At the risk of gross generalisation, British sci fi is typically cast in a much gloomier hue than it’s American cousin. Think of American comic books, dominated by superheroes out to save the world, epitomised by Superman, known as both the Man of Steel and the Man of Tomorrow. It’s all very optimistic, the promise of a brighter future and bold, brave heroes fighting for truth and justice. The UK’s flagship comic is 2000AD, home to an array of dystopian visions of the future, from the fascist super-cop Judge Dredd, to the downbeat adventures of Strontium Dog or The ABC Warriors. In this vein of dysfunctional sci fi comes The Machine, a film produced in the unlikeliest of science fiction settings – Wales.
Written and directed by Caradog James (great Welsh name that, Caradog), The Machine is a typically bleak British piece of sci fi in which the promise of a technologically advanced future leads to despair. Set in the near future Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) works for the Ministry of Defence trying to create intelligent machines, capable of independent thought. His aims are altruistic, to use technology to help soldiers who have suffered brain damage in war and those afflicted by degenerative diseases. Of course, the MOD, personified in the form of McCarthy’s cold-blooded boss Thomson (Denis Lawson), thinks only of offensive applications. The culmination of Stephens’ research is The Machine (Caity Lotz), an android in the form of a young woman whose appearance is modelled on Stephens’ assistant Ava (Lotz again). Thomson sees The Machine as a weapon, but Stephens worries that her apparent self-awareness means that The Machine is alive and not just an incredibly advanced computer in human guise.
The Machine touches on some classic sci fi and cyberpunk themes – at what point does a machine with AI become a living being? If you can capture a human’s memories, thoughts and personalities in a computer, what is the essence of humanity? These ideas have been explored before in everything from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep to Ghost In The Shell but Caradog James digs deep into this central dilemma of the narrowing divide between humans and machines.
Caity Lotz is impressive as The Machine in a role that demands moments of vulnerability and innocence balanced against a very powerful physicality. With a background in dance, Lotz carries herself with self-assured grace and performs her fight scenes with speed and skill, although these are few as this is a drama more than an action movie. Stephens has a difficult task. McCarthy is emotionally brittle and a bundle of tension, which makes him difficult to sympathise with or to warm to. As Thomson, Denis Lawson is obviously the villain of the hour, so some points for style but none for subtlety. Pooneh Hajimohammadi is diverting as Suri, one of the staff in the MOD’s research facility, even if her dialogue is incomprehensible (which is deliberate), and greater development of the subplot around her character would have been welcome.
The soundtrack is all synthesisers, which is both thematically appropriate – it’s all music made artificially without natural sound sources – and brings to mind the 1980s, particularly the films of John Carpenter whose self-composed film scores were always dominated by synthesisers. They also create a gloomy, downtrodden atmosphere. There are no soaring orchestras or bright guitars here, it’s all oppressive, cold electronics to match the mood.
Given that the film originated in Wales, land of song and valleys, it doesn’t boast a blockbuster’s budget but James and his team create a compelling world within the confines of McCarthy’s research facility. The visual effects on The Machine herself are impressive and moments when the limits of the budget are apparent – the avoidance of external locations being the most obvious – are easily forgiven as the gloomy interiors suit the story and add to a sense of claustrophobia. This is a film that replaces a big budget with big ideas which makes it a welcome contrast to standard sci fi summer blockbuster junk like the Transformers franchise or The Avengers (yes, The Avengers was fun and entertaining, but it was about as deep as a puddle in a drought). The pacing is measured – again anathema to Hollywood – but if the story engages your grey matter, it should have no trouble holding your attention. And, perhaps best and most British of all, The Machine offers a wickedly ambiguous, conflicted conclusion. The Machine will infect anyone who takes their sci fi smart, sharp and edged with darkness.