The Machine

Year: 2014
Production Co: Red & Black Films
Director: Caradog James
Writer: Caradog James
Cast: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson

All too rarely, a director comes along who understands what 'science fiction' really means. To many people under 30, sci-fi means little more than some superhero flying around some inventively destructive CGI slugfest with another dispose-a-villain, but in The Machine, Welsh writer/director Caradog James knows what fans, directors, writers and even the odd studio suit used to know right up until May 25, 1977.

Not to disparage the fun/visual/adventure style of sci-fi Star Wars spawned that continues to eat not just Hollywood but popular entertainment – it has a deservedly beloved place (even if it's gotten a little out of hand in subsequent decades).

But sci-fi used to be about ideas, any flashy visuals wielded in their service. It used a world beyond our own to say something about the way we were living now, and it addressed some of the most important racial, gender, economic and social justice issues way before politicians dared to mention them in plain English.

One of the perennial questions from the genre has always been 'what are we?', and it's this The Machine tackles using very current questions from artificial intelligence. If Wally Pfister manages to sneak half as much about the science of machine learning into his upcoming Transcendence, it might be the sci-fi movie of the year.

So far however, that title goes to The Machine. A militarised Britain of the near future is in the grip of a new cold war against China, and the Ministry of Defense runs a bunker laboratory where no-nonsense scientist Vincent (Toby Stephens) comes ever closer to making artificially intelligent machines of battle.

So far he's been augmenting injured solders with weaponised parts as well as trying to extract human intelligence from brain-damaged veterans to implant in robot bodies, but his biggest breakthrough walks in the door in the form of young AI researcher Ava (Caity Lotz).

Ava's self-learning software surpasses every test Vincent can throw at it, and – suitably impressed – he asks her to work with him. As the pair grow closer to a true AI warrior (and each other), Ava can't help wondering about the stockade-like facilities hidden away on the base, and the haunted eyes and hushed conversations going on between former test subjects talking a strange language.

Then disaster strikes. On the eve of their biggest advance Ava is taken out of the picture in shocking circumstances, and Vincent is left with only a scan of her brain activity – her intelligence – ready to implant into a robot warrior.

When The Machine of the title opens its eyes and wakes up, it seems to be a child-like version of Ava herself with her nascent personality intact. The more Vincent works with it, the more he becomes convinced something else has been transferred along with Ava's memories, fears and desires. He thinks The Machine is truly alive, and he starts to bristle against ruthless facility director Thomson (Denis Lawson), who has to remind Vincent that he's in the business of weapons, not self-aware beings with rights or feelings.

There are only a handful of sets and locations in the seemingly low budget production, but director James has a real skill in presenting the illusion of much wider visual scope than what appears on screen.

The real magic, however, it what he fills the screen with. There's a lot of darkness punctuated by bright, individual bursts of light. Strong colour is used rarely and to great affect. Several scenes of heavy backlight, the foreground heavily shadowed, give the proceedings a sombre and gothic atmosphere, and glimpses of soldiers walking German Shepherds along fences and borders invoke classic wartime imagery.

Even though the locations are utilitarian in nature, James and his cinematographer Nicolai Brüel has given the whole film a menacing sheen with the use of light, shadow and surfaces, at times accompanied by a bombastic orchestral score. Several points in the film will remind you of the masters of visual sci-fi from the old era, from Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey right back to Lang's Metropolis.

And of course, the presence of Denis Lawson in any sci-fi movie makes your geek credentials unparalleled (uncle to Ewan McGregor and having played rebel pilot and fan favourite Wedge in the original Star Wars trilogy).

Almost every movie around is about either the idea or the execution, hardly ever both. James has taken as much care with one as he has with the other, and The Machine is one of the best films so far of 2014 and one of the best sci-fi film in even longer.

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