Caradog James’ The Machine, a low budget sci-fi contemplation on the nature of life and technology, has been doing the festival rounds for some time, but is now finally getting its release. It is an inconsistent but intermittently convincing rumination on some of sci-fi’s most prevalent ideas.
Blade Runner is the film you’ll probably hear mentioned most in relation to The Machine, which is understandable given the story of machines that look like humans, but it also shares much thematic territory, as did Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, with Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Toby Stephens stars as Vincent, a brilliant scientist using Ministry of Defence money to create robots that appear to be human, in order that they may be employed as spies in an ongoing cold war with China. What his employers don’t know, however, is that he’s actually developing the technology to help his brain damaged daughter. When Vincent uses the facial structure and personality traits of a former assistant to create his most lifelike machine yet, he begins to question what it means to create life, and indeed whether that is actually what he has created. It soon becomes clear that Vincent’s slimy boss Thomson (Dennis Lawson) has other plans for Vincent’s creations, and his interventions raise questions, albeit fairly superficial ones, about nature vs. nurture.
The film is ambitious visually, in spite of its small budget, and while not all of the effects come off, it’s hard to hold that against an indie production like this. James and his team work within their means (London is only glimpsed in far off shots, shrouded in mist) to create a convincing world, even if the script (which James also wrote) doesn’t always find the right balance between suggestion and declaration.
Caity Lotz (Mad Men, Arrow) co-stars as Vincent’s young assistant, and later as the android that may well change everything, and she has received some attention on the festival circuit for her performance. Personally I felt that Toby Stephens had the more difficult role here, and that his was the standout performance in a small cast featuring few parts with much dialogue. Dennis Lawson, meanwhile, gives a pretty phoned-in performance as the shifty boss character.
The element of The Machine that mostly closely resembles Blade Runner is Tom Raybould’s score, which is well done but perhaps a little too reminiscent of the brilliant music Vangelis composed for Scott’s film. Where it unfortunately falls short is in the script, which is at times pretty good but on occasion falls into cod philosophical territory, aiming for notes of deep meaning that unfortunately come across as laboured. The film is more successful is in the early stages, where for example Vincent scrutinises AIs against logic questions, which bring to mind the Voight-Kampff tests in, there it is again, Blade Runner.
The problem for The Machine is not so much its small budget, but its handling of the issues it raises. That it can’t hope to imitate the epochal world building of Blade Runner is to be expected, but it also lacks the philosophical nuance of that f ilm, or the emotional engagement of something like Stephen Spielberg’s AI. None of this is to say that The Machine is a bad film, because in flashes it is impressive.