Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: That adorable walking weapon Chappie inspires five days of robots, androids, and sentient machines.
Science fiction in which a newly created robot/computer/whatever has to be taught what it means to be alive tends to stick to the same essential Frankenstein formula. First, scientist with a god complex and/or daddy issues creates a new form of life. Said creation then slowly realizes its free will, until something jars it out of its youthful state. Violent acts ensue, ending with the creation transcending its current state of affairs, leaving the creator either dead or wiser for having lived through it. This robust narrative has many iterations, precisely because it resonates deeply with the human experience. The Machine doesn’t do much to alter the basic framework of the story, but its artful dedication to re-telling that fundamental drama helps it succeed where others have failed.
Like a superior episode of The Twilight Zone, The Machine trusts strong performances to add depth to a bare outline of character development, so it can get to the good stuff. Set in the near future, the story follows Vincent (Toby Stephens), a veteran AI engineer working on a way to develop an artificial consciousness that could aid people who’ve suffered severe brain damage or mental illness. When he meets Ava (Caity Lotz)—a young grad student with a breakthrough design—he hires her to join his military-funded program, in hopes of creating AI robots indistinguishable from people. After Ava’s untimely demise, Vincent creates the machine in her image, with her memories, face, and body. As must happen in these kinds of films, the machine is co-opted by higher-ups (specifically nerd MVP Denis Lawson, a.k.a. Wedge from the original Star Wars trilogy) intent on turning it into a super-weapon. After it demonstrates an aversion to murder, Vincent is ordered to alter the machine to remove its consciousness. Cue the big showdown.
With such a traditional narrative, execution is everything, and here The Machine proves its bona fides. The film delves into the messy, bodily aspects of creating a human replica with an attention to detail that would do David Cronenberg proud. The film’s fascination with the baby steps of a new consciousness is infectious, lending the scenes exploring the machine an affecting strength. Full credit here should go to Lotz, who between this and her role in The Pact series is covering the bases of indie genre film. (She’s also one of the best parts of TV’s Arrow as Black Canary.) Lotz moves from playing Ava to playing the machine with aplomb, pulling off the always-awkward “robot who learns to feel” role with a charisma rarely found in such performances. Her dance background comes in handy, too, as she lends the character’s movements an impressive precision and control. By the end of the film, she’s essentially playing a Terminator, and doing arguably the best job of anyone who has tried. (No disrespect to the superb Summer Glau—or Arnold himself, for that matter.)
The film makes the most of its low budget, creating cleverly minimalist human/robot hybrids in mostly indoor settings. Stylistically, it has the feel of an ’80s John Carpenter film, complete with reminiscent score. The ending is bleak without being jarring, an efficient and sharply told 90-minute version of a very old story. Indie sci-fi rarely knows how to do so much with so little, and rarer still gets a magnetic performer like Lotz to anchor it this strongly.
Availability: The Machine is available on Blu-ray and DVD through your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services, and is currently streaming on Netflix.