RogerBW's Blog

The Machine 24 April 2014

2013, dir. Caradog W. James, Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens: IMDb / allmovie

Some time in the nearish future, researchers try to build a self-directed robot soldier/assassin. It doesn't go well.

Well, it never does go well in these things, does it? There's plenty of warning, from the first scene of sudden violence to the mysteriously mute brain injury victims who, restored to some functionality with computerised implants, serve as guards at the research centre. (And in spite of that scene where an implant goes wrong, they're trusted unquestioningly until it's far too late. That's not a spoiler; you know going in what sort of film this is, and it's not going to be about puppies and rainbows.)

It's a shame that the newcomer who's our viewpoint into the lab, our heroine Ava, is played as so thoroughly innocent, and everyone she's working with is played as so thoroughly and obviously corrupt, because it means she's having really obvious conversations in an environment that everyone with half a brain knows is going to be monitored inside and out. But nothing ever comes of that.

There is at least a reason for the killer robot looking like a pretty woman, but I have to say it's quite remarkably unconvincing. Yeah, I know these guys are working on a black project and have left their sense of ethics far, far behind, but even so, it's just stupid, and leads directly to the obvious and predictable result. (In fact, the combination of Vincent the damaged scientist and James the moral-free bureaucrat could be pretty much calculated to lead to disaster on any project, whether or not it involves a super-soldier. These black projects really need a better HR department.)

The development of machine consciousness is handled well enough, but I can't help feeling that I've seen it all before (how do you know you're really alive, and so on). Of course, unlike most filmmakers, I read books. I haven't, apparently unlike James here, based my conceptual palette entirely on 2001 and Blade Runner.

The machine is decently played (by Caity Lotz, who also plays Ava), but actually the star for me was relative newcomer Pooneh Hajimohammadi as one of the injured soldiers. She doesn't have much of a part, but she takes the limited role given to her and turns it into something truly haunting. The rest of the acting is all right; it's in pretty broad strokes, but really that's what the script demands.

One of the big technical problems is the sound mix, which puts the dialogue rather too far in the back and the music and effects too far forward for my tastes. It makes it harder work to watch than it needs to be; I found myself riding the volume control quite a bit, particularly in the final sequences. (A lot of the music, by Tom Raybould whose first theatrical feature score this is, seems to consist of Vangelis-doing-Blade Runner zings, just in case the huge concrete-block buildings, the total lack of sunshine, and the Butterfly Moment weren't subtle enough.)

All in all, I'd give this a cautious thumbs up. Don't expect anything terribly original, but it's a fairly pleasing treatment of what's becoming an old and hackneyed story. (Note that I'm writing this before Transcendence comes out; I suspect that will make the story feel even more familiar.)

For a second opinion, see flickfilosopher.com.

(Edited to add) For an interview with the director, see io9.com.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:13pm on 05 May 2014

    Having now watched this, I agree that Pooneh does a superb job with the limited role she is given. I found myself rooting for her character, not any of the ones I'm supposed to.

    I found the dialogue and music hardly a problem at all. But then I played it through a Dolby PL II Movie decode on a quite serious home cinema system (Arcam AVR350 amp, Castle Harlech left/right, Castle Keep I centre and Castle Richmond 3 rear speakers). The dialogue was mostly in the centre speaker and the music and effects mostly L/R and rears which is how film soundtracks are normally done. Having a seperate dialogue speaker really helps with speech intelligibility.

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