In the near future — oh so near — the West is mired in a cold war with China and the U.K. is in deep recession. But AI scientist Vincent (Toby Stephens: Severance) has an unlimited budget for his MOD project: developing an AI brain for a robot soldier for the war that, his boss (Denis Lawson: The Wee Man) assures him, “is coming.” And when American researcher Ava (Caity Lotz) brings him her uniquely smart AI program, it might be the final piece in the puzzle that Vincent has been trying to solve… Welsh writer-director Caradog W. James has crafted, on an apparently tiny budget, a visually intriguing science fiction drama — set almost entirely in an underground bunker on a remote military base, it oozes a sort of bleak chic I haven’t seen before — but one that lets a script that starts off smart and even elegant slip into the shoddy and familiar. For instance, Vincent tells the newly arrived Ava a lie about the work they’re doing to cover up some insidious aspects of it, but it’s a lie that Ava will inevitably uncover… and so what seemed to be some potentially challenging slipperiness on Vincent’s part ends up as nothing but a cheap driver of the plot. The truly thrilling early scene, for another instance, in which Vincent applies a Turing test to Ava’s AI — to see if it can fool a human into believing it is itself human — devolves into matters of computer consciousness and emotion that Star Trek: The Next Generation has already explored much more fully, and 20 years ago at that. There are some interestingly horrifying things here — such as the soldiers with devastating head injuries, including Suri (Pooneh Hajimohammadi) and James (Sam Hazeldine: The Monuments Men), who have gotten a brain boost from implants Vincent invented — but the film’s initial ambitions seem forgotten by the end. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the film is that while Star Trek had to project its speculation about AI centuries into the future, The Machine is utterly plausible in setting them as close as the day after tomorrow. It’s a chilling reminder at how far we’ve come in mere decades.
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