Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Directed by: Caradog W. James
Starring: Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens, Sam Hazeldine, Denis Lawson
As the plethora of cookery shows that occupy television schedules have shown, it takes more than just the right ingredients to make something good. You also have to know what to do with them. Indie sci-fi The Machine assembles all the core components that reappear frequently in the genre. There’s a dystopian and authoritarian future, dangerous experiments with technology, sinister military folk trying to create heartless killing machines, an older scientist driven by personal trauma and a younger, more attractive female colleague. The final product mixes these elements together to craft a vaguely diverting but mainly derivative sci-fi outing.
Opening captions inform us that China is the threat in this new world, a cold war having descended once again. To respond to this, the Ministry of Defence is intent on building a mechanised solider. Step forward Vincent (Toby Stephens), the MoD’s lead scientist tasked with creating the technology to construct a thinking machine. Naturally, he’s had a few problems along the way with some of his test subjects, and even more naturally, he’s driven by a desire to find a way to save his dying daughter.
The missing part of the puzzle is Ava (Caity Lotz), who appears to have developed a machine modelled on her own consciousness. Working with Vincent, they are close to a prototype before something goes horribly wrong. Vincent is left to finish the machine, creepily making it look just like Ava, while trying to prevent the military from destroying it when it shows too much of a capacity to feel emotion.
The Machine wears its low budget well, avoiding obviously cheap effects while utilising an intimate and dimply-lit industrial complex to house the vast majority of the action. The finale even delivers a steadily executed action sequence although the machine does seem implausibly impervious to conventional weaponry. If this all sounds a little familiar, throw in the 80s synth soundtrack and it could be any sci-fi thriller from the bottom of a high street bargain bin.
The technical elements of filmmaking are clearly not beyond director and writer Caradog James and producer John Giwa-Amu. Complementing this, they have put together a solid cast that steps up with a series of effective performances, although Lotz does get a little close to parody when playing the machine. What’s lacking is any insight into the wider questions around the role of technology that the film ostensibly sets out to explore. Across the entire running time, there is not one ounce of originality.
Instead, James puts forward a feeble musing on the potential irrelevancy of humans in a future machine world, and the dangers of trying to artificially create life. Except he can do nothing other than poorly imitate those that have gone before. There’s a moment where the machine gurns into a mirror attempting to work out how to smile. It’s a neat microcosm of the wider problems besetting a film that can only look on at the smarter and deeper entries in the sci-fi canon and try and copy what makes them special.
Credit is due for managing to muster up a film that rarely betrays its low budget nature. Technical proficiency alone is not enough though. A bundle of clichés and ideas stolen from better films do not amount to anything other than a passable but ultimately pointless genre outing.
The Machine is out now in cinemas/VoD and available on DVD/Blu-ray from 31 March www.themachinemovie.com