The notion of fashioning a being and giving it life predates science fiction, yet it remains a magnetic subject that withstands constant reworking and retelling. Director and writer Caradog W James’s low-budget film The Machine has strong echoes of Blade Runner and Metropolis, but it also reaches further back to things like Frankenstein and the Jewish folklore tale of the Golem.
Toby Stephens stars as brooding computer scientist Dr Vincent McCarthy (his name being a nod, perhaps, to real-world pioneer John McCarthy), who works in a shadowy research bunker for the Ministry of Defence. The west is locked in a second Cold War with China, and both sides are racing to build ever more intelligent machines. “The most technologically advanced society always wins,” is how Vincent’s ruthless boss Thomas (Wedge Antilles himself, Denis Lawson) puts it.
At this unspecified point in the future, scientists have already figured out ways of giving wounded war veterans everything from fully-functioning prosthetic arms and legs to augmented brains – the next step, for Vincent, is to build a robot that looks and acts like a human, but processes superior strength and agility. To this end, he creates the titular Machine (Caity Lotz), an artificial being modelled on the likeness and memories of a colleague, Ava (also Caity Lotz). Vincent is stunned to see how quickly the Machine begins to learn and adapt like a human, yet Thomas is more interest in its prowess on the battlefield.
Stephens is on good form as the distant yet sympathetic scientist, yet it’s Caity Lotz’s performance that really sticks in the memory. Perfectly decent as fellow AI researcher Ava, it’s when Lotz steps into the role of the Machine that she really impresses. Possessed with an almost spooky air of childlike vulnerability, dignity and restrained power, she’s watchable throughout.
It’s this performance, along with James’s imaginative use of a relatively modest budget (of under £1m, reportedly), that makes The Machine something more than just another science fiction dystopia. Its bunker setting, guarded by ominously mute cybernetic soldiers with glowing eyes, is an eerie place, and the mixture of digital and prosthetic effects that bring them to life is sometimes seamless. There’s a moment where we see a robot ‘born’ for the first time, as metal and an oozing, viscous substance come together to make something resembling a human, and it’s mesmerising.
Apparently drawing its ideas from such SF touchstones as Ghost In The Shell, Battle Angel Alita and the aforementioned Blade Runner (Tom Raybould’s music provides more than a passing nod to the work of Vangelis), The Machine uses these inspirations in thought-provoking and sometimes surprising ways – there’s one quite striking, even cheeky reference to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, for example.
There are some points in The Machine where the lack of budget does start to tell, particularly in one or two action sequences, but these aren’t the main reason to see the film in any case. For all its flaws, The Machine manages to build a believable, quite claustrophobic computer world, and through its gentle, innocent title character, poses some thought-provoking questions. If science could create artificial being indistinguishable from humans, wouldn’t they deserve to be treated with the same dignity as us? Second, and more disquietingly: if they were more intelligent than us, wouldn’t these beings also be more humane and compassionate than we are?
As technology edges closer to our bodies, and the notion of cybernetic limbs and artificially intelligent drones begin to feel less outlandish, these age-old questions on the ethics and impact of science take on a more urgent dimension. The Machine explores them with intelligence and style. Cult gem status surely beckons.
The Machine is out in UK cinemas now, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on the 31st March.
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