A friend laid down the challenge of summarising The Machine in twelve words or less. So here goes. British Blade Runner meets paranoia about the rise of China. But you want to know more than that don’t you? Like the fact that it won Best UK Feature at Raindance Film Festival, Best Sci-Fi film at Toronto After Dark Film Festival and three BAFTA Cymru Awards for Special Achievement in Film, Best Costume Design for Chrissie Pegg and Best Original Music for Tom Raybould’s soundtrack.
“It’s the near future and Britain, still gripped by recession, is embroiled in a cold war with China. The Ministry of Defence has been working on a mechanised soldier, a thinking robot that would not only have the ability to fight, but negotiate and keep peace too.” So begins the press release, saving Rhythm Circus the job of a pithy introduction to the plot.
It is hard to avoid comparison with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1981); a female robot with a male human shaping its destiny, a mournful soundtrack of droning electronica and moral ambiguities over what constitutes life and the rights of the creator and the created. It has to be said though, that despite a lot of borrowing from the slightly threadbare wardrobe of these well-worn tropes, this is a compelling film.
The Machine is set largely in a secretive MoD research facility where British scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is experimenting with machine/human hybrids. In fact, it is mainly the setting which sets this film apart from comparable films. It’s something of a cross between underground car park and high tech lab, guarded by heavily armed implant soldiers. These are soldiers who have suffered horrific injuries and been used by the MoD for early experiments into the development of humanised robot soldiers. It is a good setting in which to build suspense, and writer/director Caradog James does an excellent job. We are given just enough hints to know from the start that some unpleasant surprises are hiding in the dark recesses just out of shot.
Much like Blade Runner, the Frankenstein story is given the twist of a rather physically attractive monster, in this case American scientist Ava (Caity Lotz), in whose image and name Vincent’s machine is made. The fact that the monster seems to have feelings for Vincent, and his own remain ambiguous, is another echo of the central and problematic relationship that underpins Blade Runner.
But Vincent is not free to play with Ava in his lab all day as he’d like, teaching her the finer qualities of human consciousness. His MoD pay masters seem more intent on turning her into the perfect killing machine. They wouldn’t be using Chinese-looking stooges to pose as spies in order to further their own ends, would they? Surely the powers that be wouldn’t be so cynical and hell-bent on creating a weapon of mass destruction…
Britain has a strong sci fi tradition, including a number of Hammer films, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Attack the Block (2011) to pick a small handful from the last fifty years. The Machine is a good addition to this canon. Er, did we say canon? Is Tony Blair WMD paranoia contagious? We mean a good addition to a rich history of British sci fi.
The Machine is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 31st March.
Words >Luke Roberts