“THE MACHINE” (Tribeca Movie Review)
Some films just look cool. Caradog James’ future-set cold war tale THE MACHINE is massively so. From an aesthetic standpoint it is slickly designed and beautiful on what’s surely a modest budget. Temperature-wise, it exists in a seeming eternally harsh space of overcast skies, nighttime and enormous, often barely-holding up warehouses and labs. Star Caity Lotz is fluid and incredible in her movement. But what’s truly coolest is the ensuing warm, radical spirit that reveals itself throughout it all.
A future UK is deadlocked in cold war with China as the two await action from either side. Underground, Vincent (Toby Stephens) works on tech for the Ministry of Defence. Tasked with creating a next-level war machine, his process has already invented implants used to help restore wounded veterans with brain damage to some semblance of living. Rendered mute, they are utilized as guards and combat machines (defined by their lack of speech and head implant scars, they are mind controlled). It is ultimately a sad existence for them and tragic one for their doctor. In what feels like a damning parallel to some of our world’s own, current priorities, Vincent is weapons manufacturer by day, but the real goal (and one he must hide) of his research is to help his ill daughter.
Searching for a breakthrough in the consciousness of machines, he finds the possibility in the work of Ava (Caity Lotz, THE PACT). At first it is the products of her mind. Then it is her mind. Copied brain patterns applied to their advanced work together allow Ava to live on following an assassination. Similar to the manner in which Alan Moore’s revamped Swamp Thing was no longer a transformed man, but nature given life by the brilliance of one, Ava is applied to what becomes the titular The Machine.
Machine is both miraculous and a real danger, holding worlds of potential and awe captured beautifully and often in a wondrous, composed manner by James. Of course, a tug begins between Vincent and his shadowy war-mongering boss Thomson over its best use. Vibrant, inquisitive and embracing as Machine, Caity Lotz makes it clear that best use is peaceful progress. While a certain level of influence hangs over THE MACHINE (dig that Carpenter-esque score. No seriously, it’s awesome), it still does feel truly unexpected at moments. This film and writer/director James aren’t afraid of where technology can take us. There’s brief discussion of a potential Skynet-like takeover, but it is the worry of Thomson, someone who only thinks and deals in violence. This, instead, feels a pro-science, anti-war fable.
Violence does become necessary, though. The prologue is a bloody, brutal affair that sets the stage for James’ keen eye. An early shot feels vital to the rest of the film as Vincent must sort through a mess of blood to work a tablet-like touch screen—to engage and create something helpful and brilliant out of war. The late-stage action however is where the films threatens to—and does—brush right up against the limitations of its budget. Which is okay, considering a bit of less impacting and digital gunfire can be forgiven in the name of THE MACHINE’s atmosphere, great prosthetics, VFX designs and lack of clichéd fear in the oncoming of new technology.