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Film Review: ‘The Machine’

Caradog W. James' film wobbles trying to balance its 'thinking man's sci-fi' aspirations with its more standard action content.

Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson, Sam Hazeldine, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, John Paul Macleod, Helen Griffin, Siwan Morris, Nicola Reynolds, Jade Croot, Jonathan Christian Byrne.

British sci-fier “The Machine” lands somewhere between “Blade Runner” and “Her” as a portrait of near-future humanity developing, and possibly being displaced by, beings of artificial intelligence. Closer to “Her” in its musing on human/machine connectivity, while also incorporating the dystopian and action-thriller aspects of “Blade Runner” and its ilk, albeit on a much smaller scale, the pic will divide fantasy fans, some of whom will give it props for breaking somewhat from genre formula, while others will be disappointed by the largely budgetary limits of its imagination. Its theatrical opening April 25 on one Los Angeles screen (following its Stateside VOD launch), amid a gradual international rollout, will serve best in raising awareness for home-format sales.

Opening text informs that a new Cold War between China and the West has resulted in “the deepest recession in history.” While the proles presumably starve (we never see much of the outside world here), governments pour resources into a new arms race focused on ever more powerful intelligence machines. In the U.K., a subterranean military research center tests technology devised by “genius” medical/computer scientist Vincent (Toby Stephens), including the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers with brain damage. (This can go awry, however, as seen in a bloody opening scene with John Paul Macleod as one violently panicking “experiment.”)

Widower Vincent dislikes working for the Defense Dept. but has stayed on because he hopes his research can eventually help victims of “Red Syndrome” disease, like his own brain-damaged daughter. But his superior, Thomson (Denis Lawson), has less altruistic, more sinister applications in mind.

When Vincent hires brilliant young programmer Ava (Caity Lotz), her tenure is dismayingly brief, as the two are assaulted by purported enemy agents who kill her while leaving him unharmed. In a twist that has some parallels with the current “Transcendence,” aspects of Ava’s physical and psychological makeup already stored as data are subsequently used to mold the Machine (Lotz again), the first lab-created android with what Vincent calls “consciousness … or a soul, if you like.” But the human emotions he seeks to nurture in this childlike, innocent creature are exactly what Thomson has no use for; he wants this prototype turned into a “little angel of death and destruction,” the first of no doubt many unstoppable, Terminator-like weapons that can pass as people.

The pathos and slightly queasy yearning between doc and ‘bot (is their relationship destined to be parental, or romantic or both?) is somewhat hurriedly explored during their scenes together, which nonetheless seem intended as the heart of the story. The screenplay by helmer Caradog W. James also needs to advance Thomson’s rather rote villainy, plus a murky “revolution” brewing among the brain-implanted soldiers/prisoners here (led by Sam Hazeldine and Pooneh Hajimohammadi). Whenever Vincent turns his back, mostly to attend his biological daughter’s illness, the “Ava” machine gets lessons in kickboxing and other murderous mayhem. Eventually there’s an insurrection climax that’s pretty much a routine shootout, followed by an ambiguous brief coda.

Competently played by actors who could have used just a little more scripted character detailing, “The Machine” works modestly well, but still wobbles trying to balance its “thinking man’s sci-fi” aspirations against the need to placate less adventurous fans via standard action content. Meanwhile, both those elements are compromised by budgetary limitations, though the widescreen feature looks handsome enough in its “Blade Runner”-ish nocturnal blues and blacks. (Tom Raybould’s very 1980s synth score pays even more direct homage.) Tech/design contributions are resourceful.

Film Review: 'The Machine'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, April 22, 2014. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) An XLrator Media release of a Content Media Corp. presentation of a Red and Black Films and Altara production in association with the Ideas Factory and Welsh Assembly Government. Produced by John Giwa-Amu. Executive producers, Ali Pour, Robert Graham, Alan Martin, Paul Eyres, Jamie Carmichael, Stephen Davies, Caradog James.

Crew: Directed, written by Caradog W. James. Camera (color, wide, HD), Nicolai Bruel; editor, Matt Platts-Mills; music, Tom Raybould; production designer, Erik Rehl; art director, Jamie MacWilliam; set decorator, Gwyneth Binyon; costume designer, Chrissie Pegg; sound (Dolby Digital), Malcolm Davies; re-recording mixer, Paul McFadden; visual effects, Bait Studio, Minimo VFX, Tim Smit; prosthetics, Paul Hyett; stunt coordinator, Peter Pedrero; assistant director, Seth Adams; casting, Manuel Puro.

With: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson, Sam Hazeldine, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, John Paul Macleod, Helen Griffin, Siwan Morris, Nicola Reynolds, Jade Croot, Jonathan Christian Byrne.

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