"If we are unable to produce children from our loins ever again... then let this brutal conflict be our offspring!" - Angus Scrimm as the Scientist
This year is indeterminate, but it's some time in the future. The atmosphere has been obliterated and mankind has somehow become sterile in the name of profits and progress. An enslaved race of cold, unfeeling robots enact a war that humans no longer have the stomach to do themselves and greatly outnumber their fleshy masters. The final battle of the Robot War, a senseless campaign of devastating violence fought by competing men of different philosophies and beliefs, is about to begin.
Automatons focuses on the Girl, a lone soldier stowed away in an army compound. Apart from mechanical guardians, her only companion is a series of video recordings made by the Scientist, a man who witnessed first-hand the start of the Robot War. The enemy sometimes calls also, but they're not to be engaged in communication at length.
As if battlefield warfare by remote control wasn't enough struggle for The Girl, the enemy has found a way to turn her robots against her through radio wave manipulation. This makes Automatons ripe with tension because at any point, her closest guardians may strike out against her. At one frightening turn, she's startled awake to find a technological nightmare all around her, once friends now foes. Soon the war will be finished as the tagline suggests... this is how humanity will die.
Automatons is a winning science-fiction prize with so many facets worthy of praise. The story is a rich but stinging allegorical condemnation of the current United States political situation. When loneliness sets in, the Girl turns to the video recordings left by her mentor, the Scientist. At first, he offers encouragement that this war is much needed because terror must be fought at every cost. But as it rages on, he begins to doubt the country to which he develops killing machines for. In later video journals, The Scientist speaks of how personal freedoms are being infringed upon to supposedly better fight the enemy and worriedly tells of those who doubt the government being imprisoned or worse. She thinks not about his words, however, decidedly convinced that whatever humans reside beyond her fortress walls be monsters of evil that must be destroyed.
If you see one movie shot in "Robo-monstervision" this year, let Automatons be it. Visually, it's a unique fusion of Mystery Science Theater 3000 set design with the nightmarish style of David Lynch. At no point does the film try to hide its shoestring budget production values choosing to instead feature them prominently. The Automatons themselves are a homemade mix of duct-tape, PVC tubing and other household items. It's all part of a unique visual approach that makes the film terribly charming. Even down to the firecrackers and sparklers that handle most of the pyrotechnic effects, Automatons oozes B-movie charisma.
The sets and robots may be enjoyably shoddy, but the same cannot be said about the acting. Newcomer Christine Spencer superbly carries the picture on her shoulders as The Girl, often being the only character onscreen for extended periods of time. Her mentor by way of video journals is The Scientist exquisitely played by Angus Scrimm (of Phantasm fame). While on camera for a limited amount of time, Scrimm brings great pathos to the role and will arguably be who people walk away remembering foremost from this picture. Brenda Cooney, Larry Fessenden and John Levenge (of Doctor Who fame) round out of the cast.
Presented in full-screen and black/white, this is definitely not going to be one of the discs you pull out to impress upon others the technical heights your new high-definition DVD player and flat-screen television can reach. One must assume that the scratched up, grainy quality of the image is a standard trait of films shot in "Robo-monstervision." I can't knock a film for wanting to look less than stellar as part of it's artistic direction, but I also can't award a high rating to a movie that looks the way Automatons does. I'll give it an even 5/10 for video just to be fair but consider yourself warned, the picture is not a pretty one.
On the positive side, the audio goes hand in hand with the video in terms of quality to create a constant technical style. On the negative side, the same applies. The sound on Automatons is a real shame because while we can't expect much visually from a disc that houses a film as murky as this one, the sound design here is pretty darn creative and unfortunately not given a real chance to shine. Viewers are stuck with a limiting Stereo track. I understand the direction the filmmakers were heading in with this deteriorated technical feel but some form of surround sound would've been a good thing in scenes like the robot battles. I have to go with a mildly disappointed 6/10 here.
'Death to the Automatons' is an hour-long featurette chronicling the shooting of Automatons. There are several laughs to be had here watching James Felix McKenney and company work their low-budget magic. You can see the director testing out fireworks and accidentally shooting one of them into the camera man. You can also see Angus Scrimm's scenes being shot inside of what appears to be a parked semi-trailer lit by a flood-light. Possibly even more fun than those spectacles put together is watching the gory battle victims being covered in chocolate syrup and makeup appliances. Everyone looks like they had a lot of fun making the show which makes us watching them make it fun also.
'A Few Minutes with Angus Scrimm' is a bizarrely comical rant with the modern genre icon. The Kansas-born actor unaccountably adopts a Brooklyn accent (and accompanying attitude) for his musings. You won't get a terrible lot of fact or insight from these eight minutes but if you're even remotely familiar with the performer then you should certainly get a chuckle watching him ham it up. Rounding out the disc are camera/effects tests and the original theatrical trailer.
If I had one complaint with this entire release, it's the lack of a chapter menu. The feature film is indeed divided into chapters but there's no menu listing of these chapters. It's awfully frustrating when you're trying to find a particular scene in a movie as nightmarish and dark as Automatons. It's a very basic feature for DVDs to have so it's absence is strange and even annoying. Despite this exclusion, I rate these extras with a 7/10.
Arguably his most important film to date, Automatons is tour de force for director James Felix McKenney. It's the opinion of this reviewer that ten years from now, we'll be able look back on this title as one of many in a filmography gradually crescendoing in excellence.
This disc meets the amazingly low technical demands of the film (as would a third-generation videotape copy) and the supplements are a fun peak behind the curtain. Despite missing that chapter selection menu feature I'm so fond of, this is a winning DVD release. An easy 8/10. If you, like myself, haven't been impressed with any of the mega-budgeted science-fiction films of the past few years, I urge you to try out Automatons.