Monday, August 19, 2019

The Machine (2013)

Still reeling from the catastrophe that was Alita: Battle Angel, I decided to revisit a festival darling from 2013. Like Alita, The Machine stars a sexy robochick, and like Chappie, it pulls no punches. Unlike Alita and Chappie, this movie doesn’t suck.

The Machine, written and directed by Caradog W. James, isn’t about sportsball or cops ‘n’ robbers, it’s about the Turing Test and the fundamental problems of artificial intelligence. It has a lot in common with Ex Machina (2014). Let me rephrase that: Ex Machina, another great film along similar lines, drew inspiration from The Machine.

Taking the hard sci-fi stance is a risk for the big studios, but there is no risk here. This is a fun sci-fi action movie made by people who know what they’re doing and love it.

The Machine kicks ass with smartly budgeted setpieces and sublime visuals. The pacing reminds the viewer of Trancers, the ’80s sci-fi cult hit from Full Moon. With this amount of craft, even a script as bad as Chappie could bring home the gold.

I’m not saying The Machine is a masterpiece, but there is rarely a dull moment and the mind is engaged by an AI story that feels real. The writer did his homework. Yet, just when you start to think the movie is going to some deep philosophical place, it slams you with bloody good action in confined spaces. There is a rhythm to the thing, and it trains you to pay attention to the hairs on the back of your neck.

The titular machine is played by Caity Lotz, who currently stars in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. That sounds like a great job, but in my opinion, her talents are worth more than a generic superheroine. She does her own stunts, she knocks her lines out of the park, and few actors of her generation are anywhere near the fit she is for these kinds of sci-fi action roles. She makes The Terminator look and sound like scrap metal.


I rarely say this about sci-fi, but my biggest complaint with the action is that there isn’t enough of it. This is not your typical Steven Seagal fare; real, visual, athletic martial arts are used. (Seagal is known for aikido. I know some aikido; it’s basically combat yoga.) The Machine in The Machine uses some kind of karate/kung-fu thing with lots of kicks. It looks like something out of the Street Fighter games; it’s magic.

The movie doesn’t let the story get in the way of what you’re witnessing, but if you’re curious, it’s about a couple of AI researchers at a military facility who create a humanlike killer robot. The robot resembles an attractive young lady in her prime, blank-faced yet emotionally reactive as one would expect in such a character. There seems to be some kind of effect on her voice, which enhances the sense of roboticism. The actress was perfectly cast, and I envy the director’s ability to bring her and the rest of this perfect team together.

This is by no means a perfect film, but it hits 85% of the correct notes and will surprise you if you’re not expecting it. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.

In 2017, something less amazing happened: The director followed up The Machine with a TV movie of the same name. Caity Lotz does not reprise her role, but Katee Sackhoff apparently has a voice part. I have yet to watch it, but few films can live up to the bar set by the original. I don’t know why the director did this, but being a workaday kind of guy with several features under his belt, it hardly surprises me.

Caity Lotz is currently an A-lister with half a million Twitter followers. Caradog W. James at least has his own Wikipedia article (though not a very long one). It may seem like Caradog’s friends have passed him by, but he’s steadily building a multimedia empire at Red and Black Films. The Machine is still a fan favorite and I wish the gang the best in their future endeavors.