Friday, June 20, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MACHINE (2014) and ALMOST HUMAN (2014)

(UK - 2014)

An ambitious film that works wonders with a small budget, THE MACHINE, written and directed by Caradog James, successfully manages to balance the precarious divide between thinking person's sci-fi and winking, reference-heavy '80s homage. In a not-too-distant future, "the West" is at war with China, and the British government is in the business of building and selling mechanized warriors. Widower scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens, one-time Bond villain in DIE ANOTHER DAY) works for the corporation contracted to create the unstoppable "Machines," the foundation of which are the remains of dead soldiers, rewired and programmed to kill. It hasn't been a total success, but McCarthy's heart isn't in his job anyway: unbeknownst to his unscrupulous boss Thomsen (Denis Lawson), he's using government funds to find a cure for his brain-damaged daughter who's suffering from a rare neurological disorder. He's also recently brought Ava (Caity Lotz of THE PACT), an American colleague, onboard to help with the creation of a new Machine, for which she volunteers to be the physical model. But Ava starts asking too many questions about Thomsen's business, prompting Thomsen to have her killed. In what Thomsen calls "a monument to his dead assistants," McCarthy creates a Machine version of Ava, one capable of cognitive reasoning and emotion.  The Ava Machine declares herself "the future," while Thomsen demands McCarthy remove the chip that allows reasoning and feelings.

Of course, the message of the increased dehumanization of society and how computer-programmed cyborgs are now capable of more emotion and genuine feeling than actual humans is a bit obvious and heavy-handed (McCarthy doesn't call the new Ava by her name, instead opting for the much colder "Machine"), but THE MACHINE is the kind of film that becomes an instant cult classic.  Looking like the kind of moody, atmospheric, dystopian sci-fi film you might've blindly rented at the video store in 1991 if their one copy of it was in stock, THE MACHINE throws a lot of influences into the mix:  you'll spot elements of BLADE RUNNER, HARDWARE, and THE LAWNMOWER MAN, along with VHS staples like CIRCUITRY MAN and especially CYBORG 2. The throwback vibe is enhanced magnificently by Tom Raybould's score, a giddy mash-up of John Carpenter synth and 1980s Italian post-nuke that showcases some of the best genre compositions since Tomandandy's work on RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE and Sinoia Caves' hypnotic soundtrack for BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW. When that score drones on and on as Ava rampages through the complex, mowing down Thomsen's army as bullets ricochet off of her, it's pretty damn hard not to have a stupid grin on your face (and Lotz is absolutely terrific here).  To his credit, James keeps that sense of nostalgia in check, and despite the myriad of influences of past works classic and not-so classic, THE MACHINE manages to be its own creation.  It's tough to make films like THE MACHINE and not fall into a trap of your own making, but James pulls it off.  If my references and points of comparison made any sense to you at all and had you nodding in recognition, then this one's not to be missed. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2014)

Like THE MACHINE, the micro-budgeted indie ALMOST HUMAN wears its love of the 1980s on its sleeve, but writer/producer/director/cinematographer Joe Begos ultimately doesn't have much to offer beyond paying homage to his DVD and Blu-ray collection. ALMOST HUMAN isn't very good...in fact, it's mostly pretty terrible, but Begos' enthusiasm isn't in question, and he's probably a lot of fun hosting movie nights at his place. He seems well on his way to winning you over right away by having his production company named Channel 83, a direct nod to VIDEODROME's Civic TV graphic, by breaking out some John Carpenter-esque synth music and having the opening credits in the Carpenter font and dragged out over several minutes a la PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but then ALMOST HUMAN almost sets a land speed record for wearing out a welcome. PRINCE is definitely an influence on ALMOST HUMAN, but it draws even more from the likes of THE THING, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE HIDDEN, and XTRO. Set in the late '80s for no particular reason and with little attention to period detail other than the background decor of VCRs, cassettes, and land lines (characters sport present-day hipster beards and there's not a mullet in sight), the film opens with Seth (Graham Skipper) claiming his buddy was abducted into the sky by a powerful blue light.  His skeptical pal Mark (Josh Ethier) is soon taken by the same light, seemingly never to return.  Two years later, Mark's girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) has moved on, but Seth is still suffering from nightmares and nosebleeds, and has a premonition that Mark is returning.  Sure enough, a pair of hunters find Mark's nude body in the woods, covered in an extraterrestrial ooze and possessed by an alien force. "Mark" goes on a killing spree, collecting bodies for cocoons on his way back to town to impregnate Jen with his alien seed, while Seth fails to convince anyone that something bad is about to happen.  ALMOST HUMAN might work if any of the actors were good, but they're strictly amateur-night across-the-board. The material is spread so thin that Begos has to run a ludicrously slow-moving eight-minute closing credits crawl just to get this to 79 minutes. Things pick up a bit in the splatter-and-slime-drenched climax, and the film displays some genuine chutzpah with one of the more icky alien impregnation scenes you're likely to see, but it's too little, too late, and ALMOST HUMAN is a mostly empty experience. Sure, it pays tribute to a lot of great movies and Begos is obviously a die-hard horror nerd, but unlike THE MACHINE, ALMOST HUMAN lacks its own voice.  It gives you plenty of reference points, but that's all it gives you, and by its NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD-inspired finish, you have to question why you're watching what looks a home-movie remake of THE THING or BODY SNATCHERS when you could just be watching the real thing. The poster art is pretty cool, though. (Unrated, 79 mins)

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