THE MACHINE (2014)

7 out of 10

Release Date: 31st of March 2014

Director: Caradog W. James

Cast: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, John-Paul MacLeod, Helen Griffin and Sam Hazeldine

Writer: Caradog W. James

Trailer: THE MACHINE

Unknown-9TO BE PROOFREAD: Very impressive UK sci-fi that would have benefitted from a less hurried pace. A longer cut of this film would be very welcome as the writer seems to have a lot more to say about artificial intelligence. Stapling some very interesting ideas and twists onto a well worn template this is a lot more than a Brit-remake of 80s Gregory Hines vehicle Eve of Destruction (remember that?) Whilst this lack of detail and characterisation may frustrate many viewers, it compromises by throwing in a fair bit of competent action.  A longer film could have had a more balanced pace and the conflicts that come up as to whether the titular Machine is a sentient being could have been explored even more. But to have been explored even to this degree is a great surprise and only stops a very good film becoming a potential cult classic.

Vincent (TOBY STEPHENS – SEVERANCE) works for the MOD developing brain implants for injured soldiers. Over the years his research has expanded to include the creation of android soldiers. His creation known as The Machine (CAITY LOTZ – MAD MEN) is an anomaly because she appears to be sentient and this scares his employers who only need compliant drones.  On discovering that he has stumbled upon and created artificial conscience he refuses to shut her down. His bosses have something to say about it. There are other plot strands involving inured soldiers and evolving software, and Vincent’s terminally sick daughter and you have a good mix of emotional stories vying for your attention.

The central plot involving Vincent and The Machine is the most successful. The Machine is child like, yet deadly, but never maliciously so. Unprepared to guide and tutor such a complex machine in the delicacies and acceptable society rules, the relationship between them goes awry pretty swiftly. Confusion compounds easily navigable situations and this child like gullibility is exploited by the big bad Thomson (DENIS LAWSON – PERFECT SENSE) who is the head of the military facility. He manipulates the robot into being a killing machine – whereas Vincent’s research has hardly begun into proving whether or not she is merely a robot suggestive to programming or a free soul.  It’s this debate that needs more exploring but it’s still fairly satisfying and intelligently looked at, it’s jet a shame that the film’s action considerations are so pressing.  Other plots involving false limb implants for injured soldiers is intriguing but initially confusing. The soldiers eventually regain their lost faculties but at the same time lose the power of speech. However, they still can communicate with each other via a strange new voice. Are they planning a revolution?

The Machine is a rare sci-fi that asks the right questions and attempts to answer some of them in passing. SPOILER: The last sci-fi to address the issues of artificial intelligence (albeit via cloning) was Moon. END SPOILER. May there be many more films that make you think. We’ve been here before with Blade Runner and the writer/director Caradog W. James is clearly a fan. even the soundtrack pulses and burbles the same the patters famous Vangelis score does. It looks good too, the tech is convincing and the story and script is given colour by a very game cast. Denis Lawson probably struggles the most with a thin-role as the villain of the piece but it’s almost churlish to single him out when there’s so much other good stuff happening.

7 out of 10 – A very impressive low-budget debut sci-fi. It’s a shame it’s cinema release was so limited because this film could have gained a serious following. Good to see Toby Stephens back to his best in an interesting and challenging role after years of treading the boards of the West End theatres. Recommended – yet I still hanker for a long cut!

See review below by Matt Usher aka Joe Pesci II

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

  • Toby Stephens: 13 Hours – The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Black Sails (TV), Believe, All Things To All Men, Severance, The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, James Bond- Die Another Day, Possession (2002), Space Cowboys, Onegin, Photographing Fairies, Twelfth Night (1996)
  • Caity Lotz: 400 Days, The Pact 2, Mad Men (TV), Arrow (TV), Battle of the Year, The Pact
  • Denis Lawson: New Tricks (TV), The Wee Man, Broken (2013), Perfect Sense, Holby City (TV), Kit Curran (TV), Star Wars VI – Return Of The Jedi, Local Hero, Star Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars IV – A New Hope
  • John-Paul MacLeod: The Gospel Of Us
  • Helen Griffin: Under Milk Wood (2015), Risen (2010)
  • Sam Hazeldine: The Mechanic 2, Grimsby, Still, ’71, The Monuments Men, Peaky Blinders (TV), Dead Mine, The Raven, Don’t Let Him In, Weekender
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One thought on “THE MACHINE (2014)

  1. THE MACHINE

    I may be a luddite (if it’s a machine it can’t have a soul and that’s that) but THE MACHINE has more than a few interesting ideas about what our scientists and military are getting up to for our alleged benefit, and it passes the time as a reasonably entertaining film. It lacks the philosophical weight that might have made it something special, but it points out a few ideas for debate whilst regularly slaughtering its cast so it’s got something for everybody. THE MACHINE is an interesting failure that’s worth casting an eye over if you’re interested in intelligent science fiction (albeit not as intelligent as it might have been). It’s an update of the Frankenstein story, asking questions about our right to create things we don’t understand, and the problems that the things created wreak and suffer.

