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DVD SAVANT

Automatons
This is How Humanity Dies


Automatons
Facets
2006 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 83 min. / Street Date January 29, 2008 / 24.95
Starring Christine Spencer, Brenda Cooney, Angus Scrimm
Cinematography David W. Hale
Lead Puppeteer Laree Love
Sounds by Noah DeFilippis
Original Music The Noisettes
Produced by Lisa Wisely, James Felix McKenney
Written, Edited and Directed by James Felix McKenney

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant will review an oddball independent and even a direct-to-video movie, but only if the subject is of interest. Although science fiction always gets my attention few cheapies amount to much, especially when it comes to concept. Automatons is a micro-budgeted movie about robot wars. An effective series of screenings earned the film a number of intriguing critic's quotes, like "Best shoestring Sci-Fi of 2006" (Wired), "Enormously endearing" (The New York Times) and "Robot Radness Achieved" (The Village Voice). The post-apocalyptic saga has some fun with its several kinds of retro robots, which look like killer bots from 50s movies like Target: Earth. And although its production and visuals are tatty, considerable arts 'n' crafts ingenuity has been used in putting the show together. The script is Captain Video with an obvious chip on its shoulder against the Iraq War. Blurry B&W cinematography helps mask the iffy effects but otherwise detracts from the experience ... fans not enthralled by the attempt to do Star Wars with no money, will find much of the picture a bore.

Synopsis:

An endless future war has resulted in the loss of the atmosphere and the eradication of most of humanity. Surrounded by helper robots, a Woman (Christine Spencer) works to send warrior robots to do battle with the robots of a rebel enemy. Their spokeswoman (Brenda Cooney) appears in periodic television broadcasts to make terrorist threats. The Woman also replays old videotapes recorded by the scientist who raised her (Angus Scrimm). His video diary records the progress of the long war from early victories to later defeats, and calls the rebels 'the enemies of freedom'. In a new wrinkle, the rebels have found a way to take control of the Woman's robots and turn them against her.

Automatons begins with a crude image of radar blips moving on a 'vector screen', accompanied by a repetitious sound effect. This lasts at least a minute and is enough to tempt many viewers to turn away then and there. Similar static padding returns at frequent intervals, muting the impact of director James Felix McKenney's humorless scenario. The premise is that a generations-long robot war has wiped out almost all life on earth and made the surface of the planet uninhabitable. 'Our' side continues to fight only because The Woman has a talent for makeshift robot repairs. While she readies another mechanical onslaught, the Woman listens to the Scientist's video diary accounts of the robot war. Most of the content of Automatons comes in the form of the Scientist's storybook sessions; we remain cooped up in what looks like an audiovisual repair shop while a face on a video image describes the breakdown of society and the disaster that followed.

Plenty of 1950s Sci-Fi movies told stories that the filmmakers couldn't afford to visualize. The back story would be handled by characters telling each other what happened, which is at least an attempt to dramatize the situation, even with a bad script. Automatons plays actor Angus Scrimm's rather good monologue on a video monitor while The Woman putters in the shop. There's no character contact, and nothing dramatic emerges. The Scientist's diary consists of alarmist platitudes indistinguishable from present-day Neocon tub-thumping about defending freedom. The theme is developed no further than, 'blind aggression is Bad."

Automatons does deliver plenty of action. The implacable enemy has discovered how to take radio control of The Woman's robots, which results in a couple of scenes of claw-snapping jeopardy. In the last act The Woman's robots successfully breach the enemy stronghold in a ray gun battle that cues several minutes of gory killings. The 'twist' ending mimics the old song One Tin Soldier, and The Woman learns too late that hostility is futile. Her 'righteous' struggle was nothing more than an ignorant policy of extermination.

Sci-Fi fans will be more interested in what the film looks like. A corps of creative craftspeople has constructed a series of clever old-fashioned robots, the kind with aluminum boxes for bodies and flexible heater ducting for arms. One model looks like R2-D2 with legs. They shuffle and lumber about, the better to match with puppet robots that do most of the fighting on formless sets representing the earth's blasted surface. Lightweight puppet tops are placed on wind-up toy robot legs; thin threads keep them headed in the right direction. Staccato cutting combined with superimposed ray gun blasts and explosions simulate Rock 'em Sock 'em robot combat.

Also, fairly good gore effects show the defending rebels skewered, burned and cut up by robots with stilettos and buzz saws on their arms. As these are the production's 'money shots', the story dutifully comes to a halt for every act of mutilation.

An old space movie called The Angry Red Planet added a solarized red wash to its Mars scenes and called it CineMagic. The interesting process had the added benefit of flattening the image, improving the appearance of crudely painted backdrops and fake monster models. Automatons is filmed in B&W Super-8, with many effects recorded and composited on video. The result is a low-res image that obscures the dime store special effects, but often looks as if it had been re-filmed from a faulty television monitor. The better scenes resemble faulty TV reception, and in other shots we can barely see what's going on. On the disc's liner notes, the filmmaker states that this was on purpose -- Automatons intentionally looks like a tenth-generation grey-market dupe.  1


Facets Video's release of Automatons is a good flat B&W encoding of this intentionally low-res production. Sound is good, although most of the post-dubbed audio has sync issues. Probably hand-finished on a computer, the audio atmospheres and sound effects are occasionally very creative. One of the battles is accompanied by a rock score from a group called The Noisettes.

The main DVD extra is almost as interesting as the film itself. A long featurette shows the painstaking technical work behind the fabrication of the sets, effects and makeup; it seems a shame that the Super-8 format negates so much of this detail work. The featurette is refreshingly free of the self-congratulatory promotional nonsense that crops up in many other making-ofs for independent genre pictures. Also included are a video trailer, FX outtakes and an interview with Angus Scrimm, the 'genre icon' of Phantasm.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Automatons rates:
Movie: Fair + ... or Good if you're part of the Film's grunge Sci-Fi target audience
Video: Good considering the overall visual concept favors a degraded image
Sound: Good
Supplements: Making-of featurette, Angus Scrimm interview, outtakes, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Footnote:

1. I had that exact experience, trying to watch Los Angeles station KTTV's Chiller Theater from San Bernardino on an inadequate antenna. I remember conspiring all day to watch Attack of the Crab Monsters, only to be confronted with a picture that was mostly video snow, with snatches of dialogue coming through the static. A sad day for little Savant. The degraded images in Automatons also remind me of my method at age ten of making movies with terrible effects look better ... I squinted, the image smeared out and my imagination filled in the rest! Works every time!
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