Hello. I’m AsimovLives and I love Science Fiction.
The Machine is a 2013 British science fiction film written and directed by Caradog James. It is his first feature length theatrical release.
Title: The Machine
Year: 2013 (worldwide release in 2014)
Production company/Distributor: Red & Black Films, Content Media
Writer/Director: Caradog James
Producer: John Giwa-Amu
Cinematography: Nicolai Brüel
Music: Tom Raybould
Editor: Matt Platts-Mills
Running time: 91 minutes
Country/Language: United Kingdom, English
Starring: Toby Stephens (Prof. Vincent McCarthy), Caity Lotz (Ava/The Machine), Denis Lawson (Director Thompson), Sam Hazeldine (James), Pooneh Hajimohammadi (Thompson’s Assistant Suri), John Paul MacLeod (Soldier Paul Dawson), Helen Griffin (Paul Dawson’s mother), Jade Croot (Mary, Vincent’s daughter)
In an unspecified near future, the world has turned for the worst, locked in a new Cold War between The Western Hemisphere and China. And it’s a hot Cold War at that, fought through covert operations. But those are proven to be very costly to The West in human resources due to heavy casualties among the operatives personnel, especially concerning the wounded and amputated.
Somewhere in a military base in Wales, research institute was installed, dedicated to create breakthroughs in artificial limbs technology. Leading the research team is the brilliant Prof. Vincent McCarthy. The secret goal, however, is to create artificial intelligence that can turn amputee soldiers into highly efficient combat cyborgs.
But all efforts have gone horribly wrong, as the cyber limbs and their brain implant’s AI conflict with the minds of the users, turning them into violent uncontrollable psychotics. Vincent sets up a cognitive test for a soldier named Paul Dawson – a recipient of a cybernetic implant. Dawson turns hostile and nearly kills Vincent but is shot and killed before he does.
The incident haunts Vincent, but that is not the worst worries on his mind. He’s the only surviving parent to his daughter Mary, who suffers from Rett Syndrome. Vincent uses his work to clandestinely search for a solution to his daughter’s affliction. Due to her illness, she has lost her powers of speech – a condition similar to brain-implanted wounded soldiers. So the solution for the soldiers’ problem could lead to Mary’s cure as well.
Vincent sees hope in the promising work of an up and coming young scientist, Ava, when he applies the Turing Test to her AI invention. All AIs fail the test, but Ava’s fails in a very creative manner, due to her capacity for self-learning. He manages to convince her to work for him both on the strength of his reputation, the promise of unlimited funds for her research and the reveal he built the only working quantum computer in the world. Ava, despite her misgivings about working in a military project, agrees.
Working together, Vincent and Ava warm up into a close comradeship due to their time together and joint progress in AI research. When Ava learns of Mary’s problem, she offers to help Vincent with his secret research, elevating their relationship into a close friendship.
But by then, Ava has already gotten herself into the wrong side of Director Thompson due to her inquisitive nature about the doings in the institute. Vincent tries to protect her from unwanted trouble by scolding her attempts at learning more about the base’s secrets.
But Ava has been driven to find any wrongdoings since her arrival, when she met a woman that vigils at the base’s gates. This woman is the mother of soldier Dawson, whose fate has been covered up by the institute, much to her suspicion.
Vincent goes along with the masquerade on instance by the more coldly pragmatic Thompson, but Ava will have none of it. She is a bit of a politically oriented leftie with a past of defiance to authority, inquisitive and free-spirited, far too much for the likings of the ends-justify-the-means minded Thompson.
Also on her first day at the base, when Vincent guided Ava to a show of their advanced limb cybernetics on patient James, the latter manages to whisper to her about a secret section in the base: Section 6.
Ava investigates and discovers that Section 6 is a place where the failed and rejected subjects are kept in imprisonment, and almost discovers a secret group of cyber-implanted ex-soldiers who have created a movement, led by Thompson’s aide Suri. They conspire a plan to escape and hide their intentions by using a language developed by them in secret (imperceptible to the unplanted humans).
Ava makes a breakthrough in her research and manages to make her AI pass the Turing Test, the result they were hoping for. This is also the key for Vincent’s daughter cure. But on their way home, they are attacked by a Chinese assassin who stabs Ava. Thompson is revealed to be in the know and witness to Ava’s execution on live feed.
Vincent decides to continue with Ava’s work by using her AI on a prototype robot. He decides to build it in Ava’s image, as a homage/monument to her former colleague.
The Machine, as the robot is called, is an immediate success, far more so then expected. It’s also surprisingly gentle and humane, showing emotions and empathy beyond what would merely be just computer programming. And that’s includes her concerns about hurting humans, something which Thompson finds such scruples rather problematic for a killing robot weapon.
The Machine inherits some irrational phobias from Ava like fear of spiders and clowns. The latter of which leads to the death of one of the science team personnel. This makes the Machine shut down. At home, Vincent’s problems don’t stop either as Mary has contracted pneumonia, which is extremely dangerous to people with her condition. Vincent brain-scans his daughter to copy her shut-in mind so he can use what he learned with the building of Machine to help her.
The Machine snaps out of her shutdown when Suri makes a visit and Machine talks to her in the implanted secret language. Vincent returns from the hospital where Mary is interned to find Machine out of the laboratory and dancing while enjoying music. More and more is apparent that the Machine is very much like a living being, much to Vincent’s bewilderment and satisfaction, but to Thompson’s distress, as he reckons they are in the business of making killing machines for war, not creating artificial life. Thompson tries to turn Machine into what she’s supposed to be programmed for (a fighting killing machine) when he confronts her with the captured killer of Ava, telling her that the killer is also after Vincent and must be stopped. When Machine decides to cripple the killer instead of killing him, Thompson, through subterfuge, starts to train Machine into a soldier, playing on her fear for Vincent’s safety.
When Mary dies, Thompson blackmails Vincent to terminate the Machine’s human side under threat of erasing the remaining copy of Mary’s brain scan. Vincent and Machine are thus both faced with a life-deciding dilemma and their actions will have great implications for the future of both humanity and the newly emerging AI.
I love to discover new science fiction stories and new movies. And I love to discover new talents. And I have done all that with this film.
This movie offers the novel notion of a movie about a robot that’s actually a story about the robot. A novel concept compared to some mega budgeted Hollywood films about robots that spend their time around barely-sketched humans and big huge action scenes about stuff exploding while the robots are merely sideshow figures. Those are just robot movies in name only. Not this one.
The Machine is a low budget film, even by the standards of the British film industry, made for less than one million Sterling Pounds. Just by looking at it, I wouldn’t have guessed such a low figure. It’s one of those happy circumstances for me where I manage to enjoy a science fiction movie with enjoyable production values but where the low budget is never a consideration or a distraction. That reminds me of another ultra-low budget film, Beyond The Black Rainbow, in that the lush visuals and great production values don’t betray the budget. We can guess these movies are low budget more due to how offbeat they are from the usual mainstream fare. But of the two, The Machine is the more audience friendly, for certain.
Technical asides first, I quite enjoy the lush visuals of the film. The cinematography goes to some pretty good lengths to disguise the low budget, and one of the visual tricks it uses is what has become known as lens flares. Watching this movie I was reminded that once I liked lens flares and light shone near to the camera’s lenses, until the nonsensical abuse done on certain high budget films has turned what was once cool into insufferable. But in a low budget like this, it helps.
This type of cinematography, when used in the right hands, can create a sort of curtain of light that helps give a dimensionality to the scene, or in other circumstances, it creates a layer effect. This kind of practicality can also give rise to a form of pleasant aesthetics, as long it makes some sense. I was first introduced to this style of cinematography with Blade Runner, of which this film makes subtle references, both thematically and visually.
The most immediate reference, however, the viewer might make would be to compare The Machine to Ghost In The Shell (which is in itself one of the sons of Blade Runner). The scene of the birth of the Machine, in particular, references GITS’s famous opening titles sequence, but enough to be an homage and not a rip off.
But where The Machine seems to borrow the most from GITS is the editing. I find GITS to be a perfectly edited movie, a flawless mix of the slow-paced, interspersed with bursts of energetic action. The Machine goes for that editing style as well, which is befitting for a film that wants to be adult science fiction. This is the way to do it.
The special effects are modest in screen time but quite impressive to look at. Taking advantage of the small scope and scale of the story, the film doesn’t need to go overboard with them. But it does show them off in the few scenes it needs them, and all the best are used in the character of Machine. Special mention should go to her luminous blue eyes and the red iridescence of her skin in her more emotional states. Later in the film there’s an action sequence whose special effects do betray the low budget nature of the film, but by then the movie had already won me over and I took it in stride.
