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March 27, 2015
Just when you’ve had enough of Hollywood’s overly CGI-d cacophonic pastiches, a low budget, high concept, sci-fi adventure or as I’d like to call it, an indie blockbuster comes out of nowhere, or well, actually from the UK, to entertain you and win you over with the magic of cool ideas, crafty vintage-looking special effects and an energetic cast of young newcomers and adult veterans with great chemistry to carry you through 90 minutes of genuine fun.
This is in short Robot Overlords, Irish filmmaker Jon Wright’s third feature film after his debut with horror flick Tormented (2009) and his sophomore effort with sci-fi/horror comedy Grabbers (2012). This time around he plays with a young adult sci-fi action adventure clearly inspired by and paying tribute to similar 80s Spielberg-ian fare and what really works well here are indeed the setting, the atmosphere, mood and tone of a story set in a fictional British seaside town (filmed in Wright’s native Ireland) giving the film a unique flavour of realism and timelessness.
The action takes place in an undefined though most certainly not far away future where Earth has been invaded by alien robots. Humans have lost the war and have been segregated inside their homes after everyone has been implanted with tracking devices in their necks. Those allow robo-patrols to promptly locate anyone who’s dared to go outside, resulting in a 5 minute warning to go back inside unless they want to be obliterated right there on the spot.
Coping with this domiciliary arrest is not easy for everyone and when his boozed up father loses it and recklessly goes outside to yell at the robots, little Connor (outstanding British newcomer Milo Parker) can only stare at his old man getting vaporized before his eyes from the threshold of their house. Neighbor Kate Flynn (Gillian Anderson) and her teenage son Sean (Callan McAuliffe) behold the scene in horror and obviously take the freshly orphaned boy in their home.
Such arrangement though doesn’t come arbitrarily as the robots have appointed some of the humans as collaborators to mediate with their prisoners and Mr. Smythe (Oscar winner Ben Kingsley) is one of them. He’s also a former fellow teacher of Kate’s who can’t hide his infatuation with the woman hence he makes sure Connor gets safely “adopted” by Kate. And so it becomes full house at the Flynns’ with Kate and Sean adding the little boy to a couple of other teenagers, siblings Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (James Tarpey) who lost their family in the war.
Kate’s husband who fought in the resistance is MIA but Sean hasn’t lost hope and firmly believes his father is still alive and is determined to find him. When little Connor fortuitously finds a way to deactivate their trackers, the kids are over the moon at the prospect of being able to finally go outside again. So, when night falls, they venture out in the open and after a much-needed cathartic break of youthful shenanigans they realize that it’s still risky to be out there, even if they can’t be promptly located.
Yet Sean decides to sneak into the school since the kids find out that is where the Collaborators supposedly keep populations records and he believes he can get answers about his father’s destiny there. And the boy is actually right: his dad is still alive and he’s determined to find him. Too bad that the tracking devices’ remain out of order only temporarily and the kids soon find themselves to be vulnerable to the robots once again. But the robots aren’t the only threat and obstacle on the kids’ way. Mr Smythe soon shows his true colours and his hidden agenda.
There’s no need to delve further into the plot but it’s easy to predict how the main tension in the story is whether or not Sean will find his father and whether they will be able to reorganize the resistance and turn things around for mankind. The way we get to answer those questions is filled with exciting action and fun moments thanks to this gang of kids stealing the show with their on screen chemistry. Callan McAuliffe (I Am Number Four, The Great Gatsby) confirms his charisma and charm, fitting the hero part with both personality and dreamy looks.
Milo Parker is one of those cute little kids with an innate natural talent for acting and it’s no surprise this debut gained him a role in the upcoming Mr. Holmes, next to Sir Ian McKellen. Ella Hunt shows off enough spunk to be more than just a pretty face and her banter with the hilarious James Tarpey who plays her brother with great comedic timing offers many a laugh. And then of course you have two legends like Kingsley and Anderson to bring their experience that gracefully matches the lively energy of those young newcomers.
Robot Overlords seems to do to robots what Attack The Block did to aliens: injecting fresh blood with a British touch to an overexploited genre. An original take on teen scifi, with an intelligent and fresh premise, full of inventive cool ideas that make the world of the story taut and compelling, and most importantly with the focus always on the human factor. Don’t be fooled by the title. This isn’t Transformers. Some might find it not up to the standards of mainstream Hollywood they’re used to but despite not reinventing the wheel and being inevitably cheaper, this is way smarter, cooler and more fun entertainment.
Robot Overlords is released in UK cinemas on March 27th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor