To us mere mortals here at DragonDark, £1,000,000 sounds like rather a lot of money. Just think about what you could do with such a windfall; would you agree to pay the wages of Manchester United’s latest signing for three whole weeks? Buy a million bottles of Original Mint Source shower gel from your local pound shop? Heck, if you had some extra money set aside and aren’t fussy about what part of the capital you live in, you might even be able to scrape together enough for a deposit on a one-bedroom flat in London.
In movie-making terms, however, a million is peanuts – and in genre movie-making terms, a million is a Tesco home brand peanut-flavoured non-specific protein snack. Conventional logic has it that if you don’t have much cash to spray around, mumblecore romantic comedies or hackneyed zombie thrillers are the order of the day, with ambitious science fiction projects a pipe dream. It’s certainly a theory that achieves credence by assessing some of the bargain basement works of The Asylum and SyFy, home to the kind of dreams that only come to fruition after munching on cheese before bed, but fortunately there are exceptions to any rule.
We have previously spent a great deal of time and energy waxing lyrical about the low-cost high-quality thrills of Sparks, while Gareth Edwards made a mockery of science fiction’s alleged dependence on financial firepower with Monsters in 2010. His countryman Caradog James further obliterated the myth with The Machine, a micro-budgeted meditation on what it means to be human that would have Philip K. Dick nodding in approval, produced for a comparatively paltry sum that came in below that magic million mark.
Produced in 2013 and gaining prominence after a victory at the Raindance Film Festival, a UK cinema release eluded The Machine, with the flick reaching these shores in the spring of this year as a straight-to-home video release. This has no bearing on the quality of the production, however, as The Machine is a fine and thought-provoking look at the difference between flesh and steel, acting as a noble successor to the likes of Blade Runner and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (put your eyebrows down and watch A.I. again – it’s brilliant). Every penny and then some (the accrual of which is an interesting and inspirational tale in itself) is present on the screen during James’ opus, with the sparse and whitewashed interiors reminiscent of THX 1138, and the futuristic visual effects proud and prominent. This may be film-making on a budget, but there are no excuses or shortcuts on display – and thankfully no need to distract from storytelling shortcomings with eyeball-saucering backgrounds and explosions, ensuring that James’ visual flair acts only to enhance to the world he is creating.
The Machine tells the tale of a future that’s closer than we may like to think, a future defined by a cold war between Britain and China. With technology continuing its irrepressible march through our lives, James introduces us to a world where dead soldiers can be revived and re-shaped, Universal Solider-style, leading to a chilling technological arms race between east and west. A world defined by mechanical know-how that prioritises the building of uncompromising war-winning warriors over the healing of the sick. And most frightening of all, a world where Denis Lawson – cuddly old Wedge Antilles himself – is a bad guy.
It’s a world we’d want no part of, were it not such an engaging place to spend 90 minutes.
Vincent McCarthy – played by one-time Bond villain Toby Stephens, who made his return to full-length flicks here after an absence of almost a decade – is our eyes and ears in this brave new world. The Machine revolves around McCarthy’s attempts to instil emotion and human values into these re-animated warmongers thanks to a wholly personal ulterior motive, whilst avoiding the unwelcome attentions of Lawson’s director Thomson. Teaming with Caity Lotz’s Ava – a fellow scientist with a genius intellect, an inquisitive mind and political sympathies that Thomson finds questionable at best – McCarthy finds himself drawn into a web of deception and scientific discovery; innovations that will irrecoverably change his world, and that of everyone around him.
For vast swathes of its running time, The Machine is a two-hander between Stephens and Lotz. Lawson applies himself well enough as the cold and detached Thomson, providing plenty of boo-hiss moments of ruthless profiteering at any cost that reveals an unhealthy disregard for human life, as does Pooneh Hajimohammadi as his frequently unwilling accomplice Suri. It falls to the two leads to perform the majority of the heaving lifting however, and it’s a task they accomplish with honours. Stephens does a fine job of blending a father’s love with scientific cognizance, a logical mind trapped in emotional turmoil. Lotz, however, is a revelation, as the freckle-faced Californian is cast enjoyably against type in her dual roles as Ava and the titular techno-terror.
Shorn of the bad girl scowl-and-leather jacket tropes that define her roles in small screen superhero smash Arrow and supernatural shocker The Pact, The Machine gives Lotz ample chances to showcase her thespian chops as much as her physicality. Ava is a complex character, requiring the actress to convincingly portray a scientific wunderkind with a political conscience, while also retaining enough charm and warmth as a human being to enchant the cold and detached Vincent – and the audience, so that we’re suitably invested in Ava’s fate. Meanwhile, portraying the eponymous Machine gives Lotz the opportunity to tap into a hitherto-unseen child-like vulnerability and innocence, as the would-be automaton discovers emotion and humanity. It’s full credit to the performer that such a transition doesn’t jar, with both roles distinctive without feeling wholly detached from one another. Don’t panic in the face of all this talk of emotion and acting though, Black Canary fans – Lotz also kicks ass aplenty in The Machine. Her history as a dancer is put to good use throughout the flick as she moves with inimitable elegance and grace, especially following The Machine’s ‘birth’, while the inevitable robotic revolution that occurs in the movie’s final third provides plenty of opportunity for pyrotechnics.
These moments of action scenes pepper The Machine to ensure it’s not all philosophical chin-stroking, with the destruction and devastation enjoying a stylistic 80s feel reminiscent of John Carpenter’s run at the top of his game. Backed by the greatest score that Tangerine Dream never recorded, the camera doesn’t linger on the brief flurries of violence; instead, a number of short, sharp and unapologetic shocks slap the viewer square in the chops, never feeling gratuitous but occasionally drawing gasps – much like in the wars that these poor souls are programmed to fight, this is violence as a fact of life and a matter of survival – at least until remnants of their humanity begin to prick their collective computerised consciences. It’s these touches that make the flick so appealing, as even the moments of pure brawn are backed up by brain.
Running at under 90 minutes, there is no excuse for any DragonDarker to fail to make time for The Machine. The genre is becoming increasingly riddled with undiscovered treats as big-budget spectacle dominates the attention, and that’s understandable; watching the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy is among the most fun we’ve had this year that we can boast about on a family-friendly site such as this. It’s essential that such stalwart exercises in genre film-making as this also find an audience though, as the ingenuity and intelligence displayed here is rarely matched by the flick’s bigger-budgeted brethren. In any sane and just world, The Machine will someday be regarded as an overlooked classic. Getting in on the ground level now will only help that particular cause.