By Liv Ingram
Making its Alberta premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival, The Machine is a near-future British sci-fi movie from director Caradog W. James. With Britain in a deep recession and on the brink of a Cold War with China, the British Ministry of Defence is developing the world’s first robotic soldier with artificial intelligence to fight in the upcoming war. The ministry has given scientist Vincent (Toby Stephens) an unlimited budget to develop this soldier of the future, although he secretly uses their resources to develop technology to aid his ailing daughter. When Vincent hires American researcher Ava (Caity Lotz), her uniquely intelligent AI software provides him with the breakthrough he has been looking for. After Vincent uses the program to scan Ava’s brain and create a copy of her consciousness, their promising partnership is cut short when Ava is murdered. Vincent then takes the file of Ava’s brain and implants it into a robot which he creates in her image, calling it the Machine.
While the ‘humans are good and AI is evil’ dichotomy has become a familiar sci-fi trope, The Machine avoids predictability by sidestepping this cliché. In an impressive double role from Lotz, the robot is presented as a rational, moral and inquisitive being. With the Machine’s quirky movements, glowing blue eyes and childlike innocence, you nearly forget that it’s the same actor. Although the story spends a bit too long on the existential ‘What does it really mean to be alive, anyway?’ angle, Lotz does a wonderful job of presenting the Machine in an earnest and compelling way.
In addition to tinkering with robots, Vincent also experiments with giving soldiers with severe head injuries brain implants so that they might live normal lives. However, the soldiers lose their ability to speak after the implants — English that is. The cyborgs construct their own language out of fragmented thoughts and alien-like sounds. While their dialogue is never subtitled, their tone and secrecy suggests that they are planning a revolt. While it’s never fully explained what they’re up to, they’re clearly plotting something that they don’t want the scientists to know about. Another aspect of the film that is never fully explained is the role of Suri (Pooneh Hajimohammadi), a female cyborg who, unlike the other cyborgs that are either soldiers with guns or subjects in cells, appears to be an assistant for the predictably evil boss, Thomson (Denis Lawson). While she appears to be the cyborg leader, we’re never told how or why this came to be.
However, for its flaws, The Machine is absolutely beautiful. Clearly shot on a shoestring budget, the film uses special effects sparingly. Instead it uses its incredibly talented lighting team to lend depth and character to the otherwise barren underground ministry bunkers. While the film has an industrial palette filled with whites, greys and otherwise muted colours, the use of coloured lighting — red, particularly — makes the film surreal and elegant. One particularly memorable scene features the Machine dancing in a dark, empty bunker and as she begins to pirouette, the cybernetic-ballerina begins to glow red.
The film indulges in just enough techno-jargon to keep it honest (such as AI robots taking the Turing Test), yet it isn’t weighed down by the clunky technical terms. With that, The Machine is a thoroughly enjoyable and visually stunning sci-fi film that is well worth going to see.