The best science fiction isn’t about the farflung future, spaceships, aliens, deathrays and killer robots.  It’s about us, it’s about the present, it’s about the here and now.  Our hopes, our dreams, our nightmares.  Science fiction is a mirror that reflects and amplifies our society, it’s a stage on which any tale can be told.  And if it also happens to include a killer robot, who’s going to complain?  Which brings us to writer/director Caradog W. James’ smart, intense little sci-fi thriller The Machine, winner of the Best UK Feature at last Autumn’s Raindance Film Festival.

In the near future, with a still recession-crippled Britain locked in a stalemated Cold War with China that threatens to become a very hot one, brilliant scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is experimenting with Artificial Intelligence, building implants he hopes will allow badly injured, traumatised soldiers to recover while also hoping his work may help save his terminally ill daughter.  His shadowy Government paymasters have other ideas however, intending to use his work to build an army of android super-soldiers.

With his research stalled, McCarthy hires young American computer genius Ava (Caity Lotz) to help him, hoping that the software she’s developed holds the key to success.  When Ava becomes suspicious of McCarthy’s slicker than owl-snot boss Thomson (Denis Lawson) and starts to question the ultimate consequences of their work, Thomson has her murdered.

Using Ava’s personality as a matrix for the AI software they’d been working on, McCarthy succeeds in creating the Machine (Lotz again); an android in Ava’s image with a living, self-aware, inquisitive mind of its own, one that can think and is learning to feel.  While McCarthy is focused on teaching the Machine how to react to the world around her, Thomson is secretly modifying her programming, moulding her into the weapon he wants.  But the Machine has a mind of her own and will do anything to keep it…

A wonderfully dark, stylish, exciting little slice of sci-fi with real humanity and intelligence at it’s core that’s not afraid to grapple with the little ideas as well as the big ones, Caradog W. James’ The Machine is a cyberpunk Bride Of Frankenstein by way My Fair Lady with some cheeky nods to everything from Metropolis and Robocop to THX-1138 and, of course, Blade Runner and TV’s recent Battlestar Galactica reimagining.  Refreshingly, it also shares some DNA with the very British A For Andromeda and Quatermass films giving it a nice sense of place and history.

Denis Lawson makes a repellently seductive, silky bad guy, a wolf in genial oafs clothing, Toby Stephens is reliably good as the conflicted scientist bringing a raw, wounded humanity to the role and Caity Lotz is terrific in the dual roles of Ava and the Machine, a real revelation, by turns childlike, vulnerable and terrifying often within the same sentence.  A former backing dancer for Lady Gaga, Lotz moves with a fluid, sexy grace and she commands the film’s balletic fight scenes but also the quieter moments when the newborn intelligence is getting used to her body.  There’s also strong support from the wonderful Iranian actress Pooneh Hajimohammadi, the leader of the implanted soldiers and Thomson’s number one heavy; the scenes between her and the other implanted soldiers who’ve evolved their own machine code language (based on digitized Farsi) are quietly unsettling.

Obviously made on a miniscule budget The Machine looks fantastic, James and cinematographer Nicholai Bruel making the most of what they’ve got, shooting cool neon blues and living pools of shadow, disfigured war veterans missing half their skulls materialising from the gloom, banished to the underground bunkers and labs we’re familiar with from every other no-budget sci-fi/horror of the last 20 years.  There may be few new ideas here but at least there are ideas and James isn’t afraid to engage with them, giving them a work out, asking the big questions larger budget movies (the interminable hipster twee of Spike Jonze’s Her and the retarded Robocop remake) sidestep.  Who are we?  Where did that spark of intelligence that formed us come from?  What makes us human?  What moral responsibility do we owe our creations? What place is there for baseline humans in a post-human society? It’s 45 years since Philip K. Dick asked Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but the big question is still what makes us tick?  As the Machine quizzes McCarthy:  “What makes my clever imitation of life any different?”  Perhaps the only thing that sets them apart is McCarthy’s grief over his dying daughter.  By the end the Machine may have usurped even that; she’s learned compassion.

An anti-war movie about a sympathetic robot killing machine running amuck, a cerebral meditation on life, love, grief and what it means to be human slyly entwined with a tense, smart, sleekly thrilling little slice of sci-fi action, The Machine is one of the most genuinely exciting sci-fi films to come out of Britain in decades.

VERDICT: [rating=5]

THE MACHINE – Film Premiere tickets: Weds 19 March 8.30pm, VUE Piccadillly

THE MACHINE is in cinemas/VoD 21 March and DVD/Blu-ray 31 March



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