Tuesday 18 March 2014

She might: "The Machine"

The title of Welsh director Caradog James' ambitious, promisingly framed sci-fi thriller The Machine presumably has a double meaning. It could refer to those supersoldiers being engineered by scientists like Toby Stephens' Vincent in a remote military base, for use in some speculative future war against the Chinese; yet in a wider sense, it also conjures up images of the whole military-industrial complex, whose might is most often used to crush any individual who dares to break ranks. James' film begins with the arrival of young American tech whizz Ava (Caity Lotz) as Vincent's new assistant; an inquisitive soul, she's soon observed poking her nose around the base's many well-kept secrets. After she's shot one night in what appears an obvious act of war, her body is recovered by Vincent and reinvented, Frankenstein-like, as a formidable mix of brains, beauty and brute force. 

At first content to take orders from the men around her, this fembot appears as pliable as, say, Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science - Tom Raybould's pulsingly electronic score further underlining the film's debt to 1980s sci-fi - but much as her logic boards might debate it, she has been programmed to kill, and rather more brutally and efficiently than anybody else around. Only belatedly does The Machine revert to conventional action mode, however: for the most part, James favours a spare, quasi-theatrical staging, using a small handful of sets with few exteriors. Keeping the lights low clearly remains a viable means by which novice directors can conceal the modest resources available to them, and the slightly too self-contained, even airless feel of one or two early scenes might generously be looked upon as deliberate.

Some of the ideas being picked over in this dark are familiar: the film may suffer from opening around the same moment as Under the Skin, a more visually daring exploration of similar themes, although it's clear James has thought about the degree to which intelligent machines might become humanised or weaponised, and he does something unusual in establishing a romantic, mutually beneficial relationship between the single father scientist and his increasingly protective creation. The thought extends to good, committed work from the leads. Stephens makes sense of his character's seesawing allegiances, shifting between friendly workplace badinage and something more sinister yet, while Lotz, who made an impression as the no-nonsense heroine of 2012's The Pact, mixes physical toughness with intriguing notes of grace: it's some sign of the film's unpredictable nature that it can find time for her to play out a strange ballet with the pools of water on the floor of her holding pen.

The Machine opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on March 31.

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