Machine, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/27/13 05:22:17
SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Machine" is not the sort of science fiction movie that comes from someone who is, at heart, making a western, or because setting it in the future gives the FX guys a reason to make cool visuals, bigger explosions, and bloodier gore. It's not even entirely the "look at a social issue by putting it in a new context" type, really. Sure, it's got plenty of bloody action and contemporary food for thought, but its ideas are very much tomorrow's.Deep within a Ministry of Defense base in Wales in a future where the West is locked in a new cold war with China, Vincent (Toby Stephens) works on a team that is not only building prosthetic limbs for veterans, but artificial intelligence and implants to restore brain function even after severe injuries - the latter as much to help his daughter with Rett Syndrome as to build a better soldier. The failures are frequent and bloody. His new research partner, Ava (Caity Lotz) is an idealistic American who has built an artificial intelligence that can come as close to passing the Turing Test as any yet developed. They grow close enough that Vincent uses scans of Ava's brain and features for their prototype android, but his boss (Denis Lawson) may not see the need for a fully independent AI... Plus, the soldiers with brain implants who make up a large chunk of the base personnel seem to be up to something, but who knows what - they stop speaking after a few months.
Writer/director Caradog W. James doesn't have much trouble with throwing the audience into the deep end right away, the very first scene has a soldier missing a distressing volume of his cranium being tested for just how human he is now that he's received his implant and it escalates to violence quickly. That's emblematic of how the whole movie is going to play out - it's not going to spend time out in the regular world (the closest we get is Vincent visiting his daughter Mary (Jade Croot) in a hospital that is as institutional in its way as the base), it's going to be harsh, and it's going to push the audience to consider where the bounds of humanity are. Do these soldiers who have had important parts of their brains replaced with machines count? If they don't, what about Mary, who has the same issues with communication and cognition that they do? And what of The Machine, as the android is generally referred to? As much as its brain is still childlike and soaking up information, it isn't Ava.
These are some big science-fictional ideas, and they take center stage. James will spend some time on the more mundane, relatable things like experimenting on prisoners and soldiers, or whether working for this sort of military program is an acceptable compromise for people who want to do good - there's this great moment when Ava's AI answers a tactical question and she flinches at how her work has been perverted that says more than many stories devoted to the subject do - but it's the strange moments that don't have an obvious real-world analogue that get the audience leaning forward to see how things will play out. Even if this is stuff science fiction has been doing in print for a long time, the filmed form of the genre has always lagged behind in complexity. James deals with this in part by not slowing down to discuss concepts, showing evolution without mentioning specific technologies in detail, and also by giving both Vincent and Thomson clarity of purpose enough that the way they work with and against each other dives the story.
The delicious irony is that, for all that he is the man most directly responsible for what is going on, Vincent may be the least cognizant of what he's doing. Toby Stephens plays the character with such a focus on how he can help Mary that he can seem like an atypically handsome mad scientist until he develops some warmth toward Ava and The Machine, and it's impressive how that humanity teases its way out of the character, a surprising core of idealism under a very cynical exterior. Denis Lawson's Thomson isn't a complicated character at all, a thoroughly businesslike villain, but Lawson supplies a cold ruthlessness that is nevertheless utterly human as opposed to mechanical, with an edge of cruelty that doesn't get close to taunting.
And then there's Caity Lotz, who is rather fantastic as Ava and the Machine. It's as good a dual role as you'll see an actor play; she gives Ava an intelligence and warmth that the audience can connect with quickly, personality that establishes itself right away, while the Machine is inhuman and childlike in a way that all but overpowers the Ava that's supposed to be underneath. What's just as amazing is the physical performance she gives - there's no stiffness as Ava, but she seems to get larger and more imposing as the Machine, and while it doesn't lumber like a stereotypical robot, there's precision and power to each movement, a completely different sort of body language. She handles herself very well indeed when action is called for, too, mixing it right up with the stuntpeople in scenes where she can't be doubled.
That action isn't messing around, either - James keeps things moving at a good clip, springing bits of violence that still manage to be shocking even after the second or third time before a very worthy final battle which is all the more exciting because it's not entirely clear whether the audience should be throwing its support behind human beings or reanimated cyborgs. The film is full of atmosphere, equal parts dark and institutional secret base and mute soldiers with inhuman glowing eyes and temple stitches. Even the little details, like searchlights tracking cars as they drive in and out, contribute to the paranoid, nervous feeling.I'm gushing a bit, but something like "The Machine" is exciting; filmed sci-fi is seldom as forward-looking as this, and when it is, it's almost never this entertaining. That may make it a niche item, but for those who like smart science fiction and don't mind some violence, it's a too-rare, thrilling treat.
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