Robot Overlords

Carrickfergus and Donaghadee provide the backdrop for this bland sci-fi that could yet find an audience as an inadvertent cult comedy

The seaside vistas of Carrickfergus and Donaghadee do not immediately conjure images of moviemaking, nor might one imagine them to be especially cinematic settings. Facing each other across Belfast Lough, they are quiet places, largely out of the way of, well, anything.

In Jon Wright’s Robot Overlords, however, the two towns form the backdrop of an alien invasion tale that creaks beneath the weight of its own pretensions and a derivative, undercooked story. 

As implausible as it sounds, even in the context of robots from outer space colonising the planet, Counties Down and Antrim provide a verdant, if somewhat soulless, battlefield upon which mankind fights back against its oppressors. 

Fantasy pictures lacking limitless blockbuster financing often live and die by the magic created outside of the expensive effects. Gareth Edwards’s Monsters, famously put together for less than $500,000, succeeded because its visceral human elements felt so real. The digital work was, as one might expect, a bit ropey, yet that seemed ultimately irrelevant, such was the quality of the storytelling.

Ironically, unforgivably even, Robot Overlords succeeds, just, on the former count and fails, quite miserably, in delivering a plot that feels even slightly interesting. Instead, an occasionally excruciating family drama plays out in the broader shadow of a slightly more expensive Doctor Who episode, though this is just as tacky, and infinitely longer. 

Here, having lost a war against the invaders, humans are now a conquered species, confined to their homes, ruled over by a race of robotic despots with the aid of their Vichy-like human allies, most notably the snivelling Smythe (Sir Ben Kingsley). 

This premise is pulpy and unoriginal, that much is obvious. Neither is a cardinal sin, of course, yet such is the clumsy construction, the unremarkable acting, the risible dialogue that Wright’s film, furnished with a not insubstantial $21-million budget, carries a charmless whiff long before the boring conclusion. 

A glazed looking Gillian Anderson plays Kate, the matriarch of a family unit made up of breezily sarcastic teenagers: her son, Sean (Callan McAuliffe), and orphan siblings, Nathan (James Tarpey) and Alexandra (Ella Hunt).

Her husband, Danny (Sean Harris), an RAF pilot, is AWOL following the post-invasion skirmishes, a fact that leads to much brooding on the part of Sean — marked out as the notional hero by his good looks, ruffled hair and vaguely rebellious spirit — who, on the off chance that the neighbours haven’t mentioned seeing his long-lost father, takes to lobbing tennis balls stuffed with pleas for information into surrounding gardens.

Funnily enough, this turns up the exact snippet of information required and thus Sean leads his merry crew (including Milo Parker’s Connor, a new addition who looks strangely upbeat given that he just witnessed his father being vaporised by a drone) on a meek adventure that quickly becomes an unspeakably dull uprising. They cavort through empty streets that look like they’ve been closed off for a film shoot and, in another stroke of good fortune, Sean soon develops the ability to telepathically control the robot sentinels, bending them to his will. 

The conceit is interesting, initially, yet it soon descends into an unexplained and semi-mystical slice of clichéd hokiness that comes to dominate the entire narrative. So eager is Wright to embrace this novel twist that the remainder of his movie is rendered hollow, mere window dressing in a picture bedeviled by its own bland sci-fi stylings.

Indeed, Sean’s newfound omnipotence is so mysterious that even the interlopers appear bamboozled, cobbling together a pursuit of sorts that sees the bow tie-sporting Smythe probe a collection of stereotypes – the armchair seditionist; the tough yet kindly gangster (British Z-movie fixture Tamer Hassan) — with a brain-melting machine, while simultaneously seeking to woo Kate with boxes of Tetley and a creepy shoulder on which to cry. 

Smythe's overseer, the unsettling Mediator 452 (Craig Garner), a diminutive, unblinking and childlike automaton, is so determined to study this phenomenon during an ambitious, sky-based finale that he hitches a lift on a flying droid in order to confront his nemesis and set off the decade’s least frightening boss fight. 

Robot Overlords goes on general release now.

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