Film review: Robot Overlords Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 27 March 2015 07:56

Director: Jon Wright
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Kingsley, Callan McAuliffe, Ella Hunt
Certificate: 12A

There's something to be said for a film that knows exactly what it is - and puts it right in the title. There's also something to be said for a film made by Jon Wright, the director of hilarious horror-comedy Grabbers. So when you see a movie called Robot Overlords, directed by Jon Wright, you know just what to expect: something very good. With giant robots.

The movie doesn't disappoint. Set three years after a robot invasion, it sees humanity kept under curfew in their homes - a system held in place with mechanical trackers screwed into people's necks. The film doesn't shy away from the nasty reality of the situation, with grown-ups vaporised within minutes of the opening frame, including the father of young Conor (Milo Parker).

Taken in by motherly neighbour Kate (Anderson), a freak electrical accident sees Conor's tracker disabled - much to the delight of his adopted siblings, Sean (McAuliffe), Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (Jason Tarpey).

What do they do with their newfound freedom? Start the human resistance - but not before popping to the nearest sweet shop. Mark Stay's script, co-written with Wright, nails that balance between sci-fi grit and adventurous glam, filtering the Amblin escapades of old through a modern Britain. And so we get the time-honoured themes of fatherhood and family (Sean is searching for his dad, who went missing during the first fights between man and bot), but we also get geezer Tamer Hassan hamming it up as a stereotypical gangster, who could easily have walked off the set of Cockneys vs Zombies.

It doesn't skimp on the freaky side of sci-fi, either: our main villain is teacher-turned-cowardly-collaborator Robin Smithe (played with a soft regional accent by Ben Kingsley), but he liaises with "The Mediator", a mechanical child with all the creepiness of Ash in Alien. The film carries the same practical aesthetic as the clunky classics, from the mundane (non-American) location right down the robots themselves, which, while all CGI, have a battered quality that carries a threatening realism; when they shut down and fold into cubes, you could almost reach out and pick one up.

Younger audiences might not deal well with the darker hints of genre, but they give an exciting rush to events that can sometimes be missing from family fare. The cast, meanwhile, has more than enough humour to balance it out. Anderson is given the odd ripe line of dialogue, but Callan McAuliffe is charming as the young Harrison Ford-a-like, Ella does well with the love interest role, while Harpey - last seen in the excellent The Beat Beneath My Feet - is enjoyably stupid. It is Milo, though, who brings them together, his enthusiastic presence helping the ensemble to interact in a natural way that offsets the cheesy moments.

Cinema at the moment is enjoying a wave of young adult series, with The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divergent all offering entertainment for US teens. How rewarding it is, then, to see a young adult sci-fi that feels so British - and is ruddy good to boot. Boasting top-notch world-building on a small-scale budget, Robot Overlands is smart enough not to reach beyond its fun premise (it clocks in at just 88 minutes), yet remains brave enough to leave questions unanswered, paving the way for what could be a promising sequel - not to mention a strong career for Wright. He may not have the Hollywood buzz of Christopher Nolan or the hyper-kinetic style of the similar-surnamed Edgar, but the director has a voice (and confidence of tone) that knows exactly who he is, whether he's working with drunken aliens or giant robots. A UK franchise featuring more kids taking on tyrannical machines? I, for one, welcome our new Robot Overlords.