Retro-style futures sometimes look more futuristic than modern approximations of what the future will be like, and there’s a definite retro aesthetic at work in The Machine. In some ways, it’s similar in style to Beyond the Black Rainbow. Both films have the sound and vibe of VHS sci-fi flicks, or maybe the kinds of movies that would run late at night in those early days of basic cable.
While I didn’t care much for Beyond the Black Rainbow, I did sort of dig The Machine to a point. It gets by on style points for a lot of its run time. The most intriguing part of the movie for me came at the beginning, and then everything that followed just went through the motions, although it looks pretty good going through them.
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Director: Caradog James
Release Date: TBD
We’re told through introductory title cards that there’s a new Cold War with China, one which has left the world a dystopian mess of Terminator and Blade Runner references. Somewhere in a secret research bunker, scientists are trying to develop artificial intelligence systems in order to out-think, out-strategize, and out-kill the Chinese. At the head of this research is Vincent (Toby Stephens), a man who’s wrestling with the moral issues of cybernetics and robotics while also dealing with a daughter who’s been reduced to a near vegetative state because of some vaguely defined yet debilitating health condition.
A young and (of course) beautiful new programmer named Ava (Caity Lotz) comes on board with a program that proves extremely advanced and borderline sentient. Ava and Vincent form a strong bond, though the top brass at the facility raise some questions about Ava’s suitability for the mission given some signs of political radicalism in her past. After a few sinister machinations from the heads of the research facility, this leads to the creation of a new anthropomorphic killing machine that may or may not have developed actual AI.
In terms of the aesthetics of The Machine, the film is never bland to look at. Cinematographer Nicolai Brüel makes the movie look like higher-end 1980s sci-fi, though it’s teased up with lots of lens flare and artful color correction. The production design is also well done, in particular the machine itself. Its creation is one of the film’s standout set pieces, one rendered in a crescendo of synth and awe via the score. Somehow the imagery is familiar and yet comes into its own. There’s a later set piece where the machine, in a fit of immature humanity, decides to dance in the underground lair. It’s nicely handled with just the right amount of CG flourish to suggest the machine’s joy and fluster in a room that’s all shadows and artfully wet concrete.
But all this style can’t really mask a subpar story that’s dependent on nostalgia for the 1980s sci-fi films being referenced. The Machine never breaks its pre-programmed storytelling or transcends being a shoddy copy of superior movies. Since a unique personality for The Machine doesn’t emerge, the wonderful look of the film winds up being an exercise in useless beauty that’s sub-RoboCop knock-off, sub-Terminator knock-off, and sub-Blade Runner knock-off at best. It doesn’t help that Lotz’s performance isn’t too convincing in the first half of the film, and Stephens has little if any chemistry with her or anyone.
What’s most frustrating for me about The Machine is that writer/director Caradog James included elements that could have distinguished his film from its forebears. These touches could have elevated the material beyond mere 1980s rental fodder made in the 21st century. The first few scenes of the film show how the AI and robotics research is done. Both present ethical and philosophical ideas that could have pushed the material out of familiar territory and still easily have been merged into a sci-fi/action third act. Sadly the promise is squandered.
Many of the machines that guard the research facility are made from the bodies of soldiers who were severely wounded in the second Cold War. One troop whose head is half blown off is revived to check his cognition and memory. The rest of the troops have generally lost the ability to speak and instead communicate with other machines through this growling, part-guttural and part-digital speech that only they can understand. This emergence of an independent robot proto-society alongside the humans is a sign of potential AI — culture and language doesn’t just emerge on their own — but for some reason this is just left on the side and never really explored.
On top of that, so many of the images and circumstances surrounding these robot test subjects recall Guantanamo Bay — orange jumpsuits, cages, indefinite internment. It’s all there as suggestion rather than an integral part of the film’s plot, which is odd given Ava’s suspect political positions. There’s a sociopolitical charge in this material that’s just tossed aside like some superfluous detail when it really could have been the defining quality of The Machine. Maybe this could have made the film feel less like an ’80s throwback and more like like its own thing.
Yet the most intriguing part of The Machine for me involved Vincent talking to colored walls. This is the method used to test the reasoning of various programs that come his way. Vincent conducts the Turing test, named after Alan Turing, the father of computer science and AI research. Vincent asks one wall a question, and the wall responds to the question to demonstrate human-like abstract thinking. A second wall is asked a question — ostensibly a second hemisphere of the AI brain — and the conversation continues. Evidence of AI would involve responses that emerge from the program’s own ability to learn from speech, something that comes independent of pre-programmed responses.
At one point, Vincent asks a colored wall something like this: If a child sees a dog in a window, what does the child want and why. The wall responds with poetic abstract thinking, which is both absurd and yet so human. In fact, it overthinks its response in order to sound more human, which is such a fascinating conceit.
Maybe the reason I responded to scenes that involved talking walls is because these moments contained some surprises and new possibilities, both of which are lacking in the rest of The Machine.