I was once told that the amount of data you could fit on a microchip doubles every 2 years. It’s referred to as Moore’s law, and the more I think about it, the scarier it gets. When you boil down human beings to their most fundamental brain activity, we essentially get a gigantic, almost infinite list of yes/no decisions – the key word there being “almost.” There will be a point, maybe far off, maybe closer than we’d like to think, where an entire person’s thought process will be able to fit on a hard drive.
It’s a slightly creepy prospect, more than matched by the proposition of artificial intelligence as a now genuinely possible scientific breakthrough. Humanity’s capacity to learn is limited by their mortal bounds – our brains can only think so fast and hold so much information – but this theoretic super computer has no such restraints. If a machine is able to teach itself to learn, it can teach itself to learn faster. If it can teach itself to learn faster, it can teach itself to learn even faster, and so on in a sort of information based version of the Grey Goo scenario. Basically, computers are bloody scary – but The Machine is far too busy having fun to delve deep into such things, so don’t worry your pretty little head about it.
While the film’s grim and grey visuals may suggest some kind of portent, The Machine only ever brushes on the kind of hefty questions dealt with in much greater depth by the likes of Blade Runner and A.I.. In reality, it’s more of an incredibly pretty throwback to the old-school single concept B-movies of the 80s and 90s, complete with the ever-solid 90 minute runtime and dialogue that’s constantly flirting with all things hammy.
And at the center of it all is that sci-fi trope for the ages: the sentient robot. It’s a character that fascinated popular culture in the second half of the 21st century. From the hilarity of the self-aware nuclear bombs in Dark Star to AM’s bitter hyper-computer in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, these emotion-infused buckets of bolts come in all shapes and sizes. In this case, it’s modeled on a scientist (Caity Lotz), one of a team of inordinately good-looking tech geeks contracted by the British Ministry of Defence to build murderous robot stuff.
The inevitably evil CEO, wordless henchmen and sinister military operations are all central to the plot, just as they should be in this sort of enjoyable froth. And of course, there’s the buzzword foreign enemy of the century, as the Chinese take up the mantel that the Russians held for so long during in the Cold War. It’s all is silly as it sounds, and while The Machine does ask plenty of questions – and layers them in lots of impressive techno jargon – it never really delves any deeper than their surfaces. It talks up a good game, including basic teleological vs. deontological debate, but it’s all a cover for generic nature of the movie hiding beneath all the whiffle.
So, with any possibility of seeing The Machine as a resonant and powerful meditation on technology’s progression chucked out the window, what’s left? For one, it’s absolutely gorgeous – in a bizarre reflection of the film’s subject matter, the technology on offer to filmmakers is advancing so fast that Gareth Edwards was able to whip up all the special effects for 2010’s Monsters in his front room. The Machine‘s heavily stylised pallet of greys and whites, as well as its occasionally stunning visual effects work, belie just how little director Caradog W. James and his team were left to work with.
And what’s underneath all this glorious surface? While it adds up to less than you’d hope, The Machine is still a delightfully silly B-movie at heart, running a gambit of cliches on the way to a climax which alternates between the ridiculous, the nonsensical and the downright hilarious. It’s high concept sci-fi made with a very, very low brow that occasionally verges on parody, complete with an awkwardly crow-barred Hamlet reference and musical cues that couldn’t have been more telegraphed if they hit you with a baseball bat.
Spike Jonze’s Her picked up an Oscar, Transcendence looks set to be one of the summer’s hottest tickets and The Machine makes up the gap in between – it’s official, the computers are taking over. But while Her was a wonderful meditation on love in its many forms, and Transcendence looks more bombastic with every new trailer, The Machine just does exactly what it says on the tin: namely “What would happen if we created a super-intelligent, super badass robot lady?” I for one love this kind of tosh, but it’s not going to be for everyone. The Machine isn’t as smart as it’d like you to think, but it’s efficient, very flashy and ends in one of the most gloriously and unintentionally hilarious action climaxes in recent memory.
It may look rather serious, but underneath The Machine's shiny and po-faced exterior is an enjoyable, silly little B-movie.