REVIEW: Robot Overlords

Succeeding in the abrupt invasion and subsequent occupation of Earth, the titular robots keep humans as prisoners in their own homes; monitored by electronic implants fused to their necks while being “studied” by their captors. Mechanical watchmen track everyone’s movements in order to suppress them, obliterating any who disobey. Upholding the regime are the human “collaborators”, such as Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley); acting as liaisons to the robots, mediators who keep humankind in check. Eventually, through sheer chance, a group of youngsters inadvertently disrupt their implants; enabling them to stay out after sanctioned curfews, temporarily undetected, unbeknownst to their foster mother, Kate (Gillian Anderson). Led by teenager Sean (Callan McAuliffe), the youngsters unite to share their discovery with other captives, in order to provoke an uprising. All the while, Sean tries to find his pilot father (Steven Mackintosh) who disappeared during the invasion.

Despite getting all sorts of hype, and having what was originally, an ambiguous trailer (which has now been deleted), I was not quite sure how or what to make of what was going on, but as an adult, I was certainly intrigued and actually excited to see the film. However, when you watch the more recent trailer, it comes off as nothing more than another undistinguished entry into the “dystopian tweenage” genre whilst relying too heavily on the over-usage of lens flare and with Doctor Who-like CGI that falls flat in the final act.

In terms of plot, Grabbers director Jon Wright seems to be trying to recapture the spirit of Spielbergian child-adventure films like E.T. and The Goonies, whilst tapping into the marketable appeal of the mega Transformers franchise. Sadly though, Robot Overlords is just recycled Orwellian oppression that has already been systematically churned out in the recent Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner franchises, but with even more watered down survivalist scenarios. Not to mention, the looming robotic tyranny/coup d’état is a trivial mimic of the Terminator franchise and Sean being the “chosen one” who can arbitrarily connect with the robots is nothing short of a meek imitation of Neo from the Matrix franchise. Furthermore, the film doesn’t really have a clear target audience. It would be too jumpy for young children, it is too superficial for teenagers and young adults, and there’s nothing to keep chaperones/parents interested. The film tries so hard to compete with its formulaic American counterparts, but it falls beneath them. Yet, it still has an endearing spirit that makes it just about bearable. What I assume was a proposed first instalment to build into a franchise of its own has shot down any immediate aspirations.

As far as performances go, the young quartet of Sean, ten-year-old Connor (Milo Parker), and fellow teens Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and her brother Nathan (James Tarpey), the requisite puppy-love interest and the clichéd gobby tag-along with a good heart respectively. They all try to pass themselves off as a modern-day Famous Five, with Connor somehow being able to fashion gadgets and projectiles while passing on knowledgeable trivia like a pint-sized MacGyver.  Nevertheless, none of them leave a lasting impression on you, especially without any significant character development. Furthermore, having clocked thirty roles in this decade so far, Kingsley become the go-to British equivalent of Nicholas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson; an actor who borderlines becoming too overexposed and risks legacy desaturation, but is perceived as talented enough to shoe-horn into a film so that it does not nose dive into obscurity before its premiere.  However, as for his role as turncoat Smythe, Kingsley appears as nothing more than a predictable sycophant with an unrecognisable “regional” accent who just lusts for Anderson’s Kate. That being said, Anderson’s role is nothing more than a surrogate matriarch to the brood she cares for whilst handling a generic English accent.

It’s a shame really, as both Kingsley and Anderson both have great acting prowess and with hardly any effort, they slightly save the film from being a complete flop, that and the equally so-so performances of the adolescent cast. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that their main usage was nothing more than a marketing ploy. Their names receive top billing despite the fact that both are only supporting cast who are only relevant to the plot because of their interactions with the youngsters. Let’s face it, if neither Kingsley nor Anderson were in this film, you and I would not have even glanced at this title on Netflix or any other VOD service, let alone go and see it at the cinema.

Trying so hard to replicate the anarchic tone, humour and cult-status appeal of recent British sci-fi films such as Attack the Block and The World’s End, Robot Overlords is nothing more than a lacklustre B-movie without the “so-bad-it’s-good” zest. Aside from a couple of mildly entertaining moments, this film comes across as nothing more a film student’s work-in-progress than a polished piece of cinema.

Have you seen Robot Overlords? What did you think of it?
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Paul Boyling