My initial impression of The Machine is that it was the once promised English-language remake of the French La Machine (1994) about a device that allows a psychiatrist and a serial killer to swap bodies only for the latter to take over the formers life. A glance over the dvd cover proves that this is not the case and The Machine is an original work. The second impression one had is that it was a copycat timed to come out around the same time as the more high-profile Transcendence (2014) in that both films cover similar themes. This turns out not to be the case either as The Machine was released some time earlier. My disappointment with Transcendence caused me to take my time to find the enthusiasm to dip into The Machine. All I can say is that I wish I had done so earlier.
The Machine has you captivated from the opening scenes. We meet John Paul McLeod who has a large chunk of his head missing and is apparently brain dead until Toby Stephens activates an implant that brings him to life. He is then placed through a series of cognition tests before he unexpectedly grabs a soldiers gun and slaughters most of the personnel present. In the next few scenes, we see Toby Stephens sitting through a series of Turing Tests and then recruiting Caity Lotz to his program (despite the fact that her A.I. made the wrong choice). In the next scenes, we see the two of them giving Sam Hazeldine a series of prosthetic arms and placing these through tests as he touches objects, crushing marbles and sifting sand with them before unexpectedly asking to touch Caity Lotzs hand. One of the great pluses of these scenes is Toby Stephens whom I have regarded as a hugely underrated actor more deserving of a far greater profile than he has. Here he does a mix of cool detachment and dashing handsomeness to perfection.
You feel that the script is hurrying through scenes to get where it wants in particular, Caity Lotzs murder and its aftermath is passed over quickly, while the construction of her android body is not even depicted before we are next seeing it being activated. The films most absorbing scenes are those with The Machine coming to life and being run through a battery of tests. There is an unnerving scene where a container is put over her face and a spider (the human Caitys greatest fear) placed inside it as she reacts in fear, as all the while Toby Stephens and Denis Lawson detachedly talk in the foreground. Or where a lab assistant is sent in wearing a clown mask (another of her fears) and she uncomprehendingly reacts by killing him.
Caradog James creates a superb visual poetry to the scenes with the android splashing in puddles in the empty hangar and then breaking into a dazzling dance routine, which are made all the more amazing by the fact that her body is lit up from inside by flashes of coloured electronics. There is also a fine scene where she conducts a series of grimaces and Toby Stephens tells her she should smile and she responds by saying I am smiling. (It is in this that the film hits on one of the greater realities about an android in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), Data had a problem with contractions (something even a contemporary word processor is capable of translating) and yet had no trouble with facial expressions. In reality, it would be the other way around an A.I. could easily deal with grammar and colloquialisms but would have far greater difficulty trying to work out which sets of facial muscles would be more appropriate to activate as a reaction to a given emotional situation).
The failing of The Machine is that it creates a fantastic first and second act but falls apart when it comes to the third act. Denis Lawson gives a wonderfully nasty performance that makes you loathe him intensely there is a particularly fascinating scene where he tries to persuade Caity Lotz to kill a Chinese spy in the same tones that one might talk down to a child but the film still falls into cliches of sinister military thinking only of the weapons potential of a discovery. Up until this point, The Machine was being everything that Transcendence and the equally disappointing Chappie (2015) should have been. It is as though the backers came in not unlike the way the military commandeer the android in the story and demanded that the film have an identifiable villain and end on a cliche action climax where the machines turn the tables on the humans. A shame as it mars what is otherwise three-quarters of a really good science-fiction film. Ex Machina (2015) came along a couple of years later and did the basic plot here to perfection.