The Machine

UK Release Date 21st March
Director Caradog W. James
Starring Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens
Runtime 91 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 10th March 2014

Low budget sci-fi is a tricky business. How to make your movie look like it’s set in the future on a shoestring without resorting to the kind of CGI that graces a Syfy film. There have been a couple of great examples recently of how to get away with this; in the cinema with Robot & Frank and on UK TV with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror mini-series (hit and miss but Be Right Back is well worth checking out). Writer / Director Caradog W. James has now stepped into the ring with The Machine.

The movie delves into the clandestine world of future technology where a new cold war with China has destroyed the economy and scientists wanting to change it for the better are forced to rely on dubious Ministry of Defence budgets in order to get their work funded. Vincent (Toby Stevens) is one such scientist - desperate to develop a way of uploading his dying child’s consciousness to a machine but having to take the military money to get the work done. Searching for a new lab partner after his previous met with an unfortunate industrial accident (painted in glorious red flashback), he finds Ava, a beautiful American genius who has developed a computer program that is essentially conscious. All of this occurs in a constantly dark top-secret military establishment, sold to both scientists on the premise of making implants to help brain and body damaged soldiers. It’s clear that Vincent knows the truth is much darker than that though. The facility is run by a shady suit from the MOD and security is staffed by a platoon of implanted soldiers whose implants we are told have struck them dumb. When Ava is done away with by MOD staff pretending to be Chinese spies, Vincent’s careful plans start to spiral out of control.

Director James and producer John Giwa-Amu are both self-confessed Blade Runner fans and if you see a review of this film that doesn’t mention that film, I’d be amazed. From the perm-a-dark interiors to the self-consciously synth music, it’s very clear which film this one aspires to be. At some points you half expect Harrison Ford to pop up in a wink wink cameo. If you can get over the hyper-homaging though, this movie deserves to be watched in its own (lack of) light.

With barely half a dozen cast members and even fewer locations, it’s an impressive feat to make this look anything other than a Doctor Who episode. James has clearly shaped his film around the money available and he’s done it well. Beyond the odd pyrotechnic effect, this isn’t a story that particularly needs grandiose special effects and to be honest, it would probably suffer with more money thrown at it. All of which marks James as a talent to look out for in future.

In Caity Lotz, James has unearthed a promising actor. Beautiful but not to the point where you suspect CGI, she proves impressive as first Ava and then The Machine. It’s a difficult role to fulfil, Ava being lost part way through the download process and so the system lacks a complete set of information to use. In a genre not known for its strong female roles and viewpoints, this movie is a definite step forward. Lotz just about nails the uncanny valley - she looks and acts just too close to human for us to ever be comfortable with her origins but not far enough away for us to accept her as a machine. The Machine’s grappling with its forming emotions are down played so we avoid cringing scenes of her ‘discovering herself’. In fact, the movie is very good at not spoon-feeding us answers. Toby Stevens plays well as the haunted scientist though he still has work to do to distance himself from Gustav Graves in my mind.

The story isn’t anything particularly new (though its female lead does make it stand out), a lone scientist goes to extreme ends to save his loved ones, and the dubious suits that run the business could have been dropped in from any number of sci-fi films but this is a movie that works better when you watch it back in your head as the credits roll. Which makes it a little difficult to do full justice to in a review. At about the 84th minute of its brisk 91 minute running time, I was spending more time bemoaning the obvious clichés and slavish Blade Runner style than I was thinking about the actual film. As the credits rolled though, I was forced to go back over what I’d seen and castigate myself for my shortsightedness. Put simply, the final scene makes the entire movie click into place. Fade out ninety seconds earlier and you have a competently done Blade Runner knock off. Get through to the cliff top though and everything changes. The faults are still there but you realise that to dwell on them would be to miss the point entirely.

The Machine is a huge boost to those of us who love our sci-fi and a genuinely promising sign for British sci-fi in particular. It takes very well worn ideas and twists them into a new, heartbreaking premise. The IMDB entry for this makes heavy reference to ‘two computer programmers falling in love’, a description that does this movie no favours; there is more here than that. On the same IMDB page there is a user review from somebody who walked out of the movie, stating how terrible it is. Well, if you’ve read this, now you know why. This is a movie that gains no particular merit until that final scene. Then you realise that you’re the one lacking the merit for judging it early. Watch the whole thing, then think back through it, it’s not 1984 but it’s still pretty heartbreaking.

Check out the trailer here.

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