    Toby Stephens plays a modern Frankenstein. He’s a genius maverick scientist who works in a Top Secret Military Facility making killer androids and cybermen whilst developing artificial intelligence as a sideline. He’s very clever. But why is he doing all this? He has no interest in helping his employers – the film is set in a near future where we’re involved in a (possibly cold) war against China, and although Stephens is working for the government he doesn’t seem happy about it. Strangely, when he sees his research being used for the very purpose it was being done (i.e. killing and destroying) he seems a tad surprised. But he has other things on his mind. After all, being a morally compromised hero scientist in a film means only one thing: all that research is being done to keep his dying daughter alive (or, should she snuff it, copied into a virtual reality / android in which she can live again).

    But Stephens is a terrible scientist. Or rather, a terrible employer. I lost count of the number of assistants, colleagues and technicians who die because of his professional negligence and anti-establishment plotting. Stephens and his worryingly mortal team have experimented on lots of brain-damaged amputee soldiers, and in his wisdom boss Denis Lawson (doing civil servant-style evil) has decided that these poor souls would make excellent guards at the Top Secret Military Facility. A side-effect of the experimentation is that they become mute. Or so the scientists think! In fact these cyborg-people have developed their own secret squeaky language, but the normal humans don’t notice because the guards go silent whenever someone approaches, like the toys in TOY STORY. And they’re unhappy with their lot, and are fomenting rebellion, led by an improbably pretty cyberlady (maybe the MoD was looking into commercial options?).

    And then there’s the American. Played by Caity Lotz, she’s a maverick scientist with her own agenda and the ability to create artificial intelligence which can pass the Turing Test. She teams up with Stephens and together they plot to use all the tax-payer funded facilities for their own selfish but nice reasons. So she gets bumped off in a scene which is meant to be cold and calculating but comes across as perfunctory. Undeterred, Stephens resurrects her as a machine (THE MACHINE in fact), as a dry run for resurrecting his daughter (THE MACHINE has feelings you see) whilst also keeping Evil Boss Denis Lawson off his back (THE MACHINE is also a killer robot). Lotz is perfectly passable as the scientist, though her death goes for nothing. She’s more interesting as the machine (that’s actually more of a compliment than it might seem). A modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, she/it has to deal with being alive, dealing with duplicitous humans, and doing a lot of killing. And a dance sequence accompanied by a Sea Interlude by Benjamin Britten (visually the best part of the film).

    THE MACHINE brings up the idea of artificial intelligence but does relatively little with it (which at least means it doesn’t go down the sentimental route of Spielberg’s AI). And then there’s the idea of the relationship between the humans and the people they’ve been experimenting on. The latter see themselves as the future and humanity as the past. But again, apart from a bit of a punch-up, nothing much develops. And then there are the bits where the film falls apart all of its own accord. There’s a scene where the guards think THE MACHINE might be attacking our hero. He emerges to say ‘it’s OK lads, I’m working’, with naked robowoman behind him. Although the guards smirk the director doesn’t quite get the comedy out of the scene that surely should be there. It’s all a bit earnest. (BIT OF A SPOILER COMING UP.) Take for example Toby Stephens meeting a grieving mother towards the end of the film. She knows her son has been experimented on in the Military Facility and wants to know the truth. The sad doctor gives her a pass card and tells her she’ll find the truth in the now crumbling military edifice. It’s played as if the scene is some sort of closure for both characters. But. It was Stephens who was carrying out the dodgy experiments. He caused the son unendurable confusion and pain. It was his negligence which caused the son to go mad and start slaughtering scientists. And he’s just directed the unfortunate mother to walk into a building undergoing a nuclear reactor leak. Oops. And this leads on to the film’s big problem. Our hero. OK, he’s a genius at brain stuff. But he’s also either an idiot or badly written. He works for the government dreaming up intelligent killer android/people. So why is he surprised when they want to use his research to make intelligent killer android/people? Evil Denis Lawson is right – they’re there to make weapons to kill the Chinese with, something our hero doesn’t seem to understand, though whether that’s a character flaw or bad writing is debatable.

    THE MACHINE looks pretty good, though surely there should be more light in laboratories and workshops? Fortunately the designer doesn’t go overboard on the steampunk (which must have been tempting) and instead everything looks reasonably futuristic and functional, yet credibly moth-eaten and grimy. It’s more than competently staged though the big final battle feels grafted on from something more generically space-wars. THE MACHINE throws up a lot of ideas (human vs machine, human as machine, ethics of brain augmentation, ethics of physical and mental cybernetic augmentation, medical vs military) but doesn’t have the running time to deal with them properly. As a result the film is good for a single viewing so long as you don’t think too hard about it.

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