‘Robot Overlords’: London Review

Robot Overlords Still - H 2014
Courtesy of London Film Festival

Robot Overlords Still - H 2014

Cheap, but relentlessly cheerful despite the dystopian premise 

Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley star in this British sci-fi action story aimed at the middle-school set

A quartet of kids combat android invaders from outer space in the amiable if predictable Robot Overlords. British director Jon Wright (Tormented, Grabbers) and producer Piers Tempest have invested wisely in rehearsal time with the core foursome of young leads who hold their own against veterans Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley. The merely adequate Dr. Who-level effects, however, betray the low-budget more visibly. Even so, if marketing can manage expectations for family audiences, this could do crank out some cash in the right release window.

Set somewhere in the not-too distant future in an unnamed British seaside town (filming took place mainly in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man), the story unfolds three years after a menacing army of robots have established a strict, worldwide curfew. The mechno-creatures provide door-to-door basic survival rations, but anyone who ventures outside gets vaporized, sort of like how things would be if Amazon’s proposed drone delivery program went rogue. Everyone has a tracking device implanted in their heads so the robots will know if someone tries to venture outside. The real purpose of the invaders’ mission is only revealed in the last act.

Connor, a 10-year-old, lost his own father soon after the invasion, and now lives with teenager Sean (Aussie Callan McAuliffe, The Great Gatsby) and Sean’s mother Kate (Gillian Anderson), a former high-school English teacher. Sean’s father Danny (Steven Mackintosh) is MIA, presumed dead, ever since he went off to join the Resistance.

Having knocked down the party walls in their attics to make one big block-long room, Sean and Connor spend their days with teen siblings Alex (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (James Tarpey), a smart girl and smart aleck, respectively. Messing around with an old car battery one day, the kids discover that a short, sharp shock from it can temporarily disable their tracking implants. Together they sneak out one night, some of them hoping to find candy and other rarities in the abandoned stores while Sean hopes to find out what happened to his dad. This puts them on a collision course with Mr. Smythe (Kingsley), formerly the geography teacher at the school who’s had his lascivious eye on Kate ever since they were colleagues. Now he’s a collaborator with the robots who helps police the local populace in exchange for extra privileges.

The remainder of the film settles into a regular rhythm of escape-capture-escape, putting various members of the party in danger until everyone ends up at the seashore for one last history-making altercation. Surprises are few and far between, but what makes it a bit better than average compared to other live-action kids’ films is the jaunty banter, especially from Tarpey with his fine coming timing, and the palpable sense of fun, despite the dystopian trappings. Both the younger and the more experienced cast members amp up their performances just enough to inject a sense of helium-assisted levity, which underscores the frantic, frothy Dr. ­Who-style vibe. At times Anderson and Kingsley get a little carried away and edge into the hammy, but the kids are consistently fine throughout.

Both the storyline and the eponymous bad guys may be a bit too scary for those under 10, even accounting for the obvious shonkiness of the effects (perhaps that’s deliberate, to reassure the little ones none of it is real). Even so, this may present the film with a further marking challenge.

Production companies: A BFI, Tempo Productions production 
Cast:Gillian Anderson, Ben Kingsley, Callan McAuliffe, Ella Hunt, James Tarpey, Milo Parker, Steven Mackintosh, Geraldine James, Tamer Hassan, Roy Hudd
Director: Jon Wright
Screenwriters: Mark Stay, Jon Wright
Producer: Piers Tempest

Director of photography: Fraser Taggart
Production designer: Tom McCullagh
Costume designer: Hazel Webb-Crozier
Editor: Matt Platt-Mills
Casting: Amy Hubbard
VFX supervisor: Paddy Eason
Sales: Embankment Films

No US rating, 88 minutes