Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Military Industrial Simplex

(posted as part of the 3rd Annual White Elephant Blogathon at Lucid Screening)

Automatons - 2006 (B/W - 83 mins)
Director: James Felix McKenney
Writer: James Felix McKenney
Christine Spencer (The Girl)
Angus Scrimm (The Scientist)
Brenda Cooney (The Enemy Leader)

No sooner had I submitted my post for last year's "White Elephant Blogathon" that gave my reasons for why I thought Only the Strong was a bad film when I received this scathing comment from an apparent fan:

WOW! you are one harsh SOB aren't you?? Is there ANYTHING that you DO like? Let's see you go out and make a movie and let US tell you what we think about YOU! Let's see if you can do it better !!
While this really didn't change my opinion, it did remind me that, regardless of merit, certain films have blindly loyal followings.

So, before I watched Automatons, a low budget sci-fi flick replete with battling robots, I had to take a deep breath and try to cleanse my mental palette. Being selected as a "White Elephant" entry is no doubt a pejorative. I wanted to let the film soak in without any preconceived notions. Complicating things was the fact that I had just seen the Battlestar Galactica finale where the skirmishes between humans and Cylon toasters (both old and new style) reached epic, state-of-the-art computer generated proportions.

I tried to keep an open mind. I really did. But, alas, after the dust had settled (literally), Automatons left me unmoved. I give the film an "A" for effort and enthusiasm, but still a "C-" for execution (that's grading on the curve too).

The plot, as summarized on the Automatons site (yes, there's a website) is as follows:

Somewhere in the distant future, The Girl (Christine Spencer) is alone. She is the last of her people, the others having died in a generations-long war that she continues to fight with the assistance of a group of antiquated robot helpers and soldiers.

Her only connection to her long-dead people is a collection of recorded journal entries made by the scientist (Angus Scrimm) who cared for her as a baby. His is the only friendly human face she’s ever seen. The regular transmissions from her
enemy’s leader (Brenda Cooney) are always filled with threats and taunts. The girl responds to these invasions by attack of her own, carried out by her mechanical soldiers on the contaminated surface where no human can survive.

Men started this war. The machines will finish it.

It's clear that director James Felix McKenney was operating on a shoe-string budget. And he makes good use of it for the interiors. Just as Night of the Living Dead cleverly employed news broadcasts to advance the narrative, Automatons, which (except for the miniature exteriors) takes place entirely in an underground robot workshop, employs a similar device. The girl watches log recordings from her dead scientist mentor in which he outlines the history of how mankind ended up in its current state. Angus Scrimm does a great job with these mini monologues and his appearances work quite well as a film within a film. The manner in which he changes demeanor with each subsequent entree effectively captures the mood of the progressing storyline.

As director McKenny says in a press kit for the film (yes, it has a press kit), he was clearly inspired by 50's sci-fi outings:

AUTOMATONS is the robot film as I imagined it: men in robot suits combined with primitive models duking it out in a post apocalyptic wasteland. It’s in black and white, with bits here and there that are a little hard to see, just like on my TV set as a kid. And of course, there’s the bad dubbing and the low budget look required of every
B-movie. As with the many classic genre film is (sic) emulates, AUTOMATONS has a message about humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction and a cast of new and familiar faces.
The workshop scenes did indeed have the feeling of those old movies I used to watch as a kid on rainy Saturday afternoons. The production design even evoked memories of the original Outer Limits series (high praise indeed).

The problem I had with Automatons is that it really doesn't go anywhere and takes a LONG time doing it. Besides the video diaries (which, I repeat, worked great), we basically watch "the girl" soldering parts for the robots and fending off random electronic attacks from "the enemy leader" that cause the automatons to go buggy for a few seconds. By the time the "surprise" is revealed, that the war was the result of a big misunderstanding and really shouldn't have been fought in the first place (sort of a cross between The Huffington Post and Famous Monsters of Filmland), my interest had already faded.

BTW, the surprise is revealed to the audience through one of Scrimm's video logs that the girl happens to miss while her attention is elsewhere. The plot problem I have with this is WHY didn't she just watch ALL of the videos at once. Instead the girl rations them one at a time like someone with a low-end Netflix account. Had she viewed them all, she would have realized the folly of her ways and avoided the disastrous robot battle at the end. But then again, had she done that, she would have realized the folly of her ways and avoided the disastrous robot battle at the end. Which is why McKenny said he made the film in the first place.

This brings me to the title characters. The robots are WAY too cheesy looking to take seriously. To be fair, I sympathize with McKenney for not having the budget to do better. But, gee whiz! They look more like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz than killer machines. And the miniatures don't come across much better (see trailer below). McKenny lingers way too long on each shot. I was reminded of a high budget sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's a scene where Astronaut Bowman uses the mechanical arms of the pod to open an airlock door that seems to go on forever. Every one of miniature exteriors in Automatons is paced like that. Just not as pretty to look at.

Once the final battle outside is over, the girl and her bots siege the enemy camp. Which looks like another underground workshop. The automatons sadistically slaughter the human inhabitants with spikes, saw arms, death rays, etc. For a film whose message is ostensibly about the horrors of war, there seemed a bit too much of an "ain't it cool" celebration of it.

Ultimately, the enemy leader finds herself pinned to a wall with a giant metal pipe sticking out of her chest. Yet, she musters up the strength to explain to the girl how much of a dupe she's been for waging the robot war for so long. I mean, it was a pretty serious looking pipe she has sticking out of her midsection and she's wasting time yelling at the girl. Anyway, as a last ditch effort, the pinioned combatant brandishes what looks like the control unit to a motorized race car set and threatens to unleash an electronic disruptor that will shut down all the robots unless the girl withdraws. As expected, the girl doesn't withdraw, fires a shot instead, and the enemy leader pushes the button. The dead enemy leader gets her final revenge as all of the machinery shorts out and stops. This includes life support equipment that the girl needs to survive in the toxic atmosphere. Of course, I'm still not sure why the girl didn't just wait. From the looks of her injuries, the enemy leader only had a few minutes to live. Did I mention there was a GIANT metal pipe sticking out of her chest? The last shot shows the poor doomed girl in the dark looking out a window at the barren landscape (actually, that shot worked pretty well).

Having said all of that, could I have done better? I dunno. But I do know this: for all its faults, Automatons is still WAY better than Only the Strong!

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