope and scale. In this sense, much of the film takes place in the bowels of the government bunkers where the machine is developed. That serves the story because not only is Vincent cut off from most human relationships (including the one he longs for the most, a meaningful normal relationship with his own daughter), it serves the foreboding nature of the story.
For decades, there has been a struggle between science for knowledge and science for either profit or war. In our world, you cannot have one without the other because profit and conquest drive commerce. The cautionary tale that “The Machine” provides amounts to the quotable line from Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park”: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Not to say there’s an overbearing message in “The Machine,” although there is one in there pretty clearly. You can still enjoy the film as a long-form version of “The Twilight Zone,” telling a tale of danger and AI. However, it also works on a deeper level and continues the run of quality speculative fiction coming out of the fringes of cinema this year.