The Machine isn’t a breathtakingly original sci-fi film, but it’s an honorable one that impresses on the strength of both its ideas and its evocative style. Set during a second Cold War between the Western world and the Chinese, and predicated on a race for smarter machines instead of armaments, Caradog James’s film takes the form of a psychological tug of war for the “soul” of the titular machine: a female robot who’s the resurrected, digitized version of Ava (Caity Lotz), a promising computer programmer who’s killed early on in the film by a Chinese assassin. On one side, there’s Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens), a Ministry of Defense-employed programmer who’s secretly working to perfect a cybernetic creature that strikes a perfect balance between human and machine. His opposition is his boss, Thomson (Denis Lawson), who’s far more interested in the possibilities the doctor’s research affords to further the creation of superior soldiers out of current brain-dead human ones. Much of the film’s intrigue comes from seeing this machine struggle with these warring impulses within itself: trying to resist Thomson’s attempts at dehumanization after Dr. McCarthy has expressly ordered her to not kill. In that regard, The Machine functions as an obvious anti-war allegory, but on a broader level, the film also works as a metaphor for the eternal conflict between empathetic humanity and cruel inhumanity, the boundary of which often gets crossed in times of violent conflict.
Speaking of humanity, The Machine could have benefited from a bit more passion. James’s attempt to introduce human drama into his heady sci-fi brew is well-intentioned, but his direction of the script is merely stylish and efficient where a more contemplative, less story-driven approach might have worked better. And the actors’ blandly competent performances don’t help much. Lotz is more effective after Ava becomes mechanized, the contrast between her cold innocence contrasting palpably with the perkiness she exuded as a human being. As Dr. McCarthy, however, Stephens sufficiently goes through the motions of suggesting psychological torment, but he’s less successful in suggesting an inner life amid all the surface angst. Lawson perhaps fares best, but mostly because he plays a two-dimensional villain role with a relish that never goes overboard.
If you’re willing to forgive its slightly distracting overuse of lens flares, Nicolaj Bruel’s cinematography is often imaginative in its uses of lighting to evoke settings and emotional states; in one scene, for instance, Bruel shines a bright light onto Ava while bathing Dr. McCarthy in near-silhouette-like darkness, giving Ava an angelic aura while suggesting the doctor’s world-weary turmoil. The film also benefits from a John Carpenter-esque electronic score that gives the film an appropriately chilly feel.
Ultimately, though, it’s the themes and ideas with which James grapples that hold one’s interest throughout. It’s hardly a new idea to explore the depths and limits of our humanity through the prism of a tale of artificial intelligence; James’s film, however, forgoes the hardcore-dystopian gloom of forbears like Blade Runner and RoboCop and finds a certain level of awed optimism when it comes to the possibility of imbuing machines with something like a soul. And yet, after a disappointingly conventional action-movie climax, James sucker-punches us with a final scene that ends the film on a tantalizingly ironic note. If it’s possible for machines to be something close to human, then what’s left for the actual humans in this world?