In the near future, Great Britain is entrenched in a cold war with China; due to the amount of cyber-terrorism that both nations utilize, military installations have moved deep underground and operate only on local networks. In one such bunker works Vincent (Toby Stephens), a brilliant cybernetic researcher who has developed neural and physical implants that help soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries regain control of their bodies. However, Vincent has the next step in mind – combining his implants with an advanced artificial intelligence to create a machine that can mimic a human. Enter Ava (Caity Lotz), a scientist who has developed an AI that almost passes Vincent’s Turing test and learns from interacting with humans. Vincent and Ava work closely to combine their two sets of research – until Vincent’s boss, Thomson (Denis Lawson), decides that Ava’s curiosity about the covert aspects of the facility are more trouble than they’re worth and has her assassinated, framing Chinese operatives in the process. Now Vincent is determined to finish the research the two of them started and uses Ava’s body and brain map as a template for the machine.
The questions that the film asks are nothing new for fans of science fiction. What would happen if humanity were to create an artificial life form? What actions would this new life form take in order to ensure its survival? Many of the questions regarding cybernetic revolt date back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the life that man created came in direct conflict with its own. The appeal of The Machine‘s story is not that it finds new ways to ask these questions; rather, it is the personal relationship that Vincent develops with his creation. From the moment that the machine first opens its eyes, Vincent will be its strongest advocate and most important moral compass. Director Caradog James has a deft touch in developing the trust between the two characters; he never attempts to fast forward through their discovery process, nor does he feel the need to compromise character development to move the story along. There will be no moment in this film where Vincent’s lies cause the machine to lash out – by the time Vincent is forced to choose between the government he represents or the life of the machine that he has nurtured, they know each other too well for dishonesty.
Much of the film hinges on the two central performances. Toby Stephens imbues Vincent with the necessary amount of empathy towards those around him. Like Victor Frankenstein of lore, he is not a monster but a man driven by a personal need – he has a daughter that is suffering from a degenerative brain condition and views his work for the military as an opportunity to cure his daughter on the country’s dime. Stephens makes the right choice by not playing up Vincent’s moral dilemma; as a man of science, he is able to weigh both sides of the equation and justify the military applications of his research for a time. Meanwhile, Caity Lotz is given the more difficult job in her dual roles as scientist and machine. She has only a short period of time to make a lasting impression as Ava and then spends the rest of the movie playing the childlike machine. The role requires a tricky balance of innocence and understanding, and Lotz occasionally misses the balancing point between emoting and letting the dialogue emote for you. However, the chemistry between Stephens and Lotz is genuine, and this relationship carries the film.
The atmosphere of the movie should also draw favorable comparisons to many of the “technology apocalypse” films of the 80’s and 90’s. The film may take place almost entirely within a series of underground dormitories and labs, but James delicately balances the sterile interiors of Machine’s futuristic setting with the low technology of the bunker its characters inhabit. James also borrows the visual language of movies like Terminator and Screamers as its base, providing us with many dark hallways, industrial lighting, and glowing eyes peering out from the darkness. Meanwhile, the soundtrack compliments these visual cues by frequently switching to a synthesized score. The use of both orchestral scoring and synthesized music, like the alternation of the high and low technology in the visuals, combines the best of both worlds; this is Duncan Jones by way of James Cameron, borrowing the best bits of each director and creating something just as noteworthy.
Ultimately, the most gratifying aspect of The Machine is how clearly both James and the machine view the changing world they inhabit. A lesser film may have turned the affection between the two characters into a full-fledged love story – Vincent would betray humanity in favor of the machine out of passion. Instead, James gives Vincent the opportunity to mesh both his rational mind as well as his heart. If humanity is capable of creating a new technological life form, then we become that life form’s parents – and like any parent, we must hope for our children to one day outgrow and improve upon our own works. The ultimate message of The Machine is not just one of equality but also of evolution, of holding onto the best part of our current selves and embracing the future. It is to the credit of the cast and crew that this conclusion feels both organic and completely appropriate.
For the complete schedule of showtimes for The Machine, please visit the Tribeca site here: http://www.tribecafilm.com/filmguide/513a83c9c07f5d471300038a-the-machine