Alasdair Stuart writes for Bleeding Cool:
The Machine is a British science fiction movie scheduled to hit VOD and itunes services later on this month. Written and directed by Caradog James, it's being sold, understandably, as a fairly standard 'female android kills lots of people' movie. That's certainly a strong element of the plot, and a fun take on it too, but there's a lot more going on in the movie than first appears. Here are the five things that really impressed me.
1. Toby Stephens
Stephens does uniformly impressive work (Not to mention an uncanny Clint Eastwood impersonation) but his performance here is actively impressive. He clearly enjoys the 'grumpy genius' trope that James' script gives him but turns in his best work once Vincent opens up. He's a really interesting presence in the movie; physically imposing, intellectually brilliant and under immense stress. To my immense relief too, there's not the slightest hint of the usual crushingly dull scientist trope you always get in movies like this. Vincent is like he is for very specific reasons that are, in turn, central to the plot.
2. Caity Lotz
By all accounts one of the best things about Arrow's re-energized second year, Lotz is absolutely as impressive as Stephens here. She's called on to play two roles, something which is clear from the trailer, and brings very different things to each. Ava is a confident, highly intelligent woman with a large streak of both compassion and rebelliousness. The Machine, in contrast, is an innocent but never child-like. Lotz blends the two characters with real subtlety and combines that with a tremendously controlled, physical performance. She somehow combines innocence with threat and the end result is a memorable, often clever performance.
3. Everyone Else
The Machine's cost is impressive all the way down. Stephens and Lotz anchor the movie, but everyone else makes their mark too, especially Denis Lawson as their increasingly unsettled boss. Lawson has a great time throwing offhandedly sarcastic comments at the two scientists, whilst Sam Hazeldine impresses in a brief turn as one of the soldiers being 'helped' by Vincent's cybernetic breakthroughs. Even relatively bit players, like Pooneh Haijmohammadi and Jade Croot register and do so in a very grounded way. That in turn helps the movie immensely, grounding the huge science fiction ideas here in a set of sensible, solid performances.
4. Huge Science Fiction Ideas
The Machine is, fundamentally, a story about a female android who gains sentience and is programmed for war. That's the message in the trailer, it's the message from the poster, it's what the film's being sold on but there's a lot of other things going on too. For a start, Vincent's real motives mean he and Ava may be the first non-bad scientists in a movie like this since Miles Bennett Dyson. Then there's the way in which The Machine's growing sentience is explored. The most unsettling sequence in the entire movie is The Machine, dancing alone in a colossal, deserted hangar. It's beautiful and clinical and made almost entirely of implied threat, firstly because of the strong physical presence Lotz brings to the role and secondly because of everything that's implied. This is a machine with incredible strength, stamina and ability and it's completely unbound, revelling in its movements and the environment it's in. This is something new, and new is never safe and that message echoes through the second half of the movie to huge effect.
5. The State of the Art
The Machine punches way above its weight in design and execution. The hangar setting, and the slightly muted final fight, are the only times the film seems to strain against its budget. Everywhere else, James and his team continually find ways to make scenes memorable through their design as much as the performances. Vincent's Turing Tests are conducted to two opposing, differently coloured screens, like an apologetic British version of Portal 2, the previously mentioned dance scene is almost entirely in silhouette and the interfaces seen throughout the movie have that '20 minutes into the future' feel that makes them seem real even though they aren't. Even the polished contact lenses of The Machine and her fellow soldiers, a tiny little effect, add to the movie's oppressive, tense atmosphere. Whilst it's clear James and co were on a tight budget, they've put every penny on screen and the result is truly impressive.
The Machine is an ambitious, impressive piece of work. It's scheduled for cinema and VoD release on the 21st March and will be on DVD and Blu Ray ten days later. The movie premiere's at the Vue Piccadilly in London on the 19th.