Ever seen Robot Monster? It’s the sort of insane sci-fi crap that could have only come from the 50’s. That wild west of post-war economy boom when everyone had enough money to throw into new ventures like vaudeville style independent movies. It’s a movie made by people who thought that jackass teenagers would pay for anything with a robot and/or monster. So why fuck around? Let’s put both of them in the same movie. While we’re at it, we might as well cut to the chase and just call it Robot Monster. In a month’s time, we’ll be lighting Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills. Flicks like Robot Monster are pure, poorly considered garbage but even on the crowded cult circuit, they still send ripples through pop-culture even though their anti-communist message is pointless in this day and age.
Now I ask you: Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you mixed the low-budget cash-grab antics of Robot Monster with the low-fi black and white art house nonsense of Eraserhead? Writer/director James Felix McKenney did and decided to film his ideas.
Somewhere in the future, a lonely woman clone lives in a bunker surrounded by her robot companions and tons of retro-future style sci-fi gadgetry. She is one of only a handful of living humans constantly at war with a faction of other humans and robots aligned with a different and vaguely defined lifestyle. By day, she builds more robots and fends off the radio attacks that allow the enemy to take control of her own robot forces. When her robots aren’t fighting a hopeless war of attrition, she builds more bots and repairs the damaged ones while listening to the video diaries of a scientist, presumed dead by this point. It’s a lot like Mystery Science Theater 3000 without an ounce of funny, but as you’ll see, it wasn’t really meant to be a laff riot.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this. I’d seen the movie talked about over at Twitch in the past but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. Sucks to be me. Automatons is an interesting piece of micro-budget filmmaking. There was a period during the mid-90’s indie boom that I would rent just about anything that looked like it was made on wishes and shift loans. It didn’t take me long to realize that most of them bored the shit out of me. As much as I typically root for the little guy, I think that in the filmmaking world, you need a little more than a good idea and in a lot of low-fi indie movies, they don’t even have that. So needless to say, I have experience with this sort of thing. At times, Automatons flirts with the tendency to overstay its welcome, leaving you with long shots of nothing happening in order to fill out the running time to feature-length but the movie has a few things working on its side.
First up is a not so subtle jab at the Bush administration and current “Global War on Terror™”. Since most of the first and second acts is our protagonist, The Girl, just fluttering around her bunker, working on robots, the job of explaining what is going on is left up to Angus Scrimm playing The Scientist, featured only in a series of video diraries that drop a lot of sound bites hijacked from State of The Union Addresses, speeches following 9/11, and newsbites from the time leading up Shock and Awe. Scrimm’s narrative addresses the division of the country that followed the invasion and the histrionic headlines that used terrorism and our own insecurities to fashion foreign and domestic policy into a more neocon friendly nation. Though Automatons often feels like an amateurish production, it’s this socially conscious approach that rescues the movie time and time again. Since the sci-fi of the 50’s was often based on public fear-mongering, Automatons takes the look and feel of those movies and applies them to a much more familiar setting. An idea that I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of.
With the social allegory being the movie’s strongest point and a very strong point, at that, following it up is a visual style that often reminds of Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”. It’s not even remotely as frantic but the grimy black and white presentation, lingering shots of nothing particularly important and the strange, avant garde soundtrack brings to mind the sort of art-school experimentation of the former Japanese weirdo flick as well as David Lynch and Elias Merhige’s fucked up arthouse piece, Begotten.
In the meantime, deliberately crappy robot costumes stomp around and we’re occasionally treated to miniatures of robots fighting among the wasteland with other robots. It looks pretty low-tech but the fact that this is an epic game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots is an endearing trait. It often looks as though robot damage is done by placing fireworks inside the robots that die.
Be warned, Automatons is not for everyone. It’s a slow moving piece of schlocky sci-fi with heavy contemporary social themes jammed into a low-tech feature length movie. Many people will be turned off by what looks like a lack of effort but viewers with a taste for the arthouse or an appreciation of DIY filmmakers will be delighted by what they find including the gory finale.