The Machine (2013)

Longer version of review first published by Sight & Sound, April 2014

Review: “Do you know your mother’s name? Or what she looked like?”

Cybernetics genius Vincent (Toby Stephens) – his name evidently a play on the forename of Dr Frankenstein – is interviewing a soldier whose war-damaged brain has been replaced with a neural implant. In a future where Cold War with China and deep recession are leading to technology-driven military strategies involving bionically enhanced supersoldiers and killing machines, Vincent seems more interested in his subject’s capacity for empathy. The questions about the mother in this opening scene, and the soldier’s violent response, inevitably evoke the opening of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), with its similar interrogation of the differences between humans and their artificial imitations.

Vincent’s Ministry of Defence handler Thomson (Denis Lawson) wants him to build obedient robots (from the Czech for ‘serf’), whereas Vincent himself has a hidden agenda to create a new, stable vessel into which to upload the recorded brain of his ailing daughter Mary. Compassionate, principled computer scientist Ava (Caity Lotz), whose name references the Bible’s primal mother, joins Vincent with a pioneering programme that learns intuitively from its interactions with others, and the stage is set either for the emergence of the most terrifyingly efficient weapon ever seen – or else for a radical reconfiguration of the world along refreshingly matriarchal lines.

The technological singularity – that theoretical moment when artificial intelligence surpasses its human equivalent – has been treated in the cinema of the last year from some very eccentric angles. While Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013) imagined the singularity’s embryonic beginnings in a hotel of 1984 populated by über-nerdy programmers, exploratory couples and stray cats, Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) encoded the tropes of modern romance in the unequal relationship between a man and his evolving computer. In this context, The Machine might seem a far more conventional examination of the ‘intelligence explosion’ – a throwback to the ‘Skynet’ cyber-dystopias of the Terminator franchise. After all, once Ava’s computer brain has been inserted into a fire-, bullet- and bomb-proof metallic exoskeleton, and once Thomson has started coaxing this Machine – in the abusive way that a paedophile grooms a child – into drawing on her internal programming to kill, this formidable fembot comes to resemble, both in appearance and all-round indestructibilty, Kristanna Loken’s gynoid T-X from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Yet, sporting her creator’s facial features, and also mirroring the empathy and emotional intelligence to which Ava, mother-like, exposed her in her early development, the Machine will lead the cyborg soldiers in a revolution to bring an end to the sort of masculine militarism embodied by Thomson.

This science fiction from writer/director Caradog W. James (Little White Lies, 2006) offsets its modest budget with big ideas and an unusual feminist slant. For as Thomson’s bunkered fascism is replaced with an open spirit of dance, play and communication, we are shown, in The Machine‘s final images, a new model of the family, of male-female relations and of global politics: a dawn ushered in by mother – and daughter – while father is left merely to watch from the sidelines.

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Synopsis: Britain, the future. Amidst an escalating cold war with China, ‘genius’ cyberneticist Dr Vincent McCarthy experiments with neural implants for war-damaged soldiers being held against their will. Pressured by his MoD handler Thomson, Vincent recruits computer scientist Ava, in the hope that her new intuitive programme can form the brain for an armed robot supersoldier – although Vincent also secretly hopes to build an artificial host into which to upload the brain of his daughter Mary, who has Rett syndrome.

As Ava starts snooping into Thomson’s unethical cyborg programme, Thomson arranges her assassination. Vincent completes Ava’s artificial brain, and has Ava’s features copied onto the Machine. Conscious but naïve, the Machine falls in love with Vincent – but as Vincent is distracted by Mary’s death, Thomson has a military programme in the Machine activated, bullying her into becoming a reluctant yet highly efficient killer. Worried by the Machine’s independent thinking, Thomson blackmails Vincent into shutting down the Machine’s consciousness, using as leverage the last electronic record of Mary’s brain – but Vincent and the Machine trick Thomson, and the Machine leads an uprising of the cyborg soldiers, already secretly organising and rebelling, against Thomson’s men. The Machine spares Thomson, but destroys his upper brain function. Later, Mary, now uploaded onto a tablet, watches the coming dawn with her mother the Machine, as Vincent watches from a distance, no longer able to keep up intellectually with his new family.

© Anton Bitel