Fantastic Machine | Picturehouse Recommends

Dive into the magic of the camera and the cultural dominance of the image with this fascinating, Sundance-winning documentary.

Neil Smith

18 Apr 24

Axel Danielson, Maximilien Van Aertryck

Release Date
19 April


Maximilien Van Aertryck (Narrator)


Running Time
88 mins

Anybody who saw King Charles III's coronation on television last May was doubtless dazzled by the elaborate pomp and ceremony that surrounded that historic event.

Audiences felt just the same way back in 1902 when they watched a film of King Edward VII being crowned, like his great- great-grandson would be 121 years later, in London's Westminster Abbey.

The film was not real, though, but rather a simulation staged in a French studio that was caught on camera weeks beforehand by director Georges Méliès. Released in cinemas on the same day as the actual coronation, it was a massive popular success that had the King himself marvelling at how Méliès' "fantastic machine" had found a way to record "even the parts of the ceremony that didn't take place".

Edward's quote and the story behind it live on in Fantastic Machine, a fascinating documentary full of laugh-out-loud moments that chronicles and catalogues our collective obsession with the photographic and moving image.

Co-directed by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck and executive produced by two-time Palme d'Or winner Ruben Östlund (Triangle Of Sadness), it's an exhilarating, provocative and deeply timely piece that explores how the images we create, share and are exposed to every day of our lives are affecting both human behaviour and society as a whole.

Fantastic Machine charts a direct course between the camera obscura and the deluge of imagery now available to us via YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. Some of the excerpts will leave you as stunned as King Edward was more than a century ago – among them the shocking yet amusing bloopers Danielson and Van Aertryck have unearthed of ISIS fighters struggling to film their chilling propaganda videos.

According to its co-directors, Fantastic Machine is "an attempt to sharpen our gaze and to shift our perspectives of the images we consume". Speaking ahead of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the film received a special jury award for its creative vision, Van Aertryck added, "I hope the film can reach those audiences that are actively using or engaging with cameras but haven't given a lot of thought to their history or the consequences they can have."

The film picked up further awards at the Berlin and Seattle Film Festivals, confirming its status as an exhilarating sensory experience that intrigues and engages the noggin in equal measure. It is Danielson's ambition, indeed, that it will make cinemagoers feel that they have gone on "an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster ride".

In the late 1820s, a 2022 French inventor named Joseph Niépce used heliography to take the photograph from a second-storey window of his country house in Le Gras. Two centuries on, the 2022 legacy of that innovation can be seen in the 45 billion cameras believed to exist today, ready to grab a shot of everything from a mischievous cat and Taylor Swift to a globally significant incident.

It is a measure of Fantastic Machine's ingenuity and insight that it uses the very medium it examines to investigate its seismic international impact. You might never take or look at a selfie the same way again after seeing this dynamic, riveting and vastly entertaining trip through 200 years of image making.  Neil Smith

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Fantastic Machine is in cinemas from 19 April Book Now!