Welsh writer/director Caradog James’s second feature, The Machine, asks its audience a difficult question: in an age of artificial intelligence, what does being “human” really mean? While The Machine, like its namesake in the film, functions well enough—like a diluted Blade Runner or Minority Report — its narrative and character development are completely robotic. James’s film may be able to deliver a clever imitation of a great story, but it lacks the depth to do anything more. For all its high production value, it’s a pretty face with no soul.
Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens), a computer expert working underground —literally— for the British government’s defense ministry, thinks that one’s essence can be captured through a brian scan. His feisty assistant Ava (Caity Lotz), an up-and-coming programmer, isn’t quite as much of a believer — at least not at first. Ava has created a computer that can pass the Turing test (an impartial third party can’t distinguish the computer’s answers to his questions from those of a human being), and McCarthy gives her a high-level, top-secret job in his underground lab. He neglects to tell her two essential pieces of information, however: first, that he is actually working to create artificial intelligence in order to build better weapons for a British war against the Chinese, and second, that he illegally uses his inventions outside of work to try and repair his mentally-disabled daughter’s brain.
As predictable as this scientist-with-a-heart-of-gold setup is, things move along well through the first half-hour of the film, propelled by the appearance of nefarious government stooges and by the stygian atmosphere of McCarthy’s bunker-laboratory. Soon, though, Ava starts to have her doubts. There are secret human tests being conducted in hidden rooms, and when one of these subjects goes haywire, Ava ends up getting stabbed to death. McCarthy doesn’t miss a beat, and quickly grafts her brain scan and physical attributes onto a humanoid robot (whose creation heavily references Lang’s Metropolis). Though he keeps reminding himself that the resulting human xerox is not actually Ava, McCarthy predictably has trouble keeping his scientific distance.
The Machine quickly bubbles over with fraught sexual tension between male human and female (?) robot. However, James’s film never really goes anywhere with this, preferring instead to spend long stretches watching Lotz gamely try to figure out how a robot would act upon first discovering water, mortality, and the opposite sex. From here, the narrative quickly devolves into a tepid genre exercise, reminiscent of Vincenzo Natali’s similarly disappointing Splice. Everything is at stake by the end—McCarthy’s daughter, “Ava’s” life, the security of the British defense industry — but it’s all so on the nose that it’s difficult to really care about any of it.
The fault of The Machine is bigger than its individual parts; despite decent acting, great sets and effects that come off better than you’d expect, James’s film just doesn’t have anything new or particularly interesting to say. Subjects like government surveillance, terrorism, individuality and the line between man and machine are all invoked without really being dissected in any meaningful way. It feels like there’s a great film inside The Machine somewhere, but it would take a lot of distillation to reveal it.
– By Lita Robinson