It's only a coincidence that I'm catching The Machine a few short days after Wally Pfister's Transcendence, as both tell a similar, well-worn sci-fi story of artificial intelligences and shadowy agencies. They also flirt with questions of our own humanity, especially our arrogance, in the face of overwhelming technology, but The Machine's obvious adoration for robotic advancement mixed with star Caity Lotz's butt-kicking action make it more of a success than the hapless Transcendence comes close to achieving.
Lotz, who many are familiar with thanks to her acrobatic prowess as Black Canary on Arrow, plays Ava, who has joined with with stick-in-the-mud developer Vincent (Toby Stephens) to create the most advanced artificial intelligence ever seen. The story is largely set inside a mysterious facility during a time when the British are at war with the Chinese, and the first to come up with a sentient machine will have the upper hand. The facility is a cross between a post-apocalyptic bunker and Area 51, where secrets are held as tightly as their cache of weapons. One of those secrets is the human source for all of the failed experiments that have come before, taken from the corpses of fallen soldiers. Hey, this is the defense department, after all, and they intend to use their sentient machines for war.
However, Vincent has his own personal reasons for doing what he does, and they involve helping his mentally-challenged daughter. Ava is a willing participant in this goal, and the two become close just as they achieve a breakthrough. But not long after developing the perfect A.I., Ava's tragic death rocks Vincent to his core. Unwilling to give her up completely, he implants her brainwaves into the sentient robotic shell. The Ava-machine emerges naked and alone, vulnerable, as a child being birthed into this world. Writer/director Caradog James finds many visual connections between the machine's innocent, inquisitive nature and a child's yearning for knowledge, aided by the always-compelling Lotz. At first her movements as the machine are stiff, restricted, like someone unsure of how their joints are supposed to function. But as the machine grows more aware and takes on human emotions, the steadiness evolves to the point where she becomes an effective fighting force-of-one.
And that need to fight definitely emerges in the final act, when the government comes looking to claim their sentient weapon. Lotz is a skilled, fluid combatant, and she puts her talents to good use. However, this is also the portion of the film bereft of anything new, which wouldn't be so bad if a deeper bond between Ava and Vincent had been established. Part of it is Stephens, who lacks Lotz's presence, but it's also that the director is more interested in the machine than the humans. Still, The Machine has a lot going for it and mostly achieves its modest goal of being a thought-provoking film for fans of the genre.