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‘The Machine’ Review: A Little Something for Wally Pfister to Add to His Netflix Queue

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2014

XLrator Media

The Turing test, created by and named for famed WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, is designed to test a computer’s level of artificial intelligence by having someone engage it in conversation with the intention of determining if they’re talking with a computer or another person. The machine is considered to have passed the test if it’s able to convince people (or leave them uncertain) at least thirty percent of the time. It’s a real-world challenge that’s been explored in fictional entertainment for decades. Films as fantastically fun as WarGames, as wonderfully warm as Her and as… recent… as Transcendence have dealt in varying ways with the idea of computers “thinking” like people.

The Machine is a new indie from across the pond that toys around with the concept of human-like A.I. and ties it in with some sexy female cyborg shenanigans. If that sounds up your proverbial alley than you’re in luck as – a handful of issues aside – the film is an entertaining and thought-provoking ride.

Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is a doctor and scientist working for the British government in their Cold War-like escalation with China. Rather than a race into space though the countries are sprinting towards a higher evolution of artificial intelligence, and while he works to restore some semblance of life to brain-damaged soldiers (and hopefully save his dying daughter) his higher-ups are eyeing possible military applications. When tragedy strikes one of their own, McCarthy’s latest project is given life in a synthetic humanoid body, but as this new creation (dubbed “The Machine”) learns about the world it becomes clear that the higher evolution they’ve been searching for just might leave humanity in the dust.

Writer/director Caradog W. James has crafted a simple and stylishly-executed tale that offers a warning about where technology and ambition may take us, and unlike far too many portentous sci-fi films it does so while condemning neither the scientists nor the science. McCarthy and a newcomer to the lab, a scientist named Ava (Caity Lotz), both have positive intentions, and while neither are naive about the possibility of military interference and applications of their work they feel the possible good outweighs the probable bad.

The questions they ask themselves are the ones the film asks as well. The brain-damaged soldiers are given a new lease on life through the tech, but is it a life worth living? What constitutes a human life, and where is the line that separates the worthy from the unworthy? Once we create an artificial intelligence to rival our own, what exactly do we expect to be the next step?

The Machine (also played by Lotz) uses an AI that learns through conversation and exposure, so while it begins its “life” as a childlike being that’s constantly wide-eyed, aware of and intrigued by the smallest things, it quickly grows to think things through for itself. An early scene involving a stress test, a volunteer and a clown mask offers some blackly comic relief, but it also shows The Machine’s escalating maturity. Its intelligence poses a problem for those hoping it could be used as a mindless killing machine, and conflict becomes inevitable.

That conflict comes in the form of a third act action sequence the likes of which we’ve come to expect, and while it’s the weakest portion of James’ film, it’s helped by a production design that does ridiculously cool things with touch screens, computerized vocals and The Machine’s various LEDs beneath the surface of its skin. With all the billions in taxpayer money that funds the lab you’d think they could afford a few more light bulbs in the bunker, but that darkness lends itself well to some seriously impressive visuals starting with The Machine’s “birth” on through the final fire-fight.

Stephens and Lotz both invest their characters with unusual depth for indie genre pics, and Lotz in particular convinces as an idealistic egghead and a simplistic robot. Her basic and innocent delivery slowly finds shades of simulated concern, inquisitiveness and rage, and it’s an engrossing feat. More impressive is her physical performance, from her motions to her expressions to her ability to kick ass when necessary, a combination that makes for an equally comforting and convincing creation.

James’ film accomplishes quite a lot with seemingly very little, and while the darkness can’t hide the film’s weaknesses (and in fact is one) it does lend itself toward a visually appealing style befitting indie sci-fi. I’d love to see him given the chance to tell a story and create a world on a bigger budget. I just hope it happens before Skynet takes over the movie studios.

The Upside: Artfully shot and quite stylish; Stephens and Lotz give strong, emotional performances; fairly smart script; impressive special effects; fantastic yet subtle final scene

The Downside: Low budget keeps scale small and third act action underwhelming; a couple plot turns that shouldn’t have surprised smart scientists; someone turn on the lights!

On the Side: Lotz plays Black Canary on the CW’s Arrow.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.