AutomatonsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/03/06 22:19:35
SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: I remember thinking, upon seeing "Mothra" for the first time, that it was cool to see someone making a movie with their radio-controlled toys. Now comes "Automatons", which takes it a bit further, looking for all the world like a movie made with wind-up toys.In the future, an unnamed young woman (Christine Spencer) lives in a bunker filled with robots. The world outside is a scarred wasteland, and the robots are her only friends even as she tinkers with them to make them more effective fighting machines. The only other human presences in her life are videotapes left to her by her teacher (Angus Scrimm), and occasional broadcasts from the leader of an enemy camp (Brenda Cooney) whose own robots occasionally attack and try to disrupt the girl's work.
Ah, the robots. Filmmaker James Felix McKenney clearly had a minuscule budget to work with, so when the robots clash, it's not an animated extravaganza featuring highly detailed machines fighting each other with meticulous attention detail. Rather, it's dozens of models a few inches tall being blown to bits on the floor of McKenney's apartment. Some digital work is used early on to remove strings, but by the end of the film, some of those are left in, too. That's not the huge issue it could be, and is (per the Q&A) deliberate: McKenney wanted the film to have a hand-made feel, but felt that audiences used to effects work where the main goal is transparency might need to be eased into a style that makes its technique visible. The ten-year-old part of me did, I must admit, get a big kick out of watching toy robots get blown up by firecrackers or set on fire. It doesn't look as seamlessly authentic as digital work, or even more elaborate stop/go-motion model work, but it does communicate something. This is, after all, the end of the world, with fighting machines put together from recycled scraps, and the less-sophisticated special effects reinforce that.
The rest of the movie's production values match the low-tech style of the robot combat scenes: McKenney and cinematographer David Hale shot Automatons on black-and-white 8mm stock, which has a very distinctive look; the strong contrast between blacks and whites makes Automatons look more like a 1950s European art film than a sci-fi blockbuster or even an old B movie. It's a stark, moody look that has the benefit of being inexpensive while also putting the audience into a philosophical, dreamy state.
As nice a job as McKenney and company do in capturing that moody style, they do occasionally go a little far with the pastiche. While the stylized photography and effects work do a great job of establishing a mood, the sound work isn't always up to snuff. The ADR, for example, didn't always match up very well, and unlike the other factors, that just feels sloppy. The inky photography is associated with some respected films; bad dubbing is mostly associated with camp.
The film is fairly short - about eighty minutes - which is good, because we really only spend time with Christine Spencer's character, who (until the end) really only converses with her robots. "The Scientist" and "The Enemy Leader" talk to her, but it's mostly one-way communication. Even at that length, it sometimes feels elongated: The film tips its hand about its political allegory a little early ("they hate our freedom" is a pretty loaded phrase), and all it can really do aside from action afterward is hammer away at that point. Once the film trades in its mystery, it needs a little more nuance than it has.
I suppose one could say that about the acting, but who's to say what is natural in these situations? "The Girl" doesn't have much social experience with anyone but robots, so Ms. Spencer's somewhat flat delivery makes sense. Scrimm is speaking from a recording made years earlier, and it makes for an interesting way of speaking: He's giving lectures to be played back by an adult in the future, but in his mind the audience is still a child. Ms. Cooney seems a bit off, too, but no more so than the rest of the characters.The film is by no means a failure; it's a decent low-budget science fiction film that would probably well in art houses (by which I'm thinking more university and museum film programs than upscale commercial theaters). The robot action is often much more riveting than similar scenes in movies with many times the budget and technical sophistication.
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