Having recently re-watched Metropolis, it was almost frighteningly coincidental that shortly after I saw James Felix McKenney’s Fritz Lang inspired Automatons. This low budget film about the end of the world can be seen as an homage to the 1927 classic, but even when compared to a film that came out eighty years ago, its ‘special effects’ seem dated. To McKenney it must have come as a great idea – making a film with the minimal amount of effort with the excuse that its an homage to early cinema, but it is really a pity that that is exactly what he gives his audience and nothing more.
While this is not “The Worst Movie Ever Made!” as some IMDB.com users claim, it is a disappointment, and a shadow of what it could have been. It is not a secret that a talented filmmaker canmake miracles on a shoe-string budget (Primer, Pi) but Automatons is far from it. It is understandable that McKenney was not flooded with money like other recent homage-specialty filmmakers like Kerry Conran, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez, but if you know the special effects are not going to impress, why not beef up the script with some actual conflicting emotion and modern relevance?
Well actually there is some of that in the film, but to call it unsubtle is to call a pit bull upset. This film makes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis look complex and restrained – a silent film during which everything is written out for the viewer to read! In fact during one of many political tirades that McKenney ‘unsubtly’ inserts in his film, I actually said to myself – “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And it doesn’t help that the whole message of the film is a liberal cliche seen and heard infinitum during the past decade. I already know that the world will end because of corrupt warmongering governments!! I have been told that a million times by Hollywood, and hearing it again is nothing but agitating.
The story in Automatons – a joke phrase if you have seen the film – chronicles the somewhat sad (only if you really try) story of a nameless girl (the stunning Christine Spencer in her feature film debut) who is the only one left of the whole human race, which has predictably been extinguished by various world wars. But the girl is not giving up on the war that is still going on as she fights it using robots against enemy robots on the Earth’s contaminated surface. There are also various flashbacks to the person who raised the girl – a scientist (Angus Scrimm in another forgetful B-movie role) who is also a strong father-figure.
The acting that accompanies the story is average. Spencer does her best to look absolutely beautiful while taking long stares at the utterly motionless camera. Scrimm and the other supporting characters are all contained within prison cell-sized rooms with the camera looking on security-style. Saying that the actors don’t have much to play off of, is more than a mild understatement and the acting suffers across the board.
On technical side, things are substantially worse. The robots here are simple Pepsi cans with heads that are half-globes. They fight by bumping into each other and by shooting what look like bottle rockets. The most painful sequence is the ten minute robot fight near the end of the film which is dull and boring and a bad example of a climax in a film. the previously mentioned stillness of the cameras is a problem and the editing is a simple switch between camera angles. The complexity of the city in Metropolis overshadows and embarrasses Automatons. And while I haven’t mentioned it yet, it is a pretty easy guess that the film is black and white. Yet, the picture is of great coloring, especially with the shadows that accentuate the characters’ faces just so.
I can’t recommend Automatons. it’s average in every sense of the word, and sometimes even worse. Its premise would be better off in a short 10-minute film not a feature-length one like this. The few positives here – a good-looking actress, good lighting, and a grim view of the world – are not enough to save the low effort by the filmmakers.