Low budget filmmakers tend to avoid high-concept science fiction, especially pitches that borrow heavily from the likes of Blade Runner, The Terminator and Robocop. Caradog James must like to mix it up a little, his feature debut was a Welsh comedy about racism. James wrote, directed and produced The Machine, a gritty sci-fi thriller that impressed audiences and critics alike at the Raindance Film Festival.
In the not so distant future, Britain - still gripped by recession - is embroiled in a cold war with China. The Ministry of Defence has been working on a mechanised soldier, an intelligent robot with both the skills to do battle and the ability to keep the peace. Kind of like Robocop, only far, far prettier. Lead scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) has his own agenda; he plans to use the new technology to aid his sick daughter, Mary. Early tests end in disaster, so Vincent pairs with another scientist, a beautiful young American called Ava (Caity Lotz), whose software could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of a conscious machine.
Meanwhile Thomson (Denis Lawson), Vincent’s scheming boss, is playing along so that he can harness the power of this 'super soldier' for his own financial gain. When Thomson’s henchmen kill Ava, it’s up to Vincent to finish their work and bring The Machine to life. As The Machine shows increasing signs of consciousness, not to mention fancy footwork on the dance floor, Vincent’s daughter slowly slips away. Threatened by The Machine’s intelligence, Thomson plots to modify her program and dehumanise her. And we all know how that worked out for Omni Consumer Products.
Caity Lotz has been a busy girl, most notably in 2012's horror hit, The Pact, MTV mockumentary, Death Valley, and TV smashes, Mad Men and Arrow. She plays two roles here, though admittedly, one of the characters doesn't last very long. Playing the part of a robot can't be easy, but Lotz brings vulnerability, innocence and - when called upon - kick ass sensibilities to a character that could potentially make or break your movie. Casting Lotz was a smart move though, and while we run the risk of selling her short, looks alone should ensure The Machine an audience within a certain demographic.
Vincent McCarthy, played by Die Another Day's Toby Stephens, isn't your typical male lead, made all the more apparent by his lack of fighting skills. That's left to Lotz' Machine; her dance background and martial arts training give her the physical edge required of the films closing stages. Vincent is a morally conflicted scientist, driven by the love of his sick daughter. Stephens underplays the role at every turn, a little too sombre for some perhaps, but quietly affecting all the same. Lawson on the other hand, becomes more and more villainess as the film goes on, relishing the change in direction as Thomson reveals his true nature, no matter how clichéd his motives might be.
At times, The Machine is a visually stunning piece of work. James has achieved the unthinkable, infusing his low budget offering with special effects worthy of Hollywood. Most of the movie takes place in darkness, hidden away in secret bunkers and science laboratories. The money shots however, are striking, stunningly realised by James and his crew. Lotz might look great dressed in skin-tight latex, but it's the dreamlike imagery - no matter how infrequent - that impresses most.
With familiar plot twists, the occasional smash and grab, and a final third that amounts to little more than 'feisty heroine picks off a bunch of hapless goons one by one', The Machine does lose its way from time to time. It's not like we haven't been here before, but you have to admire James for pulling the wool over our eyes with his exquisite box of tricks. If nothing else, The Machine shows signs of great promise, and we can't wait to see what he achieves with greater financial backing. He certainly has our attention for now.
The Machine is by no means greater than the sum of its parts, but oh my, what parts.