Robot Overlords: Sci-fi epic just feels a little bit too alien
A solid cast, including The Fall star Gillian Anderson, can't help this locally-shot thriller live up to its ambitions, says Andrew Johnston
The Northern Ireland connections are threaded through Robot Overlords - Belfast-born director Jon Wright's family sci-fi flick was partially filmed in the province, as well as in the Isle of Man, with key scenes shot at Donaghadee seafront and in Carrickfergus Castle. Meanwhile, the picture recently received a special preview screening in said castle's car park, which took the form of a giant drive-in. And the B-movie connotations are rather apt, as this is cinema on a shoestring.
The 44-year-old director made a positive impression with the horror romps Tormented (2009) and Grabbers (2012). Both were fun and effective, belying their bargain-basement production costs and suggesting that, given a larger budget, Wright could do some serious damage. Sadly, Robot Overlords is another small-time affair, and cheap sci-fi just isn't as easy to pull off as high-school slashers or creature features.
Still, it's not impossible, as last year's sublime Under the Skin showed, but Robot Overlords has more mainstream ambitions than that rather more avant-garde effort.
Hedging its bets, Wright's film boasts a conspicuous 'Young Adult' feel in an attempt to woo the Hunger Games crowd, a dose of Transformers-style action for kids and a smidgen of V for those of us who fondly remember the original 1980s alien takeover saga.
Set three years after androids have invaded Earth for reasons Wright doesn't get bogged down in, Robot Overlords follows teenager Sean (Australian Callan McAuliffe, from The Great Gatsby), whose resistance fighter father has gone missing amidst the melee. Convinced his dad is still alive, Sean yearns to go and search for him. The only problem is all humans have been fitted with implants in their heads to make sure they stay indoors, lest they be incinerated by marauding, mechanical enforcers. One short-circuited transmitter later, and Sean and friends Alex (Ella Hunt, playing the girlfriend role) and Nathan (James Tarpey, as the wisecracking sidekick) have their chance to go on an adventure, for 88 minutes or so.
If the plot sounds as though it was written on the back of an envelope during the closing credits of an episode of Doctor Who, Wright (who co-penned the screenplay with Mark Stay) has admitted that the basic concept came to him in a dream. The diet dystopia offers little for audiences to sink their teeth into, but this is arguably preferable to the bloated cacophonies the likes of Michael Bay subject us to. Robot Overlords gets in, gets its job done and gets out quick, before anyone has a chance to get too bored.
The movie is helped along by a smartly cast ensemble of youthful actors and veteran talent. Ben Kingsley is top-billed as Smythe, the robots' human stooge.
The former geography teacher has one eye on the extra privileges that assisting his new metallic masters win him and the other on Gillian Anderson's comely local mum, who appears bizarrely oblivious to her suitor's insidious nature.
There are vague allusions to Nazi collaborators, but essentially, it's a chance for Kingsley to dress like the guitarist from Cheap Trick and speak like an extra from Last of the Summer Wine, while Anderson further perfects her English accent.
On top of the enjoyably hammy performances they deliver, Kingsley - the bad guy of Iron Man 3 - and The Fall star Anderson are big names to splash on the poster.
But in the end, there's no escaping the film's meagre roots. With its peppy dialogue and competent special effects, Robot Overlords is certainly amiable and pleasant to look at, but for audiences weaned on billion-dollar franchises and spare-no-expense spectacle, it might all seem a little too nuts-and-bolts.