British science-fiction, like the horror genre, has an unexpectedly rich history. From the B-movies of the 1950s right up to the production on recent hits like Gravity, Britain has produced plenty of exciting and challenging additions to the genre – but often on a more limited budget. Director Caradog W James’s The Machine carries on this tradition. Starring Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz, The Machine is a story of artificial intelligence being created in a time of war and the moral implications of it.

What’s It About? Dr Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens), a highly gifted computer programmer, is working for the MoD in a futuristic Britain engaged in cold war with China. By day he creates technology to help injured soldiers regain their mobility and mental ability, but his true desire is to help his daughter whose health is ailing rapidly. Part of his work involves advancing the creation of true artificial intelligence, which is how scientist Ava (Caity Lotz) becomes his colleague. Her work is some of the most advanced in the field, but as she begins on the project she realises that something much darker is going on.

Verdict: This film has a limited budget, but manages to create a unique and slick visual style that complements the complex themes of the story. The script is brimming with ideas about the implications of artificial life existing alongside humanity. Questions arise throughout the story about the very nature of what it means to be alive – is “being human” really the only criteria that defines conscious life? And more practical questions about morality, communication and violence. Is it moral to create intelligence that you have total control over? Can a machine ever be taught to understand right and wrong? This is all set within the wider story of war and conflict, which gives the film a distinct feel of tension.

The visual style echoes this. The lighting is fantastic. The way shots are constructed, using clever composition and integrating with the technology within the story itself, adds atmosphere. The design and special effects work well. The machine, itself, has impressive effects that are seamlessly woven in. It’s all set up well to provide a backdrop to the real focus of the story – the relationships between the central characters.

Stephens is solid in a role that doesn’t give him much chance to let up on the emotion, and Caity Lotz especially gives a truly versatile performance. But, whilst the relationships between the characters pushes the story forward, it’s also one of its weaknesses. In parts this film has the capacity to genuinely shock and keep you on the edge of your seat, and the tension is stretched out well, but the central relationships also require moments of hope and borderline sentimentality that don’t always work in the disturbing wider story. It’s this slightly uneven feel that also occasionally pushes credibility a bit far.

Extras: The DVD release follows a week after the cinematic release and contains five featurettes that explore the production process – everything from the actors to the stunts and talks specifically about how the filmmakers produced those high-quality special effects for under £1 million.

Final Words: A solid addition to the sci-fi genre, this film is a slick and intense look at the morality and implications of artificial intelligence being created by people with the power to abuse it. The filmmakers have managed to create a complex thematic story with a great visual style on a surprisingly low budget, which is no mean feat. But an uneven tone and occasional moments of improbability don’t let this quite reach the heights it was aiming for.

Rating: 3 / 5      

The Machine is in UK cinemas and VoD on 21 March 2014 and available on Blu-ray and DVD from 31 March 2014.