The budget for writer/director Caradog W. James’ sci-fi thriller The Machine was probably equivalent to the craft services budget on Transcendence starring Johnny Depp, and yet James’ film is a captivating, thought-provoking examination of artificial intelligence while Transcendence is a mind-numbing, convoluted, and at times completely illogical movie. The budget comparison is a gross exaggeration – James likely did spend more than Transcendence‘s craft service budget – but the point has been made. Whatever it was that first-time feature film director Wally Pfister was attempting to do with his big-budget Hollywood movie, James actually accomplished with his low-budget independent film.
The Machine is set in a dystopian world in which intelligent robots that can reason are being developed as killing machines. In this brave new world, wounded war veterans are being experimented on, with their lost limbs replaced by prosthetic limbs at the same time that chips are implanted in their brains to take away their free will and make them into malleable flesh-and-blood robots. Dr. Vincent McCarthy (played by Toby Stephens) isn’t involved in the project for its military implications but instead is attempting to find a way to use the research and the creation of an android with unparalleled mental processing skills to help his critically ill young daughter. It’s Vincent’s boss who only sees the military aspect of the work and who, once Dr. McCarthy brings in a young scientist (played by Caity Lotz) whose work could lead to the breakthrough the military needs, takes the drastic step to ensure McCarthy’s creation – ‘The Machine’ – will turn the tide and win the war. According to the boss it’s the most technologically advanced side that will ultimately triumph, and The Machine is a nearly indestructible killer.
The fact James’ film keeps the audiences’ attention throughout the entire running time is due to outstanding performances by the two leads: Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz. Lotz pulls double-duty as the young scientist who assists McCarthy on his quest for an android that can reason its way through a discussion and as The Machine created in her image by Dr. McCarthy. Lotz delivers a complex, multi-layered performance that’s believable, intense, and at times frightening. As Dr. McCarthy, Stephens alternates between being a sympathetic family man who will do anything within his power to help his child and a scientist who should have known better than to experiment on soldiers to create a fully-functioning, super-intelligent robot to be used to slaughter people.
The Machine asks all the right questions yet does so without any heavy-handiness. It’s an intriguing and engrossing sci-fi tale with first-rate effects, a terrific cast, and a subject matter that could have come across as traveling a well-worn path but instead feels fresh and unique.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language.