Automatons (2006)

It is strange when the best part of a movie is the essay in the liner notes.

That certainly is the case with Facets’ DVD release of writer/director James Felix McKenney’s film.

He tells us of  how he used to watch old science fiction movies on late night TV, tuning in weak signals from distant stations to catch some of the more obscure films. While watching a movie which featured robots battling each other, a casual comment by one of his relatives led him to believe in the existence of a whole genre of movies of such films.

The idea stuck with him long afterwards.  So, when he got his chance to make his first movie, he made the sort of film he’d searched for fruitlessly for years -because they’d never existed.

He quite deliberately chose a  Lo-Fi approach, with men in suits playing the robots indoors and obvious toys in the massed battle scenes; it is shot in grainy black and white, with added phoney static and muffled audio to recreate that old skipwave viewing experience; and hired Angus Scrimm (of Phantasm fame) to play a major part.

For such a quixotic and nostalgic effort, the film itself is surprisingly dark, telling the story of the last survivor of a nation destroyed in an endless robot war.  She lives all alone in her bunker, repairing and improving her army of robots, then sending them out to fight yet more battles. Between battles, she takes time to listen to the disturbing recorded philosophical advice left for her by her scientist “father”. It all ends with a splatter of black blood – and the death of all mankind.

Perhaps McKenny’s effort was doomed from the first.  It could never live up to the story behind it – particularly not when he chose to tell such a dark story.

Ultimately,the underlying concept of the film is far more interesting than the final product.  But it is still enjoyable – particularly if you don’t read the liner notes first.

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