When sitting down with Caradog James’ A.I. thriller The Machine, a film that I was indeed looking forward to seeing, I truly expected to wallow in B-movie muck, with hammy performances balanced by a stretched-thin plotline of rebellious lab-created soldiers violently turning on their creators. But instead, I found myself becoming enthralled by an unassuming and atmospheric tale about the limits of humanity, both physical and emotional. The Machine may not be Shakespearean drama, but then the Bard never really wrote about sentient, childlike robotic soldiers.
There is a new cold war going on between Britain and China, and the Ministry of Defense is working with a brilliant scientist, Vincent (Toby Stephens), to create artificially intelligent androids. The government’s intentions are all war-related — to be expected — but Vincent has ulterior motives, and is secretly trying to save his daughter, who is dying of some kind of disease. Testing sentient technology is never an easy thing, but Vincent sees something spectacular in the work of computer scientist Ava (Caity Lotz), whom he soon teams up with for testing and research.
The “machines” created by the MoD, and its shadowy head honcho Thomson (Denis Lawson), are noticeable due to the giant scar across their skull, and also by their electronically warped method of communicating. So far, the MoD’s efforts have created a small line of seemingly intelligent beings, all slowly trained as sympathy-free soldiers.
Because we movie fans are experienced when it comes to clandestine government agencies, we almost expect it when Thomson is behind an attack on the scientists that leaves Ava all but dead. And in a move that doesn’t resemble Transcendence in the least, Vincent turns Ava into one of the sentient cyborgs. It’s a dehumanizing tactic, certainly, but that’s actually when Ava’s primal human instincts are truly allowed to manifest, as she exudes sexuality (from within a skin-tight suit), innocent curiosity, and protectively violent tendencies.
Most of The Machine’s narrative takes place within the confines of laboratories, holding cells, and corridors, which adds to the repressed nature of the film as a whole. The sleek, dark, manufactured quality of everything on screen is effective at anchoring this film to the genre of future noir, but it all creates a bit of emotional distance within the viewer. The warmest feeling to be found here is when one character sets another on fire. As such, I slowly found myself just hoping for a corny, explosive climax to come around and blow up everything that the movie had worked so hard to set up.
Surprisingly, that never quite happens. As the plot takes a twist here and a turn there, the point is never to turn Ava into a Terminator-like harbinger of justice and destruction, though she does pull off a few heroic moves of badassery. Refreshingly, the story sticks to the characters and their motivations and uses the third act to propel them forward. It’s mildly anticlimactic, but only when matched up with more generic expectations such as “Michael Bay’s The Machine.”
Seemingly destined for future double feature-dom with Species, The Machine tells exactly the low-key/high-stakes story that it sets out to tell, even if I was expecting something completely different the entire time I was watching. The performances are occasionally wooden, though Lotz’ infantile speech patterns as the Machine are creepy in multiple ways. But regardless of line readings, this is a movie to be enjoyed for its brooding atmosphere and an excellent synth-heavy score that oozes sci-fi doom and gloom. If you only see one A.I.-related film this year, The Machine is the one you want to go with. And I’m not just being programmed to…I’m not just being programmed to…I’m not just being programmed to…