A Sci-Fi Honey Review by Katie

The Machine (2013)

Finally, a film that can be described as “low-budget sci-fi” that doesn’t make us shudder for all the wrong reasons!  The Machine, now in limited theatrical release, is an all-too-generic title for a film that delves pretty deeply into some thought-provoking territory with a fair amount of visual style thrown in for good measure.  

Toby Stephens plays Vincent, a cunning but earnest scientist attempting to create an artificial intelligence implant for war-wounded soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries.  If successful, the implant will allow the subject to become self-aware and capable of intelligent, linear, and deductive thought, as well as some form of learned emotion.  The film opens with one of these experiments going horribly awry; clearly, the implant needs work, and he seeks out the help of a brainy and beautiful (aren’t they all?) American scientist Ava (played with remarkable range by Caity Lotz in a challenging role). The project with seemingly limitless resources is funded by Britain’s Ministry of Defense, who may have a more sinister intent for the implant once it’s successfully realized.

Check out those...brains
Ava is young and naïve and clearly has not worked for a government entity before, as she wants to know what’s down that shadowy corridor, what’s being said in whispers behind the walls, and who is being held in secret holding areas.  You don’t work for a government agency if you expect transparency, and at one point, she is outright told by her superior “you need to mind your own fucking business.”  Traversing the shadowy recesses of the MoD, however, does present director Caradog W. James a creative opportunity to showcase some truly stunning and stark visuals.  Monochrome colors, lurid landscapes, and lens flares abound, scored by some killer synth-heavy mood setting music.

There’s a poignant reason that our hero Vincent is working for the bad guy, however: his daughter, suffering from the effects of a neurological disease, is incapable of the understanding and empathy that he is trying to achieve in his soldier patients.  Her autism-like symptoms reveal a lack of real emotional connection with her father that the implant would likely be able to “parrot” in the form of artificial intelligence.  For Vincent, it’s personal; but for the military, the implant is a terrific means to send intelligent machines to war.

Pictured: awesomeness
For its subject matter and visual style, The Machine will likely draw comparisons to Ridley Scott’s 1982 epic Blade Runner; however, one could see a connection to an even more recent release that portrayed both the wonders and difficulties of forming relationships with AI beings: Spike Jonze’s moving (and instant classic) Her.  As in his film, the key to achieving the kind of emotionally intelligent response sought in The Machine is to let the computer learn through experience the entire range of the human condition.  All implanted subjects begin in a childlike state of wonder and amazement, learning along the way the extent of their powers of cognition and physical strength.  You cannot, after all, “teach” pain – one must feel it to understand it.

They're making her watch a Miley Cyrus video.

For all the futuristic concepts the film explores, we can relate it to our modern existence by understanding how we keep people alive through artificial means all the time – Vincent’s daughter, too, requires a feeding tube for her syndrome, very much a present means of survival for those suffering from similarly devastating disorders.  A frustrated Vincent at one point asks an implanted subject, “how do I know if you’re alive and not just a clever imitation of life?”  To some so desperate for emotional connection with a being who cannot functionally connect on their own, does it matter?  The Machine explores these grey areas with a solid story and intriguing, nightmarish visuals, a bright lens flare in the vast cinematic abyss of low-budget sci-fi space shrapnel.

Sci-Fi Honey verdict: Four out of five stars for being made on a dime and definitely worth your time.