Caradog James | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R
In a near future where Britain is part of a Cold War against China, a scientist (Toby Stephens) has been trying and failing to perfect artificial intelligence at a government research facility. When he hires a new associate (Arrow’s Caity Lotz) they make progress, crafting a machine in her own image (played by Lotz again, obviously). Unsurprisingly, their boss (Denis “turned down The Force Awakens” Lawson) has some less-than-ethical plans in mind for their new toy…
Welsh writer-director Caradog James presents some strong ideas about the morals of creating AI, our responsibilities in doing so, its right to sentience, and so on. Some of these notions are even quite original, in particular an ending that seems to be saying that the machines are going to replace us and maybe that’s OK. Unfortunately the concepts don’t always coalesce in the telling, and when the film resorts to a passably-well-done shoot-em-up climax it feels needless — it hasn’t been that kind of film.
Or maybe James, in only his second feature, is trying to show his full range and use the film as a calling card. After all, it does attempt human drama, an exploration of sci-fi ideas, a touch of conspiracy thriller, and, as mentioned, an all-action climax. Unfortunately he’s delivered quite a clunky screenplay, which lingers on inexplicable scenes one moment before rushing over vital things the next. Perfunctory dialogue fails to build characters or relationships in a way that pays off when it needs them to.
This may explain why the performances are a mixed bag. Toby Stephens can’t seem to find much to work with in his lead role, despite supposedly having a couple of emotional arcs. Lawson sleepwalks through his turn as a shady government higher-up. Lotz is unremarkable as a human, but fantastic as the AI-driven machine. Her performance as the latter is the primary reason to consider watching the film.
Production values are all over the place. Nicolai Brüel’s cinematography is often highly atmospheric, though sometimes nonsensical (why is a scientific lab so dark?) and prone to J.J. Abrams levels of lens flare indulgence. There’s some classy CGI, in particular the interface graphics on tablets and computers, but the set for Lawson’s office looks like it’s from an am dram production. You can’t help but suspect the aforementioned over-darkness is to hide more issues of this nature. In truth, that’s only a problem if you can’t see past a low budget to what a film’s trying to achieve; but it’s to the discredit of what else is going on that I did notice.
The Machine suggests a lot of potential, but the end result is a bit muddled and that promise is only fitfully realised.