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!

Once again, the British Isles face an inhuman threat from outer space.  This time, it's mechanical.

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!"

Eleven years after the robots invaded, humanity is still on house arrest.  The film opens with one man's unceremonious dispatch for "breaking curfew" -- being out of doors without permission -- right in front of his son, Connor.  It's tragic, but with a glint of black comedy.  The local human representative (read: collaborator) of the robot order, Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley) is able to intervene at the last possible second, to save the son from the same fate, and allow the boy to relocate to the home of Kate (Gillian Anderson), a neighbor who has already taken in a brother and sister pair along with her own son.  Ladies and Gentlemen, meets your rowdy kids.

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.

While the mediator represents the robots' best effort to bridge the gap between robots and humans, they've also attempted to bridge humans to robots by implanting each person with a tracking node at the base of their skulls.  This allows the robots to know in an instant if anyone has strayed out of doors.  One night, while dabbling with a little home electronic repair, the kids discover that they can disable their trackers with a little incautious self-electrocution.  Naturally, this is key to evading and resisting the robots, setting them on a course to discover the fate a lost father.  Of course this kind of resistance can't help but to bring them into direct conflict with the entire robot hierarchy.

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.

The story is going to have lots of recognizable pieces, but arranged in its own way.  Tweaked one way or another it might have gone the direction of parody or slavish tribute, but the wit and energy with which Wright pulls it all together manage to evoke many of those sensations of 80s action-adventure-comedy in a welcome, fresh way.  Actually, we never had to call those things "comedy" in the 80s.  It was simply understood that things could be funny as well as being everything else that they were.  Things were just funnier.  Jokes didn't have to be translated into international box office numbers.

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.

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