With gritty reboots, bleak apocalypse fiction and Transformers being in vogue, the temptation to turn Robot Overlords’ robot invasion premise into a po-faced survival story must have crossed writer-director Jon Wright’s mind. Thankfully, the man who gave us jovial Irish monster splatter with Grabbers is only serious for so long. After setting the stakes by vaporising a man in a bloodless laser blast, his orphaned son (Milo Parker) is promptly sent on a merry chase with the other kids on the street, as though the little scamp’s gotten off chores for the day. With only their wits, wiles and fun modes of transportation to guide them,1 the plucky youngsters outwit the drones’ master plan to keep humanity indoors on an eternal time-out, so that their street-smart leader (Australian actor Callan McAuliffe) can find his conscripted father, master a latent cybernetic superpower and defeat Ben Kingsley’s frumpy bad guy.
From its sci-fi adventure beginnings, the movie slowly transitions into a fantasy quest, as the heroes traipse off on a mystical quest across the Isle of Man and stage their final showdown — let’s not pretend that being there was a mystery — at an old-style encampment. Being a modern independent production, this throwback narrative has to bump up with a restrained budget and home-software VFX. Wright gets the best he can out of the deal by treating us to many whizzing gadgets, country vistas and stylish blue colour gradings, so that the look of the film carries through its functional pacing. It also shaves out the stretches of running and camera-gliding that blockbusters fall into, diverting it by necessity to more playful beats like sending messages in sling-shot tennis balls, raiding a sweet shop and poring over paper maps. Through it all is a dry UK sensibility that’s emphatically divorced from American mannerisms, making the sum total feel at times like a family-friendly Black Mirror, which is hardly a bad thing.
That said, the parallel Amblin tribute act does preserve some negligible cliches. There’s perilously little to admire in McAuliffe’s Hero Boy beyond being physically fit and determined, and even less in the resident Girl (Ella Hunt) who isn’t thrown so much as a bone segment of development in their mandated romance. It’s especially annoying that her rascally Comic Relief brother (James Tarpey) should get a zero-to-hero arc while her lines of dialogue can be counted on fingers. Meanwhile, Kingsley’s expected moments of moustache twirling are elevated as he gets to play off the robots’ creepily infantile diplomat (Craig Garner) and Hero Boy’s mother, played by charming MVP Gillian Armstrong. However the plot gymnastics keeping the central foursome in peril and the constant sight of Kingsley on their tail can get tenuous. One scene where the group stops by a pub-turned-human sanctuary (hah!) to speak with a delirious expository sooth-sayer (sigh) sums up the film’s modus operandi: pitting the new and the old on a rollicking rollercoaster, that hopefully runs with enough speed that you won’t notice the bumps.
That which is new and distinct about Robot Overlords fares better in the contrast to the hoariness than on its own terms, and comes and goes in way too much of a snap. It needs more play-room for Kingsley beyond a frowzy costume, more of Armstrong successfully goading a lackey to break her out of a castle lair(!), a more distinct menace than the perfunctory silver-plate designs. The lasting image that the film sticks is the posse of children dancing for joy after successfully disabling the monitoring implants. The world waits outside, Wright has sweet-hearted ambition to spare in giving it to them, and if nothing else, the countdown has well and truly begun for when a Hollywood exec throws a franchise his way.