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New Release Review - ROBOT OVERLORDS (DVD/Blu-ray)

In a near future Britain, humans are subjugated by invading robots.


Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Jon Wright

Starring: Gillian Anderson, Ben Kingsley, Callan McAuliffe, Geraldine James, Milo Parker



"The sensitivity to character and sense of thrill in this film is far more credible than the lazy plotting and lack of character of the infinitely more expensive Jurassic WorldRobot Overlords is a film determined to entertain and not exploit its audience."
Britain, the near future. The populace remain huddled in overcrowded houses, squabbling over the scarcity of food and generally getting on each other’s nerves, yet unable to leave their shambling abodes because, situated upon every corner, is a mechanical sentinel, a robot that surveys the roads and pavements, ready to vaporise anyone who dares to step outdoors and break curfew. No, this isn’t Theresa May’s latest initiative to keep the great unwashed off the streets, but the central premise of Jon Wright’s enjoyable kiddy sci-fi Robot Overlords, in which the titular automatons have descended upon earth, ostensibly offering some robotic guff about studying the human race, but actually, it seems, arriving in order to subjugate civilisation by keeping us indoors/ lazering us to death, the big metal gits. Are we doomed to an eternal domiciliary of shabby board games and familial bickering, or can a group of plucky teens save the day?
A perceptive recent letter to Viz bemoaned the fact that invading aliens only ever seem to trouble New York or other metropolises, reasonably enquiring as to what was wrong with ‘Morrison’s car park?’ Refreshingly, Robot Overlords goes someway to redressing the incursive imbalance detailed within Viz’s correspondence, eschewing the panoramic, city wide destruction of a Transformers, and instead honing in on the rainy terraced streets and distinctive setting of the Isle of Man. Thus, sidestepping whatever’s going on in the big city, we instead focus on the stifled domestic set up and human drama of Kate (she-who-does-not-age Gillian Anderson), her son Sean (handsome Christian Bale-a-like Callan McAuliffe) and other juvenile survivors Alex (Ella Hunt), Nate (an edgy James Tarpey) and little Connor (Milo Parker), all stuck inside a three bedroom row, unable to leave and occasionally menaced by ex-science master Smythe (Ben Kingsley), a collaborator in cahoots with the evil robots. Upon discovering that their implants (a sort of futuristic ankle tag, except in the neck) can be shorted by the dodgy car battery which they use to power their Playstation, the gang take flight, and we follow the kids as they make a daring break through the streets of the town hoping to locate the whereabouts of Sean’s dad, all the while shirking the robot overlords.
Screenwriters Wright and Mark Stay state that they set out to write an adventure in the Spielbergian spirit of The Goonies, but the intended nostalgia of Robot Overlords stretches further than the U.S. influences of Mikey and co’s run in with One Eyed Willy, or the original Escape to Witch Mountain (a more appropriately science fiction/adventure comparison). In fact, it rather charmingly recalls more domestic fantasy such as television’s Chocky and the peerless Children of the Stones, with which it shares those shows’ idiosyncratic, almost cosy Britishness; early on, Smythe tries to woo Kate with contraband PG Tips, and in house entertainment comes from reading vintage 2000ADs. Correspondingly, as the kids make a break for it under the cover of night, the first place they explore is a tuck shop, with jars upon jars of sweets and bottles of pop and boxes of fireworks (?), rather than breaking into an offie full of booze and fags which, let’s be frank, most teens would be more likely to make a beeline for. But this is a children’s film after all, and is carefully calibrated towards this ingenuous audience, the narrative following an unassuming kiddy logic where innocent escapades are the order of the day. Adults in Robot Overlords are either incomprehensible drunks, vicious authority figures (before the invasion, Smythe was a teacher), doting mothers or heroic dads (Sean’s father, is, of course, a fighter pilot), whereas kids develop the power to control huge robots, save each other’s lives with a few well aimed fireworks AND get to blow up their school. At times, I did begin to wonder if the kids Robot Overlords is aimed towards were children from the 1950s, such is the steadfastly Boy’s Own Adventure mode of the film - the climax even involves a spitfire! Nonetheless, the sensitivity to character and sense of thrill in this film is far more credible than the lazy plotting and lack of character of the infinitely more expensive Jurassic World. Robot Overlords is a film determined to entertain and not exploit its audience.
Wright again displays the low-budget ingenuity he demonstrated in the fun Grabbers a few years back. His robots are pleasingly chunky, metallic and actually quite visible, whirring and stamping their way throughout the film, which itself gallops along at a fair old pace. As the kids make their way coast-wards to rendezvous with the resistance and to face the end game with the robot aliens, the pacey plot takes in such derring-dos as rescues, run-ins with comedy hard men (the great Tamer Hassan), forest chases and aerial battles. For me it made for a very pleasant and entertaining Sunday morning screener - the kids are great, the effects impressive, and the plot involving enough for even a jaded adult. And, if over the summer holidays, I find myself babysitting a couple of younger relatives on a rainy day then I, for one, will once again welcome our Robot Overlords.
Extras:
A decent effort made here, with a Making Of being a cut above the usual press pack platitudes due to the film makers’ sincerity, articulacy and clear love for the material. There is also a short but effective Visual Fx doc, an amusing cast reading of the film’s novelization (which sounds pretty good), and an enjoyable, hot off the press segment chronicling the film’s panel at the MCM, which features the entertaining Tarpey as our host. Good fun.




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