Director: Jon Wright
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Kingsley, Callan McAuliffe, Ella Hunt, Geraldine James, Tamer Hassan, Steven Mackintosh, Craig Garner
Runtime: 1 hr 30 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 16 April 2015
Synopsis: Earth has been conquered by Robots from a distant Galaxy, survivors are confined to their houses and must wear electronic implants, risking incineration by Robot Sentries if they venture outside. In Robot occupied Britain, city centres are devastated and our gang of teenagers live in a seaside town constantly under Robot threat. Intimidating Sentries patrol the streets, Snipers are merciless death machines. The Mediator is deceptively childlike but unnervingly coercive. The Robot base is The Cube, a massive mother-ship that dominates the horizon.
What kind of a sci-fi film would give itself such a title as ‘Robot Overlords’? Especially one that would attract the likes of ‘Mrs X-File’ Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley? Well, your curiosity is as good as ours really, but thankfully, this family-friendly film isn’t just good for the curious. Jon Wright’s follow-up to his cult hit ‘Grabbers’, the movie tells of the seemingly impossible quest by a band of adoptive siblings living in the aftermath of an alien invasion to defy their titular masters and free their town and possibly the rest of mankind from their subjugation.
Its similarities with J.J. Abrams’ ‘Super 8’ are inevitable, but rather than being just a trim Brit knock-off of its American counterpart, Wright – like Abrams – uses his film to pay homage to the 80s type kids-in-danger adventures that recall the BBC adaptation of John Christopher’s ‘Tripods’ novels or Steven Spielberg’s Amblin fare. No matter that it isn’t made on the same budget as ‘Transformers’ – not even close, if you get what we mean – Wright’s sci-fi embraces its modest origins and delivers admirably on a super-sized concept with rather impressive special effects.
In the most economical fashion, we are told that mankind’s war with the invaders lasted all but 11 days, and the film opens three years after the robots have achieved world domination. A strict curfew has been imposed, and those who refuse to stay in their homes are immediately greeted by a giant robot who issues a prompt warning before vaporising them. Such is the fate that has befallen young Connor’s (Milo Parker) father, and the orphaned boy is immediately taken in by his neighbour Kate (Gillian Anderson). Connor and Kate’s son Sean (Callan McAuliffe) have something in common though – they have both lost their father, who in Sean’s case, was a member of the resistance.
Contrary to what you may think, Anderson isn’t the lead star here. In fact, her role as the matriarch of the adopted brood is just a supporting part. Ditto for her adult co-star Kingsley, who is in typical villain mode playing a “collaborator” with the robots, which is really PC-speak for conspirator. Kingsley’s Mr Symthe was a former geography teacher at the same school as Kate, and in the midst of selling out his own species, still has both the time and thought to stalk his ex-colleague whom he clearly has affections for. Like we said, Anderson and Kingsley may enjoy top billing on the poster, but really they are just sideshows the movie could do without and be none the worse off for.
Odd as it may be, they play second fiddle to Wright’s four young teenagers – Connor, Sean, Sean’s friend Nate James Tarpey), and Nate’s sister Alex (Ella Hunt). Using Connor’s invention to knock out the tracers implanted by the androids right below their ears to track their movements, the group of teens venture outside their homes for a start, but their wilfulness quickly becomes something else when they stumble upon Mr Symthe’s secret facility and the latter sacrifices Nate’s granddad as a lesson to them. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon, the quartet become the face of the rebellion, winning over not only the rowdy denizens of a local pub (where Tamar Hassan plays guvnor) but also the revolutionaries whom they meet at the last stage of their struggle.
Just like ‘Grabbers’, Wright shows a knack for getting the most out of a limited budget, and besides an intriguing FX creation known as the Mediator that has the face of a boy and the body of a shop window dummy, he takes true advantage of the British landscape of terraced houses and quaint seaside locations for the first two acts. Only in the last act does he bring on the machines in their full glory, and even though it doesn’t match what you’ll see in a single sequence on ‘Transformers’, it is nevertheless quite jaw-droppingly impressive in itself. Shrewdly, Wright doesn’t overreach and under-deliver, knowing just what he can accomplish and doing just that in a thrilling last half-hour that shouldn’t disappoint those looking for spectacle.
Most of the time though, Wright offers a certain low-key charm that is matched by the earnest performances of his four key teenage actors. Together with his co-writer Mark Stay, Wright infuses the film with humour and imagination, sticking closely to the perspective of his protagonists as if taking his audience on an adventure with them. There is genuine chemistry between his stars, buoyed by an enthusiasm that their adult co-stars cannot emulate. It is this combination of good humour and genial charm that keeps you engaged throughout, and the fact that it doesn’t bore is testament to Wright’s own successful brand of low-fi filmmaking.
In order to fully appreciate this very British film, it is important to keep in mind what it is and what it is not. Certainly, it isn’t any big-budget fare, so anyone expecting explosions or big fights should look elsewhere. It is however through and through family-friendly, one that also remains distinctly old-fashioned with its kid-focused story and elements of sci-fi staples as well as ‘Doctor Who’ episodes. Sure, it isn’t all that original and doesn’t have too many twists and turns; but this is comfort food for the whole family, and if you’re looking to introduce your kids to what you would probably enjoy back in the day when you were a kid, then ‘Robot Overlords’ is that perfect bite of nostalgia.
(It doesn't break new ground for the sci-fi genre, but this family-friendly entry is a nice throwback to the kids-oriented staples of the 80s when Steven Spielberg made 'E.T.' popular)
Review by Gabriel Chong