Robot Overlords movie review: keep calm and kill robots

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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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Bluejay
Bluejay
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 11:47am

shades of The Tripods

Good series, though sadly rather sexist when I reread the books.

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”

As you say — shades of The Tripods. ;-)

The film sounds cool, though. Any US release date?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 1:25pm

No US release date, and I would be surprised if it got one, actually. Too British, I suspect.

Constable
Constable
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 1:48pm

I wonder if I’ll be seeing it in Canada anytime soon, sounds like a fun film.

Constable
Constable
reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 1:46pm

I enjoyed them when I was younger, but now that I think about it they really were quite sexist. I remember finding it weird that an alien species had women preserved in glass cases to simply look at them.

Steve Gagen
Steve Gagen
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 11:53am

Sounds a fantastic film – I want to see it immediately! I really miss being a BFI member! No point as I live too far away. Connor’s dad being vaporised reminds me of of the way Mrs McGregor bakes Peter Rabbit’s dad into a pie! This sort of thing is very much in the European fairytale tradition.

Constable
Constable
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 1:52pm

If an alien race were to invade and neutralize our military powers, I highly doubt that they would waste energy on extermination. We would likely end up like the First Nations, mistreated and sent away from our native territory.

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  Constable
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 5:13pm

Read The True Meaning of Smekday.

The doctors tell me I’m not allowed to comment on the film version, because I’ll start ranting again.

Constable
Constable
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 7:53pm

Looks mental, I’ll read it after I get around to finishing the Temeraire series. whose film version is to be directed by Peter Hackson >:(

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Constable
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 9:59pm

“I’m proud and excited to be bringing Naomi Novik’s nine-book series to the big screen. The first book alone, His Majesty’s Dragon, is so rich and full of detail that I’m happy to announce it will be split into three parts.”

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Mar 27, 2015 11:00pm

So I’ve been watching Game of Thrones. I like to watch it on Blu-ray, because there’s a little sidebar that will remind you who the dozens of characters are and how they’re connected.

It occurs to me that it would have been a perfect way to release The Hobbit. Peter Jackson could have made a two-hour adaptation of the book for theatres and then filmed several hours of bonus footage. All the die-hard Tolkien fans are going to buy the discs, so he could release an ultra-special edition that comes with footnotes. When your favorite character appears on screen, you can click the remote and see another few hours of that person’s adventures. Completists would love it, and Jackson would have a chance to film every last one of Tolkien’s notebooks.

The studio would never go for it, of course. Three movies make a lot more money. But it would be a fantastic way to film House of Leaves.

bronxbee
reply to  Danielm80
Sat, Mar 28, 2015 2:07am

“…because there’s a little sidebar that will remind you who the dozens of characters are and how they’re connected.”
OMG! i must convince my cousin to get a blu-ray player because she has always said she wanted an app or something on a movie or dvd that when you pointed at a certain character would say things like, “this is the same guy in the last scene but he was wearing a blue shirt then. he is married to the murder victim.”

Constable
Constable
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Mar 28, 2015 3:19am

You had me until the end.