But I would be remiss to talk about this movie and not mention the film score by Tom Raybould (another first of this film). Raybould’s debut work is an ear opener. The style of the music composed for the film reminds me of the electronic music made in the 1970s and 1980s, and delivers a mixed, high-tech and retro-futuristic mood that music like this provides. Again I’m reminded of how much this is like Beyond The Black Rainbow. This is aided by an interesting and appropriate film score by the first time film score composer (I can’t wait for more of his future works).
I like some of the clever elements of the story in regard to the plausibility of the scientific scenario presented. The idea of quantum computers as the key to AI is pretty well founded. Quantum computers are still something for the future, but their implications in the realm of information processing is almost the stuff of dreams. Today’s computers are binary. But exploring such quantum phenomena as Eisenberg’s Uncertain Principle and Schrödinger’s Quantum Entanglement for computing would be next great eureka. Using such quantum solutions to computing would allow computers to go beyond a mere binary response to problems and instead to play with 3, 4, 10 or more answers instead, thus exponentially augmenting their power of computation, and mimic the way human brains works.
The film is also, as far I know, one of the few that dramatizes a rare debilitating condition known as Rett Syndrome in the character of Mary, Vincent’s daughter. Reading about it is a real tearjerker. This rare disease affects the grey matter in the human brain. Sufferers lose their capacity for speech very soon in their lives, about 5 or so of age and never recover it. They also suffer from many physical ailments caused by their condition. This disease causes 100% mortality in males and few manage to live past 2 years of age, with most dying still in gestation. Female patients might live to their 40s, but their lives are dramatic nightmares of non-stop cognitive and physical difficulties somewhat similar to extreme autism mixed with constant physical ailments which severely curtains their life expectancy.
The acting is pretty solid affair by good actors all across the board.
Denis Lawson plays a character a whole galaxy away from his better-known work among the geekdom as the charming and good old boy role of Wes Antilles. He shows a low-key display of having fun playing the villain of the piece; it’s not over the top but rather discrete but it’s there.
Sam Hazeldine and Pooneh Hajimohammadi are two of those “it’s that guy” actors we always see doing solid jobs in everything we see with them in. In The Machine, they manage to make a fast impression (Hazeldine as James in his first establishing scene and Hajimohammadi as the mysterious and secretive Suri).
Toby Stephens is growing on me with his work first on the TV series Black Sails and now on this film. Far are the days when he played a most uninteresting villain in Die Another Day. His case is very much like Iain Glenn, as in they both once played very forgettable villains in big movies by directors who didn’t knew what to do with them, but it is with their recent work on television, Game Of Thrones with Glenn and Black Sails with Stephens, that they show they are indeed damn good engaging actors. Stephens plays the film’s anchor that guides the viewer through the story.
Caity Lotz is essentially tasked with playing dual roles, Ava and Machine, each a very different character from one another. She pretty much excels in both. Remarkable considering that in the limited duration of the film, she has to gain our sympathy twice, first as Ava then as Machine, and for different characters for different reasons. Lotz might be known for those who watch the TV show Arrow, but I haven’t watched it, so for me this is the first time I have seen her work and I am impressed. Almost nothing of one character crosses to the other she plays. Ava and Machine differs not just in disposition but physicality. Ava is a cute normal human who acts and has the mannerisms of an adult egghead. Machine is childlike in attitude and speech but very elegant and precise in physicality. Well done.
This leads to the characters themselves and the way the movie deals with them, namely the titular Machine. I’m rather pleased with the way the movie decides to portray an AI robot. Usually, a story like this is about how a robot gains its humanity. But in this movie, the robot starts human-like and sensitive already and the whole film’s drama is about the mystery of how she’s like so early on and the implications on the variation of the dilemma of what makes an artificial construct human. It has the benefit of avoiding threading well-known territory and cut to the drama chase. It also helps gain immediate sympathy for Machine as an innocent, which the story necessitates despite her less then better actions, albeit motivated first by ignorance, fear and manipulation and later by necessity.
I think Machine will soon enough go into the pantheon of one of the best-realized robots in science fiction cinema.
Movies like this remind us again that enjoyable SF doesn’t need to have huge budgets or non-stop action to deliver. A clever mix of all such elements can be done; all it takes are willing filmmakers. And as I know for certain, there is an audience for it. Let there be more.
The Machine is a must watch for this SF fan. Recommended.
This is AsimovLives, signing off. Have a better one.