Director Jon Wright isn’t afraid to tackle high concepts on a low budget. His previous film, Grabbers, was a sci-fi horror comedy in which alien monsters attacked an Irish fishing village – and the residents kept the critters at bay by downing heroic quantities of booze.
It’s three years since the robots successfully subjugated Earth, and we’re now prisoners in our own homes. The robots have set up a kind of Vichy regime, where select groups of adults help the robots keep the populace quiet and compliant. And just to make sure nobody sets foot outside their front door, every man, woman and child has a round, glowing chip implanted behind their right ear, which sends an alert to nearby robots when the wearer wanders outside for more than a few minutes.
Robert Overlords’ opening demonstrates how efficiently the occupation is run. Mop-haired young boy Connor (Milo Parker) watches as his father’s fierily executed in the street by the overlords. The now orphaned Connor’s taken in by neighbour Kate (Gillian Anderson), who’s similarly grief-stricken following the disappearance of her husband, Danny (Steven Mackintosh).
Danny’s son Sean (Callan McAuliffe) is convinced that his father’s still alive, and with Connor, friend Nate (James Tarpey) and his sister Alex (Ella Hunt) in tow, attempts to find a way to venture outside the prison of their home and find out where he’s gone. To complicate things, robot conspirator Smythe (Ben Kingsley) has designs on Sean’s mother, and a creepy, child-sized android called the Mediator (Craig Garner) seems to be tracking the freedom fighters’ every move.
On a more restricted budget than your typical Hollywood blockbuster fare, Wright creates a beguiling homespun invasion tale. Robot Overlords is like John Milius’s Red Dawn remade for kids, with giant alien robots instead of invading communists, and a small seaside town providing the battleground instead of the sprawling vistas of Colorado.
There’s something refreshing about seeing giant robots towering over a seaside town rather than an American city, and the CGI’s effective for the most part – especially considering the film’s humble resources. Robot Overlords‘ finest visual creation is the Mediator, its genuinely eerie humanoid villain, a kind of ambulant shop window dummy with a staccato voice and the face of a small boy. Where some of the designs elsewhere look a little too familiar – the cuboid alien ships are decidedly Borg-like – the staring, diminutive Mediator really sticks in the memory.
Some of Robot Overlords’ drawbacks are the kinds of things noticed by grumpy old film critics rather than kids. Why, for example, does the otherwise genteel seaside town, seemingly set in the north judging by Sir Ben Kingsley’s accent, have its own Lock Stock-style contingent of shotgun-wielding Cockneys?
The likeable quartet of leads are nicely introduced in the first half hour, but the plot seems to run out of things for them to do towards the end. Ditto Gillian Anderson, who has not too much more to do other than play the concerned mother, and Kingsley, who gets one or two amusing speeches but whose abilities aren’t exactly stretched to breaking point.
Drawing in elements of The Tripods (not least in its use of mind control devices) and other familiar sci-fi staples, Robot Overlords emerges as a pleasantly old-fashioned British film. In fact, the film’s at its best when it’s being intimate and quirky – the action-filled final third is slightly less interesting than the exploration-filled build-up.
Although far from perfect, Robot Overlords has some arresting moments – the Mediator’s an effectively creepy villain – and the odd bit of swearing aside, it’s a fun entry in an increasingly neglected genre: the family-friendly sci-fi movie. Possibly a little quaint when compared to Marvel’s output, Robot Overlords is nevertheless a charming throwback to the adventure films of the 70s and 80s.
Robot Overlords is out in UK cinemas now.
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