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Robot Overlords
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by Jay Seaver

"Bland isn't the worst thing a B-movie can be, but it's close."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: I don't miss the days when science fiction films tended to be obviously cheap productions with second-class actors and effects, but it was a lot easier to spot a disposable B-movie then. Now decent effects are maybe not cheap but they're not out of reach, and people who have had some success will sign up rather than see it as beneath them. Thus you get things like "Robot Overlords", more capable than its ancestors but still not much more than filler at best.

This one takes place three years after alien robots have invaded Earth, with resistance not lasting much longer than a week. Their conditions were simple: Just stay inside, or else. Things pick up with a man not doing that and thus being disintegrated, leaving his son Connor (Milo Parker) orphaned, to be taken in by former schoolteacher Kate Flynn (Gillian Anderson), who has also taken in siblings Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (James Tarpey) along with her own son Sean (Callan McAuliffe). With Sean's father missing, Kate is attracting the attention of "Volunteer Co-ordinator" Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley). Sean thinks his father is still alive, though, and after an accident with the car battery they're using for power shorts out their monitoring implants, the kids venture outside to look for him.

Now, you'd think that a group of robots that can not only cross the stars and lay waste to entire planets but who have great big cube-shaped ships hovering near every city might have monitoring software sophisticated enough to notice when four implants in one location go offline at once and maybe send a bot or a collaborator to check it out - there could be a fire or something, and they clearly want humans mostly alive for some reason. Instead, they have their collaborators use paper files, which may be for the best, because it's quite clear that their network security is terrible. This may sound like silly complaints for a movie mostly aimed at a family audience, but kids aren't stupid, and having grown up with this sort of technology, they're probably even more likely to ask why the GPS and notifications systems on their smartphones would be better than the ones used by a global network of giant robots, and that's before they even get to wondering how everybody seems to be pretty well-fed and clothed for global agriculture and industry having presumably been shut down for three-plus years. Just where is Sean getting the new tennis balls he is cutting open to fill with notes and throw down the street, anyway?

Even if you wave aside the way that the script by director Jon Wright and co-writer Mark Stay is pretty dumb once you take a closer look at it - it's hardly alone in that department - the even sadder thing is that there's just nothing original to it. The robots are well-rendered, but also fairly standard designs. There's not a single nifty twist to be found, and I would have counted "the robots are controlled by human dictators" as clever. The closest the script comes to being kind of clever is when a teen-age collaborator is still intimidated enough by his old teacher that Kate can push her way out of a sticky situation, and that isn't even played as a thing emotionless robots wouldn't have anticipated. It is an utterly uninspired piece of work, something even less forgivable when you consider how much other youth-targeted media is at least trying to say something or giving its increasingly sophisticated young audience something it hasn't seen before.

Heck, compare it to Wright's previous film, the very funny monster movie Grabbers, which had at least one reasonably original concept and a few characters who seemed more like individuals than placeholders. He doesn't have that here, and while he's still a very capable director - the action is well-staged and the effects are well-integrated, and he and the cast do make the most of the script's more entertaining moments - he can't do much to make the material special. In Grabbers, he worked from someone else's script, and maybe that's what he should do in general.

Similarly, the cast has a hard time squeezing anything special out of this material. Callan McAuliffe is a pleasant-enough teen hero, although Sean is mostly just generically driven as opposed to worrisomely obsessed. Milo Parker has a little more entertaining as the youngest kid in this makeshift family, although James Tarpey and Ella Hunt don't have much to do. Seeing Gillian Anderson in this is kind of a disappointment - she's done pretty well on avoiding the kind of B-grade genre work that many best-known for a science-fiction role wind up doing - but she's good enough when the script gives her something to do, and Ben Kingsley going through the motions is still more entertaining than many actors trying their hardest.

And there's the crux of it: "Robot Overlords" is as generic and dumb a movie as its name suggests, but it's got enough people capable of good work putting some effort in that it can't muster any sort of camp appeal or surprise. It's polished but uninspiring, and while it will likely not be the worst thing on the VOD menu when someone is looking for a little sci-fi action, there will almost always be something more worth a viewer's time.

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originally posted: 02/09/15 03:47:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2015 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jon Wright

Written by
  Mark Stay
  Jon Wright

  Gillian Anderson
  Ben Kingsley
  Callan McAuliffe
  Milo Parker
  James Tarpey
  Ella Hunt

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