We have met the enemy…


Automatons (2006) Review 5
Director:James Mckenney,
Starring:Christine Spencer, Brenda Cooney, Angus Scrimm, John Levene, Larry Fessenden
Length:83 minutes



Death to the Automatons!

Sometime in the future, Earth is a war-scarred wasteland. The atmosphere is toxic. Few outposts survive. Our protagonist, the unnamed Girl (Christine Spencer) spends her life in a claustrophobic bunker. Surrounded by electronic parts and TV screens where she receives her only human communication, she tends to her robot servants/soldiers, her only companions, and their various needs.

The ‘enemy’ and its leader (Brenda Cooney) can jam her electronic signals at any time and use them against her, turning her shelter into a war zone as her metallic henchman become assassins. Ignoring her opponents’ taunts, she presses on, endlessly repairing and upgrading her minions and sending them back into battle.

The soundtrack of her life seems to be recordings from years past narrated by an elderly scientist (Angus Scrimm) who cared for her as a child. Each transmission, which the girl plays constantly in the background, is a mixture of political rhetoric and soundbites of empty patriotism all too familiar to anyone who watches current events.

Vitriol over an enemy that “only wants us dead because we believe in freedom and justice” is heard again and again. He provides a parallel story detailing the war’s tolls on the world, stating “We can be secure and take pride knowing we are always right.” Eventually he hints at tragedies the fearless leaders exploited for personal gain, and it’s not too long before we know that the transmissions, as well as this film, will not end happily while the nation’s minions are on its present course. Unfortunately the Girl is fixated on her mission and, like she’s been told to, won’t trust any who would plant seeds of doubt in her goals.

Much as the production company(Scareflix)’s horror film THE ROOST told a modern story with distinctly 70’s B-horror production design and style, AUTOMATONS takes the route of a futuristic story with modern parallels and gives it the look of low budget science fiction of half a century ago. Even the shots of the obliterated Earth landscape look like we’re seeing them through a television from back then.

AUTOMATONS is lensed in grainy, welcome black and white Super 8 film (“in Robo-Monstervision!” according to the credits) and complimented by intentionally poor dubbing. It’s meant to be low-tech but never comes across as pulpy or silly, like Ed Wood’s work comes across today. Director James Felix Mckinney channels inspiration from British fare such as Space:1999, Thunderbirds, and Doctor Who circa 1963-1968. (Who’s own John Levene actually cameos as a technician.) Hints of One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits crop up as well. Driving music by Noah DeFilippis is complemented by excellent sound design by Graham Reznick, suggesting Eraserhead by way of Forbidden Planet.

AUTOMATONS does what all good sci fi stories should. It puts the ideas and parable up front so we don’t focus so much on the strings pulling the robot miniatures around (though there’s few attempts to hide them, either..the film is gleefully unashamed about its style). It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t now, assuming you’re watching this in the right frame of mind. Besides, the way things are going, the future WILL be run down and clunky and cobbled together at the seams.

AUTOMATONS is a very entertaining retro example of ideas over budget and has much more on its mind than it would seem at first; particularly confirmed by its jarring, ironic climax. Spencer is good in the lead and Angus Scrimm gets a welcome, talkative part after playing PHANTASM’s villianous Tall Man for many years. Brenda Cooney as the “enemy” is presented at first as the Girl sees her; a one-track dictator. However this changes when good and evil come face to face at the end.

It’s here we get to see the human (and very violent) cost of the war, as well as the true nature about those we’d been nurtured to hate. The film isn’t subtle but it’s smart, entertaining, and doesn’t visually resemble anything out in the last 40 years. Why be subtle when you’ve got robot warrior shootouts on a postapocalyptic Earth?

Premiered at this past month’s Oldenberg Film Festival in Germany, AUTOMATONS is currently on the festival circuit and will be playing in New York City’s Two Boots Pioneer Theater starting December 13. For more information visit the film’s website at www.deathtotheautomatons.com.

Automatons (2006) Review 7