The camera remains one of the most powerful tools of the 21st century. For centuries, the ability to capture an image has shaped or altered the course of history. Yet in 2023, we have more access to take and create videos than ever before. However, with cameras running at all hours, what is the purpose of all this footage? Directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck build a visual essay about the history of the image, and its evolution since the 1880s. However, Fantastic Machine has very few new ideas. Instead, it recycles well-known concepts about the emergence of video and motion pictures.

Unlike films of its ilk, Fantastic Machine casts its net slightly too wide. By starting at the beginning of film as a medium, it delivers a history lesson that will be nice to the layman. However, Fantastic Machine lands on many of the conclusions one would expect after a basic understanding of how these images have been used. Juxtaposing images of Stalin, Hitler, Putin, and Trump feels hackneyed.

A still from Fantastic Machine by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Perhaps most frustrating is a string of reveals showcasing “the illusion” that accompanies any image. After all, for every image that is captured, there is an alternative perspective that undermines the first (or at least clues us into the artificial elements). Again, this idea is far from new, as propaganda and news stories carry particular perspectives. It is admittedly very comical watching judges of Eurovision jump into a greenscreen while cheers erupt from a building. However, watching videos of terrorists struggling to deliver scripted lines is not entertaining. It simply shows the process of creating a video.

Danielson and Aertryck genuinely show interest in discussing how film has shaped global systems and discourse. They capture interesting clips, which switch between being very funny and genuinely horrifying. However, by never honing in on a particular topic, it simply becomes too burdensome to tackle the history of visual storytelling in under one hundred minutes. The saying, “if your content is about everything, it’s actually about nothing,” feels apt.

Scott Jayro appears in Fantastic Machine by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Fantastic Machine throws so many ideas and images at the screen it becomes difficult to recall all but the most extreme. This may be the very point of the film, but they’ve handled it in the most inelegant way possible. Toward the end, a chimpanzee scrolls Instagram without much effort. It realizes how to jump into pictures, how to like images, and how to find more it enjoys. The heavy-handed metaphor perfectly embodies Fantastic Machine. Sadly, the enjoyable aspects of the footage are weighed down the film’s hackneyed commentary.

Alan’s Rating: 5/10

What did you think of Fantastic Machine? Let us know in the comments below! Fantastic Machine is currently playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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