In the early 1980’s, there was a popular conspiracy theory that the CIA was covertly funding specific Hollywood productions (“Star Wars”, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, “E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial”) with a view to softening the public up for imminent contact (or the announcement of previous contact) with aliens. I wonder if those same conspiracy theorists (older, but perhaps no wiser) are beginning to have the same suspicions about artificial intelligence and the forthcoming technological singularity?
Evil killer robots and computers are, of course, nothing new but recently there have been a few films which explore alternative visions of artificial intelligence. Spike Jonze’s “Her” is one such film and so is British Sci-Fi thriller “The Machine”.
Set in the near future, a new Cold War with China has forced the West into the deepest recession in recorded history and the new arms race is focussed on ever more powerful, intelligent machines. In a secret Ministry of Defence installation, scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens, “Die Another Day”) works with injured soldiers to perfect the creation of an artificial intelligence which can restore damaged brain function, secretly hoping that his work for the Government will also yield a cure for his daughter who has Rett Syndrome. Despite significant progress, Vincent’s efforts always seem to fail at the final hurdle, with the cybernetic implant recipients either losing the power of speech after a few months or suffering unpredictable and sometimes violent breakdowns. A side-programme encouraging independent programmers to compete to develop machine intelligences which can beat the Turing Test brings Ava (Caity Lotz, “Arrow”) to Vincent and together, the two of them manage to create a wholly artificial humanoid intelligence. But Vincent is not the only one with an ulterior motive. His MoD superior Thomson (Denis Lawson, the “Star Wars” trilogy) sees in the Machine an ultimate weapon to defend Britain against its enemies.
The first couple of title cards setting up the world of “The Machine” about the Cold War with China and the Western recession feel a bit clunky and unnecessarily specific. The mention of a deep recession feels more a product of our own time and an economic view distilled from tabloid headlines and the economic situation barely impacts on the plot. As for the on-going face-off against the Chinese, the lab seemingly has no shortage of severely injured soldiers and more than a few personnel lose their lives to armed Chinese soldiers outside the base perimeter (on UK soil), suggesting the ‘Cold War’ is, in fact, pretty hot. I suspect if this had been made a year or so later, the Russians, thanks to their recent actions in the Crimea, would have been the bad guys of choice. Fortunately, the wider world-building is superfluous to the taut, moral conflict explored by “The Machine” and while it sets up a figurative game of soldiers as a backdrop, the film is much more interested in exploring the ideas of intelligence, humanity, and free will.
Toby Stephens gives a great performance as the brooding, ethically conflicted scientist who struggles to come to terms with the losses he has suffered along the way to achieving his breakthroughs while Caity Lotz impresses in a dual role as both Ava and the eponymous Machine. It’s great to see Denis Lawson out of his X-Wing pilot fatigues and he does a superb job of being the steel fist in a velvet glove as he ruthlessly lies to and manipulates Vincent and The Machine to achieve his ends, even going so far as to use Vincent’s daughter Mary (Jade Croot, who portrays Mary’s condition with sensitivity and restraint) as a pressure point.
There’s a slight tendency by Writer/ Director Caradog James to over-use digital blood spatter to give the film a grisly edge and the design of The Machine herself owes a great deal to the recent “Battlestar Galactica” reboot but there’s no denying the style and atmosphere he brings to the film with particularly impressive use of lighting and moments of silence to advance the plot. It’s well paced and thoughtful while still allowing tension to build and the action is well-choreographed and executed. Although it treads familiar territory, there is no shortage of ideas on show and as the film accelerates towards its climax, it struggles a little to do all of them justice, preferring to concentrate on the main one: the question of who is more benevolent and humane: human intelligence or that of the machine?
Offering a bleaker dystopian world view than “Her” but striking the same optimistic note about how an artificial intelligence might embrace existence, “The Machine” is a satisfyingly slick, well-made sci-fi thriller which manages to feel both grander than its small cast and limited budget while retaining a sense of intimacy and immediacy. If you’re quick, you can still catch it on the big screen otherwise it’s available on demand now and on DVD/ Blu-ray at the end of the month.