Somewhere halfway through Caradog James’ self-serious sci-fi The Machine, Toby Stephens’ beleaguered scientist Vincent asks the sleek, slinky and almost feline female android he’s created “What are you, really?” A reductive (and redundant) question that rings out loud in the retrofuturist concrete-and-steel walls, right out of the screen and coaxing some incredulous laughter from its audience. A question that should boomerang right back to the film’s writer – James has fashioned a central protagonist who, by all means of accurate, obsessive design and blood-and-sweat inducing scientific calculations, still doesn’t know what he’s actually created. Surely, at the back of that brain, that guy has an inkling of what he got himself into – scientists don’t meddle with highly advanced robotic technology and expect to produce a Tamagochi.
It’s one of the many blunders James’ screenplay commit in a film that questionably won Raindance Film Festival’s major prize and bagged a few Welsh BAFTA’s. Perhaps most of the merit goes to the production values The Machine profess, that such an independent film of low, modest budget can still look good, with a rather glossy cinematography that harks back to the vintage sci-fi movies of the 1970’s and 80’s. But production values are no match for a screenplay which plods the whole picture down to the gutter. The Machine is haphazardly written at best and derivative at worst, recycling in pulp sci-fi theories that came before, throwing into the blender Metropolis, Blade Runner, The Matrix, I, Robot, Minority Report and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines to name a few. You’d hardly give it points for originality – that ‘robot learns about humanity’ narrative and philosophical trajectory are both well-traversed in cinema, and James’ film hardly breaks any new ground other than sticking to the convention.
That said, there are still a few good bits and most of the credit goes to Caity Lotz, who plays the dual roles of Ava as the upstart programmer and subsequently the conflicted killing machine that the Ministry of Defence has engineered. She is burdened by some clunky lines and often required to act child-like, but those are set aside to the dust when she starts gymnastically kicking a bunch of henchmen, impressively showcasing some muscularity and badassery. And speaking of henchmen, one huge concern in the film is the number of low-grade cyborgs running around the MOD headquarters who all communicate through their own robotic lingo, which sounds like grumbling gibberish to human ears. Please explain to me why would anyone, let alone the MOD, create these class of cyborgs who speak in their own incomprehensible palaver, all conspiratorially talking to each other as if they run their own underground agenda without you knowing it, and then allow them to walk around with machine guns in your most precious of facilities? When you subconsciously know 99.99% that someday they’ll gain their own independent consciousness and stage an uprising against humans? Seriously people, haven’t we learned anything about The Terminator?