REVIEW: THE MACHINE

CAST

Toby Stephens (Severance)
Caity Lotz (Legends of Tomorrow)
Denis Lawson (Star Wars)
Sam Hazeldine (The Huntsman)
Pooneh Hajimohammadi (Words and Gods)
John-Paul Macleod (Calander Girls)
Siwan Morris (Dark Signal)

In the not-too-distant-future, Britain is embroiled in a cold war with China. Scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is in charge of giving cybernetic implants to brain-damaged soldiers; while they seem to become mute soon after, they regain all their physical and mental faculties. He hopes that he can use this technology on his daughter, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disorder.

Then he meets Ava (Caity Lotz), a brilliant young scientist who has created an A.I. which is almost human. With her help, Vincent begins work on a sentient android by scanning her brain into a quantum computer… and after she’s unexpectedly murdered, Vincent uses her likeness and brain scan for The Machine (also played by Caity Lotz), a gynoid who is almost indistinguishable from a human.

In fact, she’s a little TOO human — she feels emotions like fear, love and remorse, and has a sense of morality that Vincent encourages. She also is capable of communicating with the cyborgs. Since the sleazy government/corporate boss Thomson (Denis Lawson) wants a mindless killing machine, he’s not too pleased by this. So he demands that Vincent lobotomize away Machine’s humanity.

The plot of “The Machine” is one we’ve seen before — someone builds a robot who turns out to be more human than expected — but Caradog W. James does an excellent job without being too preachy. It certainly helps that he includes some very realistic aspects to the story, such as conflicts with China and medical advances that are actually plausible (such as prosthetic limbs connected to the nervous system).

And James uses that bedrock to build a very simple yet emotionally complicated story, which slinks along in moody, tense scenes that click together by the end. The movie is rather slow at times, focusing mostly on Vincent discovering how human Machine is while Thomson tries to corrupt her. After so many quiet scenes, the gruesome and chaotic climax comes as a bit of a shock.

The movie was made for less than a million pounds, and at times it shows — almost the entire story takes place in a military base, with some generic hallways and a big leaky airline hangar. However, the special effects are beautifully done, and James cloaks the bleak sets in shadows and bright lights, puddles of glimmering water and red, foggy alert lights. This is also a movie that heavily relies on its actors, and both Stephens and Lotz are absolutely sublime here. Stephens plays Vincent as a prickly, worn-out man whose only enthusiasm seems to be for saving his daughter, until he encounters the pure humanity of Machine. Lotz is also quite excellent — she plays Machine with a wide-eyed, childlike wonder at the world, which she maintains even after coming face-to-face with its horrors.

There’s also a good supporting role for Pooneh Hajimohammadi, who gives an effectively silent performance as the leader of the cyborgs. And Lawson also deserves some praise for being a very plausibly despicable villain — like the real-life military, he doesn’t care about wounded veterans or innocent people. He just wants obedient super-soldiers and new ways to kill. It’s all too realistic. While the concept is not new, “The Machine” is a slow, powerful little sci-fi movie that sets itself in a chillingly plausible future world. If nothing else, watch it for Stephens and Lotz’s excellent performances.

