British sci-fi film The Machine (2013), written and directed by Caradog W. James, is set during a new Cold War with China. Scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is tasked with finding the most convincing artificial intelligence implant to build super-efficient combat androids for the Ministry of Defence.
The enigmatic replication of human presence via artificial means is a stalwart sci-fi theme. Today, the technology is not so much a vision of the future as a reflection of contemporary research, as robotics genius Hiroshi Ishiguro has shown with his development of his uncanny Geminoids which have a lifelike presence and are designed purely to be used in benign social settings. Compassionate creativity in opposition to the mindless use of this technology in the military sector is at the root of The Machine. McCarthy and his co-researcher Ava (played by Caity Lotz) find that their talents can only be securely and richly funded by defence budgets. Ava is a hyper-intelligent robotics scientist, who, through her sophisticated programming, generates a softly spoken deluxe computer capable of emotional nuances of wonder and contemplation that outshine her clumsy contemporaries. Together they work on a super computer that will function as the brain for an assassin droid to help fight the Chinese.
The film scores on its remote, minimal style. Nicolai Brüel, director of photography, creates some brooding pools of light that shape the mysterious, dark, labyrinthine base, which are remindful of the nuclear genre classic Edge of Darkness (1985), directed by Martin Campbell. There is also an interesting subtext around the voice. McCarthy has been experimenting with ‘rescued’ veterans with brain trauma. They are given implants to restore some of their sensorium. The implant renders them mute but they have evolved to communicate via a covert language that sounds like garbled electronic data generated by transmitted thoughts – a glitch in the hardware that enables them to form a rebellion. Through this, the filmmakers signal that in a not so distant future there will be ‘a new order’ organised via speech disguised as silence.
In all, The Machine is a stylish contender among sci-fi films that explore the inscrutable question of whether artificial consciousness can exist. Its contemporary edge comes from the fact that it highlights the rapid technological development that has taken place. What was once thought of as science fiction is now science fact.
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