Blood Machines has all the hallmarks of a modern, modular piece of content. It’s a three-chapter, 50-minute original presentation of the horror streaming network Shudder, which has it listed like a series on the interface — while also calling it an “experience,” which accurately reflects its occupation of a nebulous space between feature film (which would typically run at least an hour, and usually a lot more) and TV episode (which this sort of resembles in running time, but not in structure or content).
But while its one-shot mini-movie format and streaming delivery is very contemporary, Blood Machines itself is an oddity out of time. It’s a trippy sci-fi adventure that’s open about its retro-’80s aesthetics, yet ultimately doesn’t so much recall a particular ’80s sci-fi movie as the fevered remembrance of one. Maybe that’s why it’s only 50 minutes long. It’s like a film struggling to remember its own connective tissue.
One thing Blood Machines captures about older sci-fi is its willingness to drop the audience into atmospheric action with only some cursory onscreen text to offer background information. Here is that text, which serves mainly to provide a few proper nouns that aren’t clear from the dialogue: “While escaping through space, the Mima, a machine with a defective A.I. system, is overtaken by a warship. Severely damaged by its harpoons, the Mima uses what little strength it has left to break free, but is forced to crash on an unexplored planet, Apus 7.”
With that established, a couple of Apus 7 residents approach the Mima’s wreckage and wind up in a standoff with Vascan (Anders Heinrichsen), one of two crew members on the pursuing ship. They’re interrupted when the form of a nude woman (decorated with a glowing, upside-down cross, no less) emerges from the downed ship as if being born, then floats into the sky and beyond. Is this a human, alien, robot, or something else entirely? Vascan’s ship pursues her, or it, into space.
That covers the first “chapter” and change, though that really describes the entire enterprise. More stuff happens, but Blood Machines is not a perpetual plot generator. The characters have little to say; when Vascan isn’t rephrasing “What the hell is that?” he’s wasting his slim running time on describing two different women as having “pretty legs.” The people here exist to interact with the intricately detailed visual schema, featuring a progression of saturated colors. There are bulky blasters, which shoot out thick, green beams that linger in the air. The shiny, golden navigation droid on Vascan’s ship looks vaguely pregnant. Psychedelic streaks of purple and pink emerge as the Mima follows its mysterious quarry through space. The effect is kaleidoscopic — at some points literally, as the images swirl and expand during the quixotic pursuit of the bizarre life form.
Many of these effects would probably be impossible without computers, and there’s a pleasing incongruity to the way Blood Machines matches up its digital trickery and its retro-fetishism, which is worthy of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. There are light scratches simulating the texture of a film print that probably never existed, and the opening onscreen text has a bit of fake-celluloid judder. Sometimes this fussiness overwhelms the experience, particularly when it comes to the self-consciously ’80s-style score from Carpenter Brut. Its endlessly swelling synth tracks undercut the inventiveness of the visuals, making the whole thing feel more like a pastiche.
And it’s hard to key into any of the characters, even on a short-term level, when the score makes so much of the action feel instantly (and therefore meaninglessly) climactic. The music even seeps into the structure: The chapter breaks feel like excuses for those synth swells, as if trying to repeatedly reproduce an episode-ending Stranger Things cliffhanger. But Blood Machines isn’t particularly suspenseful. Joëlle Berckmans, as the mysterious being, gives the most interesting performance because her pure physicality is of a piece with the visually stunning surroundings. She can’t be drowned out by the score. Paradoxically, though, the more human characters feel like props.
Blood Machines was written and directed by “Seth Ickman,” a pseudonym for the French directing team of Raphaël Hernandez and Savitri Joly-Gonfard. It will not surprise any viewers to learn that the filmmakers have worked in art direction, commercials, and music videos. While this project falls somewhere between TV and cinema, it also resembles an extended music video, as well as an elaborate demo reel and a gnarly pin-up dorm poster.
Its elusiveness makes it both hypnotizing and a little unsatisfying. It is, as advertised, an “experience”: a beautiful immersion in colors and shapes, best enjoyed in as close a simulation of a movie theater as possible. (At the very least, shut off the lights and don’t watch it on your phone.) More traditionally-minded viewers might not be able to stop themselves from asking what Seth Ickman might do next — and whether there’s a more conventional framework for these visuals, one that will make the story and the emotions as compelling as the effects.
Blood Machines is streaming on Shudder now.
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