I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords
Robot Overlords - 2014
Written by Mark Stay & Jon Wright
Directed by Jon Wright
With Callan McAuliffe, Gillian Anderson & Ben Kingsley
I'm kind of geeking out right now.
Thirteen months ago, I wrote an article about Grabbers; an entertaining horror-comedy film by Jon Wright that, I felt, evoked the adventurous sense of fun represented by classic 80s cinema. So while I'm certainly geeking out that Robot Overlords is an entertaining sci fi-adventure-comedy, the only thing that geeks love more than finding something new to geek about is, well, something new to bitch about -- but the only thing they love more than that is being proven right. Doubleplus thanks, Jon Wright!
Now, let me just say how nice is was to see robots as a menace again. It's been zombies and supervillains for a while, and unabashedly campy giant robots from outer space came as a breath of fresh air. I realize that Transformers exist, but they're abashed in their campiness. There's no wink, no sharing of the joke. Think real Star Wars versus prequels.
It's funny, when I wrote about Grabbers, I specifically noted how Grabbers seemed to have tapped into that 80s film vibe, while at the same time making a complete end-run around the gang of foul-mouthed kids save the day bit of business. Here, Jon Wright has come right back with a big fat "Oh YEAH? Well just you watch THIS!"
The robots have only one rule; stay indoors. They promise that they will leave the Earth in peace once they have completed their research, humanity is assured via regular broadcasts from the Mediator, a super-creepy robot clearly meant to look like a child. The rest of the robots are function-driven, lacking any sort of personality, not that the Mediator is remotely personable. He's just human-appearing enough to get his dictates across -- you know, like the automated Ken & Barbies on Fox News. Filling in for the machines in the menace department, we instead have Ben Kingsley with the vindictiveness and passionately issued threats. It's a wise distribution of villain duties.
One thing that really struck me as I was watching Robot Overlords was the story structure. This is a refreshing change of pace from the standard 21st century action-adventure story formula. The story has a natural way of unfolding, necessitating the progression from Point A to B because that's the next thing they have to do. It avoids many of the modern contrivances such as the first big loss followed by a restatement of purpose, and training sequence and ultimate thumping victory. Our heroes have become too strong in the post-9/11 no-way-can-I-appear-weak era and our hero formula requires an equally overpowered thumping just to check off the "remember folks, he's really human" box. The kids don't need that. We know they're no match for the robots, and it's a step-by-step fight for survival for them, with each one getting the opportunity to lend their unique abilities to save the rest at one point or another -- not unlike the Goonies. Refreshingly, these kids are much less obnoxious than the Goonies.
Jon Wright is a magnificently skilled director. He knows what he's doing and he delivers taut and energetic cinematic experiences. Give this guy a real budget and creative control, and suddenly JJ Abrams will be looking like the overrated story-agnostic hack that he is. Wright can do more with less, and still have a story that makes sense. I may come to regret this if he ever DOES get a budget, and becomes beholden to the corporate interests that come with it. By not designing his film as a collection of action set-pieces and by using not-totally-cutting-edge computer graphics, Wright is still capable of telling a story well without having to make those kind of lowest-common-denominator capitulations.
The performances were all good if not better. Kingsley brought a restrained complexity to the character we knew was going to be "bad," but didn't have to be one-dimensionally so. Smythe was allowed to be tragic and flawed, but still undeniably a bad guy worthy of comeuppance. Gillan Anderson was perfectly fine in an essentially thankless "mom" role. The kids all ended up being much better than expected. There were a lot of surprisingly likable characters in this film, and that really makes the difference when separating the one-watchers from the repeated-viewers.
There's been a suggestion that one of the robot machines bears some resemblance to the squiddy aliens from Grabbers, and I like the idea that they may be parts of a bigger story. They certainly share a feeling, and have firmly established Jon Wright as a director with his priorities in the right place... even if that place is 1983.