Sundance 2023: Fantastic Machine

Directed by: Axel Danielson & Maximilien Van Aertryck
Distributed by: TBA 

Written by Maria Athayde 


“Fantastic Machine” is about perspective or as Danielson and Van Aertrycky describe, it is about how “a lack of perspective can distort what the world looks like”. In painstaking detail, the directors chronicle the history and evolution of image-making from the first known still image, to moving images, and all the way up to the viral moments we are familiar with today. The amount of archival footage they managed to collect and fit in was impressive for an 85-minute runtime. The first part of the documentary serves as a history lesson of sorts and establishes a history of the camera, camera movements, and the impact they create. The second part of the doc focuses on image-making today and how it has changed with the advent of social media.   

In this first section, and the strongest part of the documentary, harrowing archival footage of the final days of World War II and how the allies used images to combat war propaganda, and document the horrors they saw in concentration camps are documented. Film producer Sidney Berstein and film editor Peter Tanner are the most prominent talking heads in this segment. They described how they made the shots as long as possible (i.e. panning shots) to ensure that people believed what they saw and that the images were true and that the suffering was real. The second section, and the weaker of the two, chronicles the first viral video, how image-obsessed everyone has become, and how the diffusion of new technologies enables anyone, anywhere, at any time to share their images.  

The documentary covers everything from the launch of national television in Ireland in 1961 to the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of TV advertisements and ratings (i.e. founding of the Nielsen rating system), 9/11, Donald Trump’s election, TikTok, live streams, and the January 6th insurrection. The documentarians speed through archival footage and leave little breathing room. While they collected an impressive amount of footage; the end product is scattered and misses any meaningful narrative throughline. This effort felt more like a collection of harrowing images and viral moments. The basic premise of the documentary was that image-making is a way to link humanity and that images are about perspective. However, it falls short of this core premise and fails to elaborate on the more human side of the images we see. In the end, “Fantastic Machine” is too academic for its own good. It will certainly be used in college classrooms for years to come but outside of an academic environment, there is little joy in this viewing experience.

“Fantastic Machine” Trailer

“Fantastic Machine” was screened as part of the 2023 edition of the Sundance Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdSerializd, Twitter, and view more of what she’s up to here.

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