Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2014

The Machine

Body and soul

'The Machine' looks at artificial intelligence through a distinctly physical lens

The Machine
XLrator Media
Director: Caradog W. James
Screenplay: Caradog W. James
Starring: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz, Denis Lawson, Sam Hazeldine and Pooneh Hajimohammadi
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

The manifestation of artificial intelligence as physical beings has long been a standard trope of science-fiction, but in watching Caradog James' The Machine, it occurred to me that only a small percentage of films actually deal with the physical part of that equation with any real substance.

In this way, the film distinguishes itself - and if it's the only way it stands out, well, the poetry with which it does so is more than enough. The Machine centers around a human intelligence transplanted into a synthetic, humanoid body, and with that premise comes all the thematic concerns and baggage you'd expect, an ongoing debate about the android's humanity (or lack thereof) chief among them.

But James very clearly has his focus on the corporeal nature of Ava (Caity Lotz), and explores it with a kind of reverent majesty. When she is first being "created," the vessel that will eventually be her body hangs suspended from a ceiling, attached to a cluster of tubes. Slowly we see blood - a deep, bold red - seeping into the tubes, dripping into the hollow shell of a body and filling it up like a bottle. It's a rather beautiful moment, putting our attention squarely on an element we associate with life itself, and presenting Ava as not just a piece of machinery, but, quite literally, flesh and blood. There's an element of body horror to it, not entirely macabre but undeniably carnal.

The sequence introduces motifs we see again and again throughout the film - notably the way it presents Ava as a sort of angelic figure. As her body is given its blood supply, it hovers above, the vein-like tubes holding her up like wings. Later on, when she's finally conscious, we hear the gentle, high-pitched, childlike tenor of her voice, and the film explicitly presents her as a sort of guardian angel to its protagonist, the scientist Vincent (Toby Stephens).

In her creation and physical appearance, Ava blatantly calls to mind the mechanized Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis; in her nakedness she resembles The Matrix's Neo upon his "birth"; and, incidentally or not, the flesh-colored nature of the second skin that envelops her when she's first built reminded me of Pedro Almódovar's The Skin I Live In.

The film's best scene involves Ava all by herself in a massive, hangar-like chamber, not long after her creation. Still naked, and shot in dark light that presents her body as a near-silhouette, she begins to discover the capabilities of this body of hers - the agility with which she can walk, turn, jump; the grace and ease with which she can do backflips. (That gracefulness is not faked; Lotz is a dancer and martial artist, and her movements are exquisite.) As she toys around with her physicality, the circuitry inside her sparks up and glows through her translucent skin, like neuroimaging for her entire body. It all plays out like a classic sequence of self-discovery, like you'd see from a young child or a budding superhero (she embodies the characteristics of both simultaneously).

Where did she come from, exactly? Well, she indirectly created herself. Vincent brought on Ava, when she was still human, as a new partner for his research into artificial intelligence, and proceeded to map out her physical attributes as a sort of model. Her untimely death gives Vincent and his bosses - the Ministry of Defense, which is fighting an ongoing Cold War with China - an opportunity to test out their advances in A.I. and robotic technology. They transfer her data into the machine, and use her likeness to create an android doppelgänger.

The ministry, naturally, wants to use her (and others like her) as a killing machine, and they want to do it quickly - before the Chinese can develop the same technology. At the forefront of that effort is Vincent's brazenly sinister boss, Thomson (Denis Lawson). Vincent, though, has other ideas. After all, he's not really interested in the political cause; his research is solely for the purpose of helping his young daughter, who's suffering from a neurological condition that his research may be able to cure.

I confess that a small portion of my not-insignificant affection for The Machine may stem from having seen it the day after seeing Transcendence, which has many of the same, familiar ideas about artificial intelligence but comes across as straight-faced, antiquated and, frankly, dumb. I can't say The Machine has high-minded ambitions, but in its self-imposed limitations it proves to be a much more intelligent film.

That it is a collection of sci-fi cliches is true, but no more or less so than pretty much any other sci-fi movie. Its dark, metallic colors and synthesized musical score directly reference Blade Runner, but unlike that and other similar movies, we never see much of the dystopia in which this world exists - the entire movie takes place within the confines of this top-secret military research base. That's just as well, because it allows the film the time to focus on Ava, rather than whatever conflict is brewing on the outside.

James embraces the B-movie value of his setup, giving us something that is both pulpy and thoughtful - and a visual marvel at that, featuring stellar visual effects despite the limited budget. (Really, after seeing what this movie can do with its effects, big-budget movies with crappy CGI have absolutely no excuse.) There are certainly things to knock about the movie; the dialogue is strained and clunky at times, and the emotional attachment the movie attempts early on falls completely flat. (Vincent and Ava meet for the first time in one scene, and then a couple of scenes later, suddenly he "cares deeply" for her.) But after the key turning point of Ava's death and subsequent "rebirth," The Machine rights itself, both thematically and emotionally. It never sets itself apart with its ideas, nor its plot. Rather, in a time when films as a general rule shy away from all but the most superficial explorations of the human body, The Machine makes that subject the visual centerpiece of its simple but effective meditation on A.I.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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