Friday, February 22, 2008


Title: Automatons
Director: James Felix McKenney
Cast: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm, Brenda Cooney
Year: 2006
MPAA: Not rated
Date of Review: February 22, 2008

The special effects in indie science fiction and horror films are often praised for the creative ways in which they use low-budget materials to make convincing scenes. The Evil Dead films were made on very low budgets, and the innovative techniques used to create the abundance of gore are still lauded over today. But it’s also the world of indie films that allows filmmakers to experiment with different art styles and ways of doing special effects, since they don’t always turn out effectively. In Automatons, the production team did have a shoestring budget, but they also purposely used very cheap looking effects for both artistic style and to contribute to the meaning of the film. It’s rare that a film is thought out as deeply as Automatons obviously was, and I can’t help thinking that even if they’d had $50 million to play around with, the finished product would have looked, sounded and felt exactly as it is now.

The story is both simple and complex. The main character is a girl - she is never named, and we never really know anything about her outside of the fact that she is the lone survivor of her race after a brutal war killed the rest off years ago. Her only companions are her robots, who are left over “war bots” from the war, which she has programmed to do everything from chopping vegetables to guarding her while she sleeps. But her last inkling of security is taken away from her when the enemy (who appears on television broadcasts in the girl’s dormitory) gains the ability to send out radio signals which turn the girl’s own robots against her.

The girl rarely speaks, only giving the occasional voice command to her robot workers. Most of the dialogue comes from the scientist - the girl’s grandfather, who has left her several recordings documenting his efforts in the war. Played by Angus Scrimm (of Phantasm fame), the scientist widens the scope of the film, revealing information which is often quite disturbing about the horrible acts committed during the war. This is also the area of the film where its socio-political commentary is at its most blatant. The scientist is quite obviously representative of the oft-scorned American sense of self-righteousness, and his description of the enemy and the events in the war mirror the media representation of the war in Iraq. He describes the enemy as “barbaric savages”, and says that the enemy hates his people “because of [their] freedom and liberty and democratic beliefs”. His dialogue is quite dense and all reveals how this futuristic war is an allegory for the world’s current political situation.

There are so many layers, ideas and messages in this film that it reminds me of the way Philip K. Dick structures his stories to overflow with incredible concepts. The idea that all of these machines (some simple, some very complex) which the girl uses as tools can be turned into mindless killing machines with one push of a button by the enemy, evokes memories of the nearly over-played “man vs. machine” story - but it does it in such a different, original way (as well as having so many other ideas loaded into the story). There is an environmental element, as the world has become a scorched and poisonous wasteland due to pollution from the creation of all of these machines - and this leads to one of the most memorable lines in the film, when the scientist (while referring to the destruction of the Earth’s atmosphere and environment) says “but it’s a small price to pay for being the greatest, most advanced nation on the planet”. We also have the film’s aforementioned political message, where this girl’s race ran themselves into the ground with their own blind pride and ignorance. And at its most basic, we have the simple story of a girl who is all alone.

But to get back to the effects, it must be said that not everyone is going to be very keen on them. When indoors, the robots are men wearing garbage cans, duct tape, and tin foil...all sorts of incredibly low budget materials which look very cheap, yet are somewhat eerie to see in motion. Then while outdoors and engaged in battle, we are treated to sequences which could best be described as “Lego men fights”. It literally looks as if the filmmakers decorated chess pieces to look like the robots, and added in some laser effects and firecrackers for explosions. It’s strange at first, yet becomes compulsively watchable. The set designs and brief looks at the outdoor landscapes are similarly ultra low budget in their design and execution, but I must reiterate that this surely wouldn’t have been any different regardless of the budget for the film. It’s just a different way of making a science fiction movie, and its effectiveness will lie in the eye of the viewer.

Produced by Larry Fessenden (who also has a brief cameo role in the blood-soaked finale), Automatons is high-concept science fiction at its finest. At once a loving tribute to the hoaky science fiction of the 1950s, and a great understanding of modern artistic filmmaking, it’s unlike anything you’re likely to ever see. It’s hard not to compare it to films like Eraserhead or Pi for the modern-day black-and-white photography alone, but like those films, it also tries to tackle established and worn-out genre conventions with originality and flare, and James Felix McKenney obviously made exactly the film he wanted to make. I find that, alone, to be very admirable. It’s just a matter of the film finding an audience who is interested in all the film has to offer.

9 / 10


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