Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Machine

  Reviewing favorites and guilty pleasures is all well and dandy, but this is the kind of movie that my blog exists to promote: a damn good movie that nobody seems to be talking about. The Machine is a sterling example. I'm a party to a group of fellow cinephiles that enjoy movies as much as I (which is far more frequent that my posting lately would seem to suggest) and this movie hasn't come up in discussion with any of them. It seems to have flown right under the radar, and straight onto Netflix. Which is both a blessing and a curse. Netflix is about as popular now as cable TV was in the 90's. Yet, not every movie on cable TV was worth watching. Same goes for Netflix. I can imagine this foreign Sci-Fi gem gets lost among the busy thumbnail shuffle on the ever-popular streaming site, and that... is a shame.

  The Machine is about a scientist trying to create a functioning artificial intelligence, the catch is however, that he's using military funding which will obviously create some serious tension when he inevitably succeeds. Simple enough premise, yeah? It's layered with a wealth of sub-plots that help to flesh out this semi-futuristic world. Stuff about a war with China, the scientist's ailing daughter, and even a new evolved race of cyborgs. However outrageous this all sounds, the movie handles it all extremely well. One could even say it's pretty understated. It's not an action movie, or a horror movie, despite having elements of both in it. In the case of The Machine, this is a movie that is pure science fiction. Which is SO refreshing in a day and age where Transformers has three sequels.

  It's hard to ignore the Terminator influences on the movie. This whole thing seems like something that Arnie would show up in a time bubble to try and stop. This is a precursor to Judgment Day, folks. I kept waiting for a Cyberdyne name drop. Or maybe a Skynet tease. Of course, both things were entirely out of the question, and I doubt the filmmakers were trying to allude to that franchise at all, but it's really saying something when this is a better "Terminator" movie than the last two Terminator sequels. The movie tackles the most obvious theme of all in a story like this, at what point is a thinking machine... more than a machine? The movie gives us a machine we can care about right next to Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and the T-800 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  (Both characters frequently came to mind when watching the movie, which is not a bad thing at all...)

  This of course is due in no small part to the fantastic performance given by Caity Lotz as the machine itself. (herself?) Some of the imagery in having a female android/cyborg/robot being in any movie is inextricably linked to the rather high profile 2003 Terminator threequel, Rise of the Machines. In that movie, Kristanna Loken played the T-X, a deadly cyborg intent on killing franchise lynchpin, John Connor. Caity Lotz instantly makes Loken's T-X an outdated hunk of junk. Beyond her Data-eque turn as a childlike android, Lotz is given scenes where she has to be a stone cold badass military killing machine. She sells these scenes with such a stunning physicality. But it works that much better because we know she's so much more than this violence, we actually want something better for the character. Of course this is somewhat of an unfair comparison because Lotz's character calls for an incredibly emotive performance, while Loken was able to coast by on a stern glare and a power walk for 90 minutes.

  Lotz steals every single scene she's in, providing us with a glimpse into what an Arnold-less Terminator outing could have been. She's a commanding onscreen presence whether she's kicking ass, or tugging at our heartstrings. It's fortunate Lotz has so much screen time though because I do feel like her costars were a bit stiff. The scientist, played by Toby Stephens isn't given a whole lot to work with, but as he is actually the foremost main character, he left something to be desired. Don't get me wrong, he was likeable enough to where his relationship with the machine was a joy to watch unfold and evolve... but in retrospect, you can barely recall anything but his dour demeanor throughout most of the movie. In that light, it's easy to see how Lotz could've stole the show away from just about anyone.

  The scientist is a generic role though. Which is sad, but it just seemed to be underwritten. It could've gone to Ewan McGregor, Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, or hell, even Bruce Campbell and it probably wouldn't have made a difference. Stephens does admirably, but his character sadly was probably never meant to really share the spotlight with Lotz. Or maybe I'm reading this entirely wrong. Maybe his character was well written and he was just stiff in the role, or maybe it is the other way around. Nevertheless, no matter how you spin it, we should be more invested in someone we've spent the lion's share of the movie with. He's heartfelt when he needs to be, but something was just... lacking. Again, thankfully Lotz more than makes up for this deficit, and with flying colors no less.

  The movie manages to frighten us, not just with visceral scares, but with higher concept themes as well. As well it should. True A.I. is a scary thing, and had the movie not touched on 'why' it's such a scary thing, it would've been a lame movie. This presents something of a dilemma though. There are certain must-have themes in a movie about A.I., yet you don't want to sit through something that is content to mimic the dozen other movies you've seen about sentient machines. Thankfully though movie doesn't insult us by banging on familiar drums nonstop, it takes familiar themes and presents them under a fresh light, and a from a fresh perspective. A lot of this is played out on a character level though. The story really is just a vehicle for these characters to interact. It's not overly ambitious, and I think that's good. It could've been disastrous.

  This is a movie that engenders comparisons to movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator, and it's sequels. These comparisons are total compliments. For a movie I didn't even hear about til last month, this was fantastic. The movie is gritty at times, heartfelt at others, and even downright beautiful when you least expect it. It surprises you with moments of sincerity and beauty when other movies would be content to chuck another generic action scene at you. For these reasons, and many more, I can't suggest The Machine enough. It's far from perfect, and it has issues with the story, the plot, and even it's whole third act. Yet it was more artful, enjoyable, thought provoking, impressive, and thoroughly satisfying experience than anything I've actually taken time out to watch in a long long time.

  I can't say for sure, but I'm thinking this would probably be a good alternative to the new Johnny Depp vehicle, Transcendent. I'll let you wonder which one had the bigger budget and how much that even matters in the end.

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