This British sci-fi is destined for classic status
The Machine is possibly the best conceptualized science fiction film since Blade Runner. High praise, but Ridley Scott’s well-known movie immediately comes to mind as a comparison with its edgy visuals and literate story. Director Caradog James’ movie is a deep exploration of artificial intelligence and its possible future, in a riveting script full of stylish action and thought-provoking concepts. If there is any justice in this world, The Machine becomes known as a science fiction classic.
Writer and director Caradog James has crafted a futuristic thriller that shows a deep understanding of the actual issues involved with artificial intelligence and its unintended consequences. Set in a dystopian future in which China and the West have entered into a Cold War of sorts, both sides are racing to build an artificial intelligence smart enough to become a reliable cybernetic soldier on the battlefield. The endgame for the West is to produce a cybernetic organism akin to the terminators, hoping to sway the balance of power with unstoppable robotic soldiers.
Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is the head of the project aimed at developing this weapon. A brilliant scientist, he’s more interested in developing the AI for his own personal reasons than handing over a super-weapon to the military. McCarthy has a dying daughter and his computer research with the military could help her. The military happens to have developed the only quantum computer, a necessity for the complex artificial intelligences McCarthy hopes to build. It is an ambitious take on future computing presented in an utterly plausible manner.
McCarthy hires Ava (Caity Lotz) as his assistant, a gifted scientist that has come up with a computer program that can pass the Turing test. The Turing test is used to determine if a machine can approximate the behavior of a human through text-based conversation, simulating intelligence. Ava’s appearance becomes the basis for Machine’s physical body. ‘Machine’ is the cybernetic organism given life by McCarthy, a new-born artificial intelligence with human-like emotions. It is an intelligent machine with the spark of life in an invulnerable human body.
The military sees Machine’s obvious application as the ultimate soldier. They don’t care about Machine’s personality or intelligence as a revolutionary breakthrough, hoping to immediately employ its abilities as a killer. McCarthy realizes the power at Machine’s command, hoping to guide the new artificial life down a less violent path.
The Machine deals with rather heady concepts pulled from computer science and philosophy. It’s the rare film that gets everything correct in its science; there is no hand-waving of pseudo-science to fool uninformed audiences. This is informed speculation that leads to a story firmly grounded in our current understanding of artificial intelligence and mathematics, a hallmark of the best science fiction. The Machine is not dry or tedious for such a heavy journey into these fields, the narrative is weaved throughout with stylish action and a very cool sense of design.
The Machine is so well constructed as a movie that it should have something to offer everyone. This is not solely a genre exercise meant for fans. This might sound crazy but its thoughtful story and nuanced handling of the philosophical problems within the artificial intelligence field are the best put to film since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The brilliant British thriller deserves wider recognition and popularity.
Small imprint XLRator Media has handled their Blu-ray releases in the past with a touch of class. The Machine is no exception though its native cinematography falls shy of a reference presentation for Blu-ray. Properly presented in its native scope aspect ratio in solid 1080p resolution, the low-budget film is primarily set inside a gigantic bunker. The VFX look surprisingly sophisticated with very nice integration.
The raw AVC video encode is somewhat perfunctory as the 90-minute main feature is confined to a BD-25, resulting in slight banding and minor chroma noise in a few darker scenes. The subdued color palette leads to a normal contrast and acceptable shadow delineation. These are not the inky black levels of reference video but a flatter experience that help add to The Machine’s atmosphere.
The transfer has not been tampered with by filtering or undue processing. There are no examples of visible filtering or edge enhancement, leading to a clean picture with solid definition and very fine detail. Technically there is nothing the matter with The Machine’s picture quality, it is a decent presentation of average depth and sharpness.
The only soundtrack is a 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless option that sounds similar to other recent, low-budget releases. Tom Raybould’s score is a nice touch, using a combination of synthesized instruments and electronic noises that are a perfect fit for The Machine’s overarching themes. There are no serious problems understanding dialogue but the audio’s wide dynamic range might lead one to ride the volume control once in a while. The robotic noises made by the wired soldiers are quite effective in their eeriness, the recording is quite robust and powerful. This is a fairly standard surround mix for a low-budget production, including some token directional cues around the soundstage.
Optional English SDH subs are provided which display in a white font remaining inside the scope framing at all times. No dub is available on this BD.
This edition feels incomplete without a commentary from Caradog James, it would have been fascinating to hear his decision-making process in more depth. The Behind-the-scenes featurette is nicely edited but probably should have had more input from the actors.
Theatrical Trailer (01:32 in HD)
Inside The Machine (15:34 in HD) – Director Caradog James candidly discusses the film and how it was constructed. The principal actors and a key producer are also interviewed about making the film, painting a decent picture of how The Machine was made. Some brief footage of Caity Lotz shooting her stunt scenes as Machine are shown. I liked this featurette but for a movie of such intellectual rigor, it is a bit shallow.
XLRator Media Trailers (04:58 in HD) – Trailers for Iron Clad 2, The Human Race, and Outpost 3 all precede the main menu.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.