Fantastic Machine review – whirlwind history shows how cameras dazzle and deceive us

Estimated read time 2 min read

Although being distributed in the UK with the title Fantastic Machine, this documentary about the camera through history originally had the much more prolix, pretentious and charming moniker And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine. The line is a quote attributed to Edward VII who is said to have reacted with awe when he saw a film of his own coronation – although the footage in question was not of his actual coronation but filmed by French director Georges Méliès with French actors in a Paris studio in advance, the first example of “fake news”.

That is fitting because here directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck explore the camera and the moving image’s ability to dazzle, deceive and delight through history. That said, their thematic intent seems to be a slippery thing as the film shifts its attention across all manner of phenomena and subjects. Sometimes it feels like a cross between a film studies lecture and what happens when you leave YouTube to keep autoplaying while the all-powerful algorithm suggests more and more content.

And so there are clips from Islamic State videos showing the terrorists forgetting their lines and cracking up which is both amusing and chillingly bizarre. In another clip, one of them shows how to make a bomb in a kitchen, like some test kitchen content. Elsewhere we hear about people who livestream their lives, one of whom grew his audience when he fell asleep on camera, and sprinkled throughout are clips of people doing crazy stunts like hanging off high-rise buildings or Base jumping. (Those who get sympathetic vertigo should be forewarned.)

The big picture gets a little lost, although the film-makers seem to know that’s a risk which is why the almost final image is the biggest of big pictures, a view of Earth looking no bigger than a speck, taken by the Voyager probe just before it moved to a range from which the home planet would no longer be visible.


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