Even though science fiction allows for the widest possibility of storytelling, it often seems like there are really only three or four sci-fi stories, and they stopped creating them after the eighties. How else to explain an industry overwhelmed by the amount of low-budget takes on “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner” like “The Machine,” a junky piece of escapism so heavily indebted to those films that it is barely amusing on its own?
“The Machine” is one of those films where sticklers will immediately have to bend over backward to excuse the movie as far as production value, given the entire story seems to take place in one superb and accommodating location. This setting is a massive top-secret bunker controlled by the British government, the sort of place where secrets go to die, sacrificed to other hidden truths… but it’s also the sort of place where a homeless woman can simply walk towards the gates and hassle incoming guests with conspiracy theories that may or may not complicate the plot. The person listening to the mysterious “Mrs. Dawson” is Ava (Caity Lotz), a college-age developer who has created artificial intelligence that teaches itself through philosophy and intellectual exploration: when asked if a little girl sees and requests that dog in a shop window, the computer answers that it is the window itself that is distorting the girl’s opinions.
Teamed with humorless programmer Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens), she gets her first look beyond the curtain, taking a peek at how England is fighting what is apparently a second Cold War with China. Artificial intelligence is seen as the game changer, but it hasn’t quite been perfected, resulting either in machines that don’t grasp simple concepts, or hybrids of decision-making tech and the battlefield leftovers, the reanimated corpses and half-destroyed bodies rescued for further experimentation. What used to play as hard sci-fi ironically feels like merely an extension of our current reality: anyone who has seen “The Pat Tillman Story” knows how far the military would go to use a fallen soldier for their own gain. If anything, “The Machine” presents an example that seems more humane than that documentary, giving these soldiers another lease on life to be mindless thugs instead of being phony glamorous billboard material. Eye of the beholder: neither fate is worth much, really.
Ava’s belief is that she’s assisting in the development of artificial intelligence, but she’s really assisting McCarthy in healing his mentally disabled daughter. When Ava finds out, she finds this a welcome diversion from assisting in the development of war toys for big boys. But her curiosity about the variety of experiments going on in the surrounding labs makes her expendable, and she’s soon gunned down. Moved by her dedication to his daughter, McCarthy opts to resurrect her brain waves within the body of a robotic automaton. This process is mesmerizing in its very low-tech visualization, a (possibly?) computer-generated shell being spruced up and loaded with blood as if it were a car on an assembly line.
Because this is the sort of thing that happens in these films, and because writer-director Caradog James has seen “Blade Runner” more than a few times (the droning Vangelis-like score is a bit of a tell), the machine begins to develop not Ava’s memories or thoughts, but certainly her compassion. There’s the sense that expressing simple ideas to these machines is like illustrating to a child ideas of “right & wrong” and what the abstract concept of death means for someone still understanding a natural order, and the likelihood that Ava’s new form (simply called “Machine”) is that much more inquisitive than any other automaton they’ve established thus far. There’s also the hint that any machine that dared question its new purpose was immediately eliminated, allowing for only the most subservient soldiers.
Eventually, “The Machine” settles into a predictable third act where McCarthy and his charge (who has developed an under-explored love for her “master”) face off against swaths of extras holding prop guns in dark hallways, close-quarter combat shot in a way that obscures budgetary limitations (Ms. Lotz, a captivating presence as a human and a machine, is sadly not a convincing hand-to-hand brawler). The connection between The Machine and McCarthy also seems maddeningly incomplete, mostly due to Stephens’ remote characterization; it’s unclear as to whether Stephens is a low-charisma presence, or if this character is supposed to be defined by his job and his desires more than his actual personality. When Lotz is not onscreen, Stephens is miserable company.
But James does reveal a deep fascination with the robotics that suggests the threadbare story was a chance for him to explore the very real advances in artificial intelligence. Lotz is charged with giving a heavily physical performance similar to that of a child just discovering her body, but with the full maturity that comes with a woman’s body. In one borderline breathless segment, The Machine is left alone in the hangar, engaging in what seems like interpretive dance, capturing a spirit thrilled to find life. It’s a simple pleasure, but even in a simple movie, it’s fairly unique, establishing a vision not often seen in small-scale sci-fi. It may be backhanded, but it does rate as a compliment to say that when genre fans rent “The Machine” on DVD, they’ll likely be satisfied. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.