Phasma Ex Machina
by Jason Coffman
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Phasma Ex Machina is the latest in a wave of post-Primer lo-fi sci-fi films that take the concept of men tampering in God’s domain out of the laboratories and lairs and into the garages and basements of the suburbs. Fortunately, it seems that Shane Carruth’s super low-budget masterpiece has inspired writer/director Matt Osterman in the best way: clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, Phasma Ex Machina starts with a killer concept and takes it to unexpected places. When it comes to thoughtful science fiction, great ideas and excellent writing trump multi-million dollar effects every time.
Cody (Sasha Andreev) and his brother James (Max Hauser) have lost their parents in a car accident. One year later, Cody has dropped out of college and is obsessively trying to build a machine in his garage that will allow contact with the other side. His research has led him to believe that a machine that can magnify the amount of ambient energy in a given area will allow ghosts— or whatever it is he thinks they might be— to more easily manifest themselves and perhaps even bring them back. James, meanwhile, is constantly late to school and spends more time blowing up dead frogs than paying attention in class. After one too many late mornings, James’s principal (Mari Harris) sends Cody to Child Protective Services, where he is informed that one more tardy will result in James being removed from Cody’s custody.
While searching for new and better components for his machine, Cody is referred to Tom (Matthew Feeney), an electrician who builds solar power convertors as a side business. Tom, as it happens, is slowly coming to terms with his own loss. His wife Elizabeth (Katrina Hawley) passed away six years ago, and now he is tentatively entering into a relationship with Becca (Ellen Karsten). After some unsettling experiences, Tom uses an EMF meter to discover the source of energy he has discovered is being put back into the power lines, leading him directly to Cody and his machine. Which, the men discover, works much better than Cody could have imagined.
Phasma Ex Machina is a fascinating hybrid of science fiction, low-key indie relationship drama, and subtle horror. The film builds slowly toward its creepy third act, and director Osterman wisely understates most of the scares. Further, the fact that some of the most unsettling moments in the film happen in broad daylight only add to their power and poignancy. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is in its portrayal of what ordinary people might do under inexplicable circumstances (helped tremendously by excellent lead performances by Andreev and Feeney), and its heartbreaking observation that sometimes getting what we most want may be the worst thing that can happen to us. Phasma Ex Machina is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and is the best filmmaking debut I’ve seen in quite some time.
Phasma Ex Machina is currently playing at various festivals. Visit the film’s official site— http://www.phasmamovie.com— for play dates, behind the scenes information, and more.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org.
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