Skip to main content

I wasn't broken. I was sad.

The Machine
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The Machine is an impressive Hollywood calling card from writer-director Caradog W James, but only in respect of the latter skillset. There’s little original in his well-worn script concerning an AI created by everybody’s favourite Bond villain Toby Stephens. Actually, James also steals a whole lot in terms of visuals. But this is a stylishly put together futuristic thriller, making the most of its low budget. So much so, it’s easy to give the scrappy plotting and rote characterisation a pass, until the thought crosses your mind that James may genuinely think he’s saying something profound or significant.


He isn’t. This is economical B-movie making to an appreciably high standard but sadly, and predictably, rather than using the opportunity to explore its familiar but still resonant themes James chooses to cut to the chase. Did he chop The Machine down to 90 minutes from a more extensive storyline, or is the conceit of a Cold War with China (announced on the opening subtitles) less an announcement of a thought-through world than a glib homage to post-Escape from New York dystopias? Probably the latter, but while much of the movie consciously recalls ‘80s movie filmmaking, it’s crucially absent the sense of humour and irreverence that marked out the likes of Trancers; cheerful knock-offs of the big blockbusters. James is clearly using Blade Runner as a yardstick in his visuals, along with a host of other Hollywood visualists from Lucas to Cameron, although the machine consciousness angle is more inspired by other AI movies (2001, even Robocop). Crucially, a being’s discovery of self-awareness isn’t interrogated in Ridley Scott’s classic; it’s all after the fact (Rachel is self-aware, she just isn’t aware she’s a replicant). The main hat doffing to Blade Runner here comes with the Turing Test, or Voight-Kampff for short, and references to Skin Jobs


Stephens, a very English British actor who never seems quite able to disentangle himself from natural starch, is scientist Vincent, employed by the Ministry of Defence to develop an android for military purposes. He has been testing his work on damaged veterans, some amputees, others severely brain damaged.  Many of these individuals guard the research facility, possessing implants that render them mute aside from incomprehensible (to others) interactions with each other. Vincent is driven by the desire to find a treatment for his afflicted daughter, and when Ava (Caity Lotz) joins the project it looks as if a breakthrough will be possible. But Thomson (Dennis Lawson), the commander of the base, is ruthless in pursuing the goal of a weaponised machine and will not let anything as flimsy as ethics stand in his way.


James’ movie is big on atmosphere but short on depth. He starts things off effectively, with as mentioned, a scene that mimics Blade Runner as a newly implanted soldier fails to show he is sufficiently human and takes to Vincent and his assistant with a scalpel. The cinematography of Nicolai Bruel here, and throughout, is a major boon to James, even if he rather overdoes the lighting rigs and lens flares in order to divert attention from the threadbare sets (it appears that they filmed on a disused industrial site).  Much of this will seem familiar, from the glowing eyes of the implantees to their Ben Burtt-esque verbal communications (actually Farsi). The physical effects, also aided by lighting, are mostly impressive; prosthetic arms and android endoskeletons. The synth score too, from Tom Raybould, adds enormously to the mood.


But the characters are a clutch of clichés. Vincent is the single-minded yet sympathetic scientist (he needs the daughter sub-plot to make him sufficiently relatable). Thomson is utterly loathsome, doing thoroughly nasty things just because he can. Lotz barely gets a look in as Ava, but she gives a good performance as the sexy android version. Like most of the content here, it isn’t what’s on the page so much as the realisation that makes it worth a look. Lotz conveys the android’s growing awareness and childlike innocence well, but the devices used are predictable (a fear of clowns, her manipulation by Thomson; “That man killed your mother”). The AI’s suggestion that an android could be used to infiltrate and assassinate the Chinese leader is remarked upon by Thomson as a good idea but surely that would be one of the first things he’d have considered? And just what did he expect Vincent to be working on, such that as soon as the project is successful he wants the results curtailed (“Conscious machines are the last thing we need. Have you any idea how dangerous that would be?... The technologically advance tribe always wins”).


Besides the AI aspect, there’s a touch of Splice to the creature that falls for her creator, but James doesn’t is only skin-deep in his exploration of his Skin Job. A physical relationship is presumably not feasible, and the plot quickly settles on a base-wide revolt for its action-focused third act. Which is decently realised, but underlines that this is not the most thoughtful of movies. It serves to render the would-be provocative last scene, in which the downloaded consciousness of Vincent’s now deceased daughter would rather interact with her new “mother” than her old father, flat. So what? And all the portentous talk of the machines being part of the “new world” lacks a crum of achievability. An android and a motley assortment of cyborgs are somehow going to inherit the Earth? How? Perhaps in a nebulous sense, over the course of centuries.


In the best of both worlds this would be smart and flashy, but we just have to make do with flashy. The Machine momentarily puts its brain first whenever its director wheels out the Turing Test, but he can’t sustain that edge. Still, if James can produce this kind of ‘80s-future chic with less than £1m, it will be more than worthwhile investigating what he is capable of when equipped with a decent budget and someone else’s script.


***


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…