Fantastic Machine: a frustrating whistlestop tour of humankind’s relationship with the camera

Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck’s ambitious documentary spans the birth of camera obscura to the invention of TikTok using a cursory approach that allows for little insight.

22 April 2024

By Jordan Cronk

Model Viktoria Odintcova in Fantastic Machine (2023)
Sight and Sound

Fantastic Machine, the first feature-length documentary by collaborators Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, attempts to survey over two century’s worth of developments in the history of humankind’s relationship with the camera. That it fails at this admittedly tall task is less disappointing than the prosaic manner in which it does so. 

Spanning from the birth of photography to TikTok, the film – named after Edward VII’s purported remark to George Méliès upon seeing the filmed reenactment of his 1902 coronation – leapfrogs through time periods to try and collapse the distance between the filmic illusions of the early photographic and silent cinema eras and our current age of social media and fake news. To get there, Danielson and Van Aertryck employ a piecemeal structure and a sense of awe-struck amazement, touching eagerly on past examples of political propaganda as if they only recently discovered that images can be used for purposes other than entertainment. “Being behind the camera allows you to stage the image of reality,” Van Aertryck says as he introduces a clip of Leni Riefenstahl discussing the compositional and editing strategies behind her partially staged documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg rallies, Triumph of the Will (1935).  

The essayistic and archival qualities present in this and other historical segments in the film’s first half, such as passages about the invention of the camera obscura and the advent of live television, are absent from the viral videos and online ephemera that make up much of its remaining runtime. It’s here where things begin to resemble a supercut of the last 15 years of trending topics and social media personalities. (It’s also where the cringe-comedic sensibility of executive producer Ruben Östlund is most clearly felt.) Remember when Guy Goma, a business studies graduate, was mistaken for a tech expert and interviewed on BBC News? Or when Paige Reynolds (of “Scarlet Takes a Tumble” fame) fell while dancing on top of her coffee table? Danielson and Van Aertryck are here to remind you, and to introduce you to online celebrities like South African e-girl Belle Delphine, whose influence on the eroticisation of Gen Z aesthetics is just one of many fascinating threads concerning contemporary image-making that’s left unexplored. 

Complex subjects beg for more considered insights than what’s offered here. Even outtakes from Isis recruitment videos and cell phone footage shot by the civilian insurrectionists who stormed the US capitol in January 2021 are left with little more than such platitudes as, “People in front of the camera play different roles.” Like everything in this frustratingly cursory film, these are topics gestured at rather than investigated. 

 ► Fantastic Machine is in UK cinemas now. 

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