Monday, October 6, 2014

Microreview [film] : The Machine

An intruiging yet flawed low-budget sci-fi.

The poster above suggests more of a Rise of The Machines copycat than the reality of what this curious and admirable film turns out to be. However, the top quote is taking things a liiiiittle far... I take issue also with Fangoria's claim that it is "massively" cool. Pretty cool, yes. Fairly cool, absolutely. Massively? No. However, I applaud the release of any ambitious British film, at a time when most productions never see the light of day and gems get lost in the fight for distribution. This was made reportedly for under $1.5 million with U.K. Lottery funding in Wales, and yet has garnered a relatively wide release and plenty of exposure, and none of that would happen if it wasn't at least a partial success.

To run through the relatively skeletal plot here would dampen the enjoyment I gained from only having heard a few things upon its limited release earlier this year, before spotting it on a screening service that rhymes with wet bricks, and giving it a shot. However, suffice to say that a scientist is working on A.I. for the government in an under-lit bunker in some near future where China is at war with the U.K. (assuming Scotland is still with us...) and its allies. Mourning the severe dementia of his young daughter and wounded physically and psychologically by the violent results of his tinkering with veterans' brains to create super soldiers, he enlists a brilliant young American (I know, I know, but it's sci-fi; take a leap here...) to help him perfect his experiments - and help his daughter on the sly.

It's good to see that despite robot soldiers and futuristic tech that they still haven't sorted out weird British plug sockets yet
We learn all this largely through Toby Stephens, as the lead, looking pained and intense in that slightly unconvincing way of his. He shares some of his mother Maggie Smith's presence yet lacks the total immersion she brings to a role, so here again is his proud yet nervy posh man act, shorn of the smirk that worked so well in the past for him (see his villain in the Bond film so bad I am training myself to forget). However, he holds the film together from start to finish, with a quiet strength that I realised I had become impressed by as the credits rolled. Adding to this feat is that there are really only two other full roles in the film to help him - Caity Lotz as the American scientist and Denis Lawson (Wedge or Ewan MacGregor's uncle, depending on your age) as the sinister military boss. Whilst Lawson flounders in a part that requires him to spout bad-guy cliches whilst sitting behind a desk with a whisky, Lotz is a revelation. Well, to be honest, I thought she was Melissa George for the whole film as I have seen neither Arrow nor the dance battle films she began in and she really looks like her in this. Involving enough at first, as we learn of the base and Stephen's work largely through her morally-righteous experience, she abruptly changes role as her likeness is used to create the ultimate robotic lifeform. I was briefly concerned about spoilers there until I realised she is on the poster with a big bloody robot eye so the cat is out of the bag really... The lurch in her role(s) is handled relatively well, yet it does rob us of our entry into this world, and we are swiftly asked to re-sympathise with Stephens just as we started to sense some villainy at work. It's one of many uncertain notes in the plot but recovers well enough, in no small part due to the magnetism Lotz brings to the artificial human character. 

"Look, Toby, I know there is a recession on but turn some more lights on, please. Who's your electrician, David Fincher?"

By this stage the magnificently-monikered director Caradog W. James has really pulled some amazing slights of hand. As the images here hint, most of the action occurs in darkened rooms, and this is, despite adding claustrophobic intensity and sombre mood, clearly due to a small budget. What he superbly manages to do is to make a merit out of this, using lighting both on set and in post to add value and sell the futuristic world-build subtly, obliquely, without the resources for giant cityscape sets to ram it down our throat. The special effects, in particular of the robots and the body-gore, are wonderful and reminded me of the video work of Chris Cunningham. Whilst I never for a second was convinced the lead character was actually a genius who was doing believable work, I bought the setting and the detail full and its one of the best-looking sci-fi's I've seen since at least Oblivion. In addition, James and his crew immerse the slight tale and tiny cast in an atmosphere of foreboding and secrecy that serves the tension very well. We don't really need to know how they build the Lotz-robot, as we can just marvel at the clever moment of her 'birth' and enjoy the largely-effective synth score (which is probably why the poster critic thought of Blade Runner). To do all that in what was certainly a wet month in Wales with little cash is very admirable.

That's got to hurt...
However, perhaps due to this Herculean effort of creativity in some areas, many moments on the journey failed for me, with some uncertain or amateur points in the editing and the acting, due perhaps to the restricted schedule (Stephens's response to his daughter's diagnosis is a particular failure which smacks of a talent left hanging rather than a director left wanting). There is also far too much that is familiar from so many films with a robot-human role, and a lazy decision to film her often as a nude silhouette cliche. When she is blank and tough, I saw Metropolis, Terminator, Blade Runner, etc etc, and when she is scared and human I saw The Fifth Element, Alien4, Edward Scissorhands, etc, etc. It's not really the debutant makers' fault there has been so much before, but a fresh vision would at least have hidden that familiarity. However, as Lawson's evil will takes its toll on Lotz's creature and on Stephen's conscience, the two leads begin to really shine, and the film finds its voice - a cynicism mixed with a hopeful faith in humanity, no matter the form it takes. Whilst some violence at the end seems to do little than to show off the robot's fighting skills, there are many striking moments and it takes us to a satisfying yet downbeat conclusion to a flawed yet engaging science fiction treat.

Excuse me, do you have any Nivea please?

The Math

Baseline Assessment : 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for superb photography, sound design and fx; +1 for a captivating performance by Lotz; +1 for daring to have a story more concerned with morals and emotions than action and exposition 

Penalties : -1 for several leaps in plot flow, as if they ran out of time on some scenes; -1 for the undeveloped and distracting sub-plot of the weird-voiced veterans lurking in the shadows; -1 for some poor acting worthy of a short not a feature that has so much effort and imagination in other areas

Nerd Coefficient :  7/10 "an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"
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Written by English Scribbler, contributor since 2013. If I were a robot, I'd be this one