DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny
FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm
PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives in an underground bunker; her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice, and is so here.
COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest. Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes? No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster (1953) and is repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless movies.
The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old “Superman” TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tintypes. Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.
Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu. Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about Automatons. It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some mistake that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as that to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre. The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies, and is not what gives Automatons its original flavor.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)