Robot Overlords movie review: keep calm and kill robots

Robot Overlords green light

So much to love in this Brit kiddie sci-fi adventure, with its brilliant concept that really works on a small budget and a real sense of place.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big ol’ sci-fi geek

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

So much to love in this Brit kiddie sci-fi adventure! It’s like classic Doctor Who — you know, like we haven’t gotten much of lately — except without the Doctor, of course. It’s a YA postapocalyptic adventure not based on a book (it’s an original story). It’s set after the alien invasion, which is when, I’ve always felt, all the really interesting stories exist to be told and yet we haven’t seen many of them. And the AI ETs aren’t here for the water.

On Robot-occupied Earth, the new masters have only one rule: Stay indoors. This is monitored via an implanted device — shades of The Tripods — that sends out an alarm if you’re outside for more than a few seconds, which summons a machine to vaporize you. Young Connor (Milo Parker, who looks so much like Thomas Brodie-Sangster did at that age that I was sure they must be related, but apparently not) witnesses his father being vaporized as the film opens, because the Brits, they’ve always done their kiddie SF dark and grim. He gets adopted by Kate across the street (Gillian Anderson: I’ll Follow You Down, Shadow Dancer), and when her teen son Sean (Callan McAuliffe: The Great Gatsby, I Am Number Four) and his pals Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (James Tarpey: The World’s End) accidentally discover a way to deactivate their monitoring devices, the course is set for a different kind of adolescent rebellion: against the invaders. But they’ll also have to contend with the human “Volunteer Corps” — ie, collaborators — led locally by Mr. Smythe (Ben Kingsley: Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Boxtrolls), a toadying weasel who used to be a schoolteacher. (Didn’t we all suspect some of our teachers were secret fascists?)

Director Jon Wright — who cowrote the script with Mark Stay — has come up with a brilliant concept that really works on a small budget, with CGI used smartly and judiciously as a spice rather than the main course. I love the human-like spokesrobot (Craig Garner [Get Santa] under some FX) who acts as an intermediary with humanity, which actually takes advantage of the uncanny valley — the notion that simulated human faces as never good enough to fool us, so they seem unnatural and weird — to create a deliberately creepy villain. And I love the uniquely British feel of the film, which is so distinctive next to Hollywood’s brand of genre: there’s a sense of Blitz endurance to the survivors of the invasion, and the adventure takes true advantage of the British landscape (the film was shot on the Isle of Man and in Northern Ireland), like how the humans who are fighting for the planet have found a new use for neolithic standing stones.

I wish Wright hadn’t made some tediously traditional choices — there’s no reason why Connor or Sean (or both!) couldn’t have been female, instead of relegating women to the “token girl” and the “threatened mom” slots. Still, this is a fun, suspenseful movie with the rare quality for live-action films of being suitable for the whole family.

first viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival

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