Following an alien invasion, Earth’s inhabitants are forbidden from leaving their homes while their new Robot Overlords carry out their mysterious research. But when a band of adoptive siblings find a way to override their implants, a quest begins to find a missing father, even if it means defying an empire.
Like J. J. Abrams’ Super-8 from a few years ago, Robot Overlords’ plucky-kids-in-danger vibe lovingly homages ’80s family adventures from the likes of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. But with its parochial British setting, Robot Overlords’ most obvious influence is closer to home. The incongruous mecha towering over quaint locations, the mismatched children and the controlling implants all recall John Christopher’s Tripods novels and their ’80s BBC adaptation, although director Jon Wright ups the terminating action quotient and maintains a more breakneck pace than his languid antecedent. The Overlords may have been keeping the human race under curfew for three years, but we’re out of the kids’ house within minutes of the opening credits.
As with Jon Wright’s excellent last film, Grabbers, that pace never really lets up. Overlords isn’t as funny, but it’s clear the same hands are at work in the sparing but judicious use of quite impressive digital FX. And there are wry laughs along the way: at the kids’ interactions; at the deadpanning intonations of diminutive Robot spokesman Mediator 452 (Craig Garner); and especially at Sir Ben Kingsley’s ex-teacher, Mr. Smythe, relishing his newfound power as leader of the ‘Volunteer Corps’.
Elsewhere in the cast, Gillian Anderson is sympathetic, charismatic and entirely un-mumsy as the matriarch of her adopted brood, and there’s fun to be had with the quirky supporting players: Geraldine James plays a gangster, and it’s not often you see Roy Hudd brain-fried in a giant cyber-bowl. The characters aren’t hugely developed, but deftly sketched in a similar way to the film’s locations. Points on the journey’s map are delineated simply as The Hotel, The Castle, The Standing Stones. But they get the story where it needs to go with economical and energetic precision.
Less of a riot than Wright’s previous Grabbers, Robot Overlords displays the same knowing intelligence, sense of fun and deep-rooted love for post-’70s genre film. Unlike its titular villains, it’s sleek and it never malfunctions.