Director: Caradog W. James
Cast: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz Denis Lawson
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When will people realise that building artificially intelligent killing machines never ends well? The latest bright humans to have a go are the British army. Fortunately for them, their secret weapons programme has its own secret weapon: robotics genius Vincent (Stephens).
Desperate to find a way to cure his daughter’s deteriorating mental condition, Vince is happy to take military money in exchange for designing brain implants for injured soldiers. The moral implications of his work? The sinister, backlit rooms? The people protesting outside the off-grid compound? He can turn a blind eye to all of them. But when the smart, sympathetic Ava (Lotz) becomes his assistant, things change. And the bad ending we were talking about? Yeah, that happens.
Conflicted doctor. Check. Shady military organisation. Check. Killer robots. Check. You can see where things are headed from the stylish opening credits – but then The Machine throws a slight curveball. Living up to the promise of his name, director Caradog W. James turns his thriller into something closer to a soft two-hander. Manipulated and betrayed by his slimy boss, Thomson (Lawson), Vincent finds himself faced with an intelligent, emotional android – one with a crush on him.
“They’re not alive,” says Vincent. “How do you know that? You can’t see their thoughts,” argues Ava. The chemistry between the two leads – Stephens, believably world-weary, and Lotz, endearingly naive – is electric, sparking themes and questions about mortality, morality, the soul and creation. These are well-worn genre concerns that have been discussed in bigger films but like the best indie productions, The Machine doesn’t let its low budget stop it tackling them too.
If anything, it actually helps: when the shit hits the mechanical fan, the action feels more intimate than most – a tone that’s established in a standout set piece, which sees The Machine dancing to classical music. That this feels more like the climax of the story than anything else is no bad thing.
Shot with a whole heap of blue by Nicolai Brüel and filled with shiny CGI touch-screens, everything has a retro vibe – you know, the way people thought the future would look like in the 1980s. “They are part of the new world,” The Machine says of the cybernetic soldiers Vincent has made. “You are part of the old.” It’s hardly subtle or original. But while Toby Stephens treads the road many flicks have travelled before, the troops are busy communicating in their own primitive language of digital growls. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a society being formed – one that helps Caradog build to an ambiguously satisfying finale. Maybe, you begin to think, building artificially intelligent killing machines doesn’t have to turn out badly after all.
Read our interview with The Machine’s director Caradog W. James.
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