Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Machine

The Machine is an excellent English sci-fi film that popped up on Netflix Streaming near the end of last year, sadly without a theatrical release. I enjoyed writer/director Caradog W. James’ focused and thoughtful thriller, which took $1.5M and turned James’ story into a beautiful-looking, atmospheric tale about medical experimentation, the connections people form with each other, and the development of artificial intelligence. It’s not a perfect film at all, but it does everything it does well, and displays true artistry in its performances and writing. I also think it’s 1000 times more of a sci-fi film than Ex Machina will ever be, but I’ll leave that discussion for my upcoming EM review.

In the near future, Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is unhappy, but hopeful, despite England’s tenuous cold war with China. This scientific genius has a well-funded, well-intended project with Thompson (Denis Lawson), a Ministry of Defense bigwig: a plan to help injured soldiers recover use of their limbs and brains with computerized implants. As the film’s start conveys, that’s a difficult, painful process.

Flash forward a bit and Vincent is putting three computers through the Turing Test, which determines whether a machine can respond well enough to convince a human that it's a human, too. None of the computers pass, but he sees great potential in the device developed by Ava (Caity Lotz). McCarthy then convinces Ava to join him by offering unlimited financial support. The idea is that, together, they can jointly complete his new project: an android run by a true AI that is bolstered by scans of a person’s brain.

Unfortunately, Ava is more than a little into civil disobedience, which doesn’t go over well at MoD research bases. While a crippled soldier demonstrates his new super-strong arms, he whispers to her that he’s being mistreated. Ava investigates, Thompson decides she has to go, and Vincent gets roughed up in the same attack that kills his newest assistant. The UK’s equivalent of OSHA must f--king hate this base.

So Vincent uses the research they had completed to create a new robot that is modeled after Ava’s body, and further has a full scan of her brain. The activation of this new technology, called only “Machine,” is exciting and full of promise, but Thompson has his own designs for this project... and they don’t include a lot of gentle testing and observation.

The Machine uses excellent acting, first-class special effects, and a consistent tone to sell this smart story to the audience. The intense beginning sets the mood, and can even keep viewers who were just looking for a standard thriller happy while the movie deals with various plot and character developments. And, as it goes through its plot progressions, builds its tensions, and sets up a few action scenes, James' screenplay never loses sight of the human emotion and heady concepts at play.

Essentially, Vincent McCarthy is a doctor whose treatments might save his patients or leave them even less functional than they were before. Ava is a hyper-intelligent idealist who wants to use her talents to bring the most amount of good to the most people. Thompson is a ruthless man who is so goal-oriented that he ignores the respect and decency that others deserve just by virtue of being alive. And the Machine is torn between all of these interests, with the viewer uncertain of which side she will land on. Are we looking at the salvation of humankind, its evolution, or its end? A heavy air of mystery hangs over everything in this picture.

It's funny. The story drives down a relatively narrow path, but you witness the various players debate and grapple with the issues at hand. People act inhumanely, and some people become less human than they already were, and we’re simultaneously left to deal with the prospect of a computer that may indeed become human. Learning, experience, adaptation... It’s a very thoughtful place that The Machine goes to, and it’s so rewarding that it can satisfy every element of a sci-fi thriller while also developing its ideas as if it actually cared about them (because, gasp, the filmmakers did care).

I was also very pleased by how much this felt like a throwback to 80’s movies. The methods and style of the villain, the film's tone, and especially the soundtrack all feel pulled right out of the 1980's. When the picture ends and the score comes up, I almost expect to see John Carpenter’s name in the director’s credit. It's so nice to be able to lump tM in with The Guest and It Follows as pictures that are going back to that particular vibe in order to tell solid genre stories.

Whether she’s playing Ava or the Machine, Caity Lotz really impressed me. I only knew her from her role on Arrow, but I feel like she had more to play here in 91 minutes than she did over 26 episodes of that televised series. Denis Lawson is great as the inscrutable man who pushes all the pieces into place; he’s a formidable figure, one who challenges our ideas about how far people can stoop before they cease to be human anymore. Supporting parts do well, especially Pooneh Hajimohammadi as the silent, oh-so expressive Suri. The actress did very, very well, despite how difficult it is to make an impression when your part doesn't speak...

Yet it’s Toby Stephens who has to hold everything together. It would be easy to call Ava the “heart” of this film, a writing cliche that would come down mostly to her role being female, as well as scrupulous. But Vincent is the person whose feelings both pull the audience in and drive the story. If we couldn’t believe in McCarthy, then the rest of the pic would devolve into the same old tired sci-thriller narrative. I was really surprised by how good he was – until I did some research and discovered that his parents are Maggie f--king Smith and Robert freaking Stephens; I nearly lost respect for him when I realized he’s genetically-designed to be an exceptional thespian.

My complaints here are simple, and few. As is so common in 80’s films, the bad guys progress their plans like morons; they’re barely interested in testing out their creations than they are so focused on their end-goals that they completely abandon concepts like step-by-step experimentation or even using a control group. I also wish that the movie had taken a little more time before Caity’s human role got killed and replaced by her robotic AI doppleganger. Finally, the subplot with the cyborg veteran soldiers is withheld for too long, especially since it's seeded in the earliest moments of the movie. It makes no sense for this plot to go ignored, particularly when I think how unlikely it is that McCarthy would be in charge of both of these projects; one scientist does not fit all disciplines...

All of these problems are minor, and easy to ignore given how clever and moody and well-written this story is. The Machine is a rare joy – an intelligent thriller rooted in science fiction that neatly embraces and delves into the issues that it raises. To be able to do so on a low budget, while showing great strength in the quality of its story and its production values, is amazing. I’m so happy that I watched Caradog W. James’ movie, I eagerly look forward to his work in the future, and I hope you watch this soon. Just wait for my review of Ex Machina, where I will explain how it’s an inferior work when compared to this one...

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