Featuring a major dose of retro trash colliding with a pulp sensibility, “Automatons” is like an old fashioned cautionary science fiction short story melded with a ’70s NYC underground feel. The result can be claustrophobic and sometimes wincingly gory, but it’s never, ever as dull as the basic CGI techno show-off reels that get shown at local cineplexes.
The story follows the frantic and lonely work of a young girl (Christine Spencer) in some kind of bunker filled with video screens, robots and loads of scattered wires and pieces of electronics. Her day is filled with two basic activities — repairing damaged robots and playing old video diaries from a scientist (Angus Scrimm) relating the early days of the world she is part of. How do these two fit together? The robots are being used in a war against an unknown enemy and her work is fueled by a paranoid and jingoistic monologue from the past giving her context for her job.
Much of the film involves this daily routine, and the history of the end of the world unfolds slowly as the scientist tells the tale of the destruction of everything in order to achieve technological advance, and of the other nation who attacks because they hate freedom. The war is in the name of security. It’s all a bit obvious, certainly, but as obvious as the pulp roots from which the film springs and, in that way, true to its heritage, taking a complicated subject and commenting on it though crackpot science, pie in the sky technology and overwrought allegory.
The icing on the cake is the style in which the film is realized — the kind of stark black and white where the white is almost blinding, as filtered through intentionally fuzzy visuals, surface scratches and flaws on the film, and the feeling that the broadcast is not quite hitting your screen correctly. The robots themselves are amateurish and creepy at the same time, either portrayed in giant robot suits with actors in them or rickety, automated miniatures in abstract outside battle scenes. It hearkens back to another time — a better one for creativity, I believe, when all visuals were not culled from the same computer application utilized by guys all going to the same universities, but rather the stumbling result of model makers, amateurs and enthusiasts whose personalities are all over their creations.
In fact, director James Felix McKenney reveals his inspiration for the film is not only old science fiction films, but those as a child that he watched on a fuzzy TV screen — if anyone under 40 even remembers such a thing — populated by robots. He was convinced that there was a whole genre of robot soldiers, much like westerns, but as an adult, came to understand something different. With this swirl of memories in brain, McKenney crafted the film of his childhood dreams, a brand new addition to a genre of film that never existed in the first place.
Is it a great film? Nah. Is it for everyone? Nope, not by a long shot. It’s a neat and likable film, though, with great energy and effort, and it’s something that will appeal to anyone who the slick nature of modern science fiction has replaced ideas with fast editing and design with a sad fetish for hyper-realism but, at the same time, aren’t looking for a slavish sort of nostalgia. Besides, it’s just nice to see a movie where the robots are robots for a change and not sexy cyborgs.