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REVIEW: SEVERANCE

CAST
Danny Dyer (Straightheads)
Laura Harris (Dead Like Me)
Tim McInnerny (Notting Hill)
Toby Stephens (The Machine)
Claudie Blakeley (Gosford Park)
Andy Nyman (Black Death)
The film opens with George (David Gilliam) and two women (Juli Drajkó and Judit Viktor) running through the woods. The women fall into a large pit trap while George is caught by a snare. As he hangs helplessly, a masked man approaches and disembowels him with a knife.
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What is later revealed as some days prior to this, the European Sales division of Palisade Defence military arms corporation are on a bus to a team-building weekend at a “luxury lodge” in the Mátra Mountains of Hungary. When a fallen tree blocking the road halts the bus’s progress, the driver (Sándor Boros) refuses to take a dirt road through the woods and, after an argument, drives off leaving the group to walk the remaining distance to the lodge. Eventually the group reaches the lodge, which is old and in serious disrepair, but the manager Richard (Tim McInnerny) convinces the wary but tired group to enter. Inside, Harris (Toby Stephens) discovers a file cabinet full of cryptic Palisade documents, written in Russian. The group discusses the documents, leading Harris to relate a story he’d heard about the lodge: the lodge was previously a mental institution, and in the early 20th century a Palisade-made nerve gas was used to clear it out after the inmates took over. Jill (Claudie Blakley) responds with the story she’d heard: the lodge was a “reeducation center” for Russian war criminals, and after an escape a Palisade-made nerve gas was used to clear escapees out of nearby buildings. Both mention a lone survivor who swore revenge on Palisade. Steve (Danny Dyer) starts to tell his own story about the lodge’s past as a clinic staffed by busty nurses when he finds a human tooth in the meat pie the group is eating for dinner. Chastising Gordon (Andy Nyman) for serving a pie he just found in the kitchen, everyone goes to bed.
 That night Jill sees someone looking into the lodge from the trees. Though nobody is found outside, everyone but Richard agrees that they should leave the lodge. The next morning Richard grudgingly sends Harris and Jill to the top of the hill to call the bus driver back, on the condition that the rest participate in a team-building game of paintball. Reaching the hill, Harris and Jill find the bus abandoned and the bus driver dead in a nearby creek. Back at the lodge, the game of paintball has just finished when Gordon steps into a bear trap. After several failed attempts by Steve and Billy (Babou Ceesayu) to pry the trap open, Gordon’s left leg is cut through completely under the knee. Harris and Jill arrive in the bus, load everyone in and head back for town. On the way, a spike strip is thrown in front of the bus, which causes it to crash. Harris is thrown clear of the bus in the crash, and is decapitated by a masked killer with a machete. Jill is captured and tied to a tree, then gagged, doused with gasoline and burned alive. The rest discover Harris’s body, prompting them to head for the lodge to hide for the night.
 While Steve and Maggie (Laura Harris) smoke, a masked figure (Levente Törköly) “quietly” grabs Gordon and carries him into the basement. Discovering Gordon’s absence and a newly opened door, the four head into the basement which leads to an underground prison. Through one door Billy and Maggie find the now-dead Gordon who has had the Palisade logo carved into his torso and a now-unmasked killer who fires a shotgun at them. The two hide in a nearby cell, where Billy dies from a chest wound. Steve hides on the second floor while Richard escapes out the back into the woods. While the killer searches for Steve, Maggie sneaks up on him with a large knife she took from the prison in the basement, but she falls through the rickety floor. The killer turns round and takes aim at Maggie, but, at the last second, Steve saves her by impaling the killer through the back. The killer falls down and becomes lodged in the main level floor, and Maggie takes his shotgun and shoots the killer in the head.
 Maggie and Steve exit the lodge believing they are safe, but discover that a group of several more armed, Russian-speaking killers are awaiting them outside. Maggie shoots one before he can fire on them, and the two run into the woods. They come across Richard, who has stepped on a Palisade-made land mine and cannot move without detonating it. Richard guides Maggie and Steve through the minefield. The killers know that the area is a minefield and do not enter; they use a fallen branch to pass over the minefield close to Richard and torment him with insults and stones as they pass overhead. Accepting his situation Richard does his best to save the others and steps off the mine, blowing up himself along with two of the killers. Steve and Maggie come to another lodge, the real Palisade lodge. Inside they find their boss George, who is partying with two escorts Steve ordered via the Internet earlier. George brings out a prototype missile launcher and fires it at the approaching killers, but the missile locks on to a passing commercial jet instead, destroying it. The five run into the woods, leading to the events shown in the beginning of the film. Maggie is snared, then about to be molested by a killer, but manages to smash his head with a rock. Steve encounters two attackers and gets beaten and stabbed, but eventually kills them both with a knife and a submachine gun. Maggie is chased by a flamethrower-wielding killer into an abandoned prison camp, filled with crates bearing the Palisade logo. There, Maggie breaks her leg, but is saved when one of the escorts, rescued by Steve, arrives and shoots the man. Steve, Maggie and the escorts make it to a rowboat on the shore of the nearby lake, and as they paddle off to safety Steve jokingly quips, “Foursome?”
Good performances all round, a good script and overall good pacing make this film never boring. It may be a tad predictable in the ‘whos gonna die next’ kinda way and the romantic subplot, but the fun is in seeing how it unravels.