The Turing Test is an idea that plays an important part in The Machine. It is the concept that a true artificial intelligence is one that a person could communicate with, and not be aware that they are not conversing with a human. The idea that asks how much can something be like a human before it actually can be considered human (or even whether or not it can be) that’s central to this film. In his sci-fi feature debut, writer/director Caradog W. James has created a slick, stylish and thoughtful film that shows that smart and thrilling sci-fi are here to stay, and don’t need a Hollywood budget.
In the near future, Britain is part of a Eurozone power block in a new Cold War with China, while suffering a new recession. Vincent (Toby Stephens) is a scientist specialising in cybernetics, working with the one group that can fund his research and has motivation too; the military. The new breakthrough from his attempts to construct a new form of android, one intended to be used as a peacekeeper, comes from an AI created by researcher Ava (Caity Lotz). She both helps him realise many of his plans, as well as begins to open his eyes to some of the ethics of his work. But when she is killed in an apparent assassination, Ava ends up shaping the creation of “The Machine”, in a far bigger way than intended.
The first thing one must notice with the machine is how gorgeous it all is to look at. With a budget of just over a million pounds, James has created a highly stylised, but believable near future world. This is partially down to smart use of production design, in particular some very neat user interfaces for the equipment used in the laboratory. Mostly this is down to some extremely smart CGI usage, like some of the moments when “The Machine” is shown as not quite human. It also extends to tiny details, like the addition of lights within the eyes of some of the soldiers used for experimental brain implants. Wisely confining events to one air force base turned laboratory helps focus the production design and effects so they can be used for best impact.
But it’s not just all eye candy, it’s supported by a smart script. The film tackles a lot of concepts, both modern (like the treatment of military veterans and the wounded) and conceptual. It understands that the creation of a true AI would mean having to grasp an entirely alien way of thinking, and communicate our way to it. It references actual psychological tests like the Sally-Anne test of the “Theory of Mind” to demonstrate these points. The film also deals with, references, but doesn’t explicitly name, the Singularity, the theoretical moment when our technology becomes self-creating and improving. Now that theory relies on a lot of assumptions, but this film is a smart take on it, showing what could be the moment it begins, and ponders on whether or not it would be a good thing. The smartest thing it does is not to give a solid answer either way, while acknowledging there could be positives and negatives. For a film that could have just been content to be another riff on the old Frankenstein theme, this is bold stuff.
As for the production, the film on the whole is very slick. Toby Stephens brings across the leads’ conflicted nature, all too aware of the issues with what he’s doing, but just having to brave them to get what he truly needs from the project. Caity Lotz is first impressive in a warm, human touch to the film as Ava, but later as The Machine, it’s a whole different performance, but still very strong. She has quite the arc as the titular character, from child-like wonder at the world she’s been created for, but later she shows what a force to be reckoned with. Denis Lawson‘s role as Director Thomson is a little arch and one note, but he does bring to it a professional presence. Special mention should be made of Pooneh Hajimohammadi as his assistant Suri, who gets an interesting little sub-plot over the course of the film that adds a lot of tension to proceedings in wondering where this will be going.
While the overall arc of the film may seem familiar (scientist creates new being, said being ends up rebelling), it’s in a lot of rich details and character touches that The Machine’s strengths lie. This is smart, well made, and with a very satisfying climax, far more rewarding sci-fi than more than a few major studio attempts at such areas. The fact that it’s an independent production made in Wales makes it all the more impressive. The Machine is well worth your time, and deserves to be a success, if only to see what Caradog James comes up with next.