One of the more intriguing elements of science fiction is its allegorical ability. Using a fantasy or fictional setting to comment on the current state of society has always been one of the genre’s greatest strengths. It allows the author to discuss subjects and situations that otherwise would result in controversy and/or contention. But when buffered by aliens, future shock situations, and interstellar overdrives, even the most debatable material can be dissected and discussed in a rationale, insightful manner. That’s why so many film fans lament the category’s slip into straight forward Star Wars space battling. Where once serious speculative fiction meant the free exchange of ideas, now it’s all Ewoks and heavy breathing man-machine villains.
Within the context of this blank Buck Rodgers, a desolate landscape visualized via tiny handmade props, we have issues regarding national and personal security, the abuse of power, the mismanagement of science, and the blind faith in violence to resolve all issues. There are hints of the Republican desire for a new world order as well as talk of terrorism and fanaticism overruling reason and rationality. Throughout the course of the plot, as our rogue engineer tries to repair and reprogram her minions, a videolog of her famed father’s rantings (essayed with verve by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm) play in the background, and it’s during these screeds that we learn most of the narrative backdrop – the state of emergency, the competing philosophies, the Terminator-like takeover of the machines.
Granted, filmmaker James Felix McKenney borrows a lot of his outsized ideas. There are elements borrowed from James Cameron’s classic, as well as The Matrix, Dark City, and any number of human vs. mechanism protocols. The use of grade-Z visuals adds to the disquiet, as well as the grainy, caught on surveillance sense of the cinematography. There are moments of stagnant optical ambiguity, times when we aren’t sure what we are watching and where the action is taking place. During the so-called action scenes, where minuscule monsters shoot animated ammunition at each other in an attempt to create the epic on a very small scale, we wonder if McKenney can pull it off. Once we get to the final confrontation, however, the splatter-oriented stylistic choices actually add to our dread.
There are some very gory, very Tetsuo: The Iron Man inspired deaths toward the end of the film, a collection of killings that suddenly shift our understanding of the title machines. While the wordy, whiny stand-off between the two female leaders adds little to the overall tone, watching a cardboard creature rip the limbs off a person in black blood detail is highly effective. The change of perspective is crucial to Automatons' overall success. We want to comprehend the horrible world we are dealing with. But if we can’t have that, we’ll take the grue and its resulting reconfiguration of events. All the while, we believe the robots are just bad F/X. The craven desire to destroy comes as a weird, welcome shock.
This is not the kind of film you come to looking for great acting or insightful direction. The no name cast complements the material well, but they add very little from an emotional or creative angle. They are interchangeable, faces featured within scenes where the demons are in the sci-fi details. Also, McKenney tends to use the battle scenes as tension gathering time sucks. There are sequences of inventive composition, moments when the conflict looks like the panel from an early EC comic. In fact, a lot of Automatons recalls old school space operatics filtered through a retro, almost ridiculous conceit. But then the ‘bots bring the blood, and the message gets incredibly, incredibly mean.
For all it accomplishes, for all the imagination and "Robo-Monstervision" it employs to rise above basic camp and cult kitsch, this is a movie that will be judged almost solely on its schlock. With break-dancing extras trying to act mechanical, bodies trapped in large cardboard and tin foil mock ups, it's hard to rise above the ridiculousness. But McKenney tries, and for the most part, succeeds. Facets Video has released this film on DVD with a wealth of extras that truly highlight the effort put into this production. The Behind the Scenes featurette illustrates the difference between the color world of digital video and the single hue aura of celluloid. We see tests for how the effects will work and overall artistic concepts for the film. While it may feel like the sloppy stumbling of a shoe-string visionary, the extras explain that there is much more to Automatons than meets the candy-less eye.
In fact, it's safe to say that, decades from now, when cinephiles are looking through the past to find meaning in the otherwise mediocre mainstreams of post-modern cinema, something like Automatons will be rediscovered - and readily embraced. Similar to another mindboggling achievement in no-budget tone poetry - Cory McAbee's brilliant The American Astronaut - we again have proof that serious speculative fiction can rely more on ideas than optics to make its many points. While some have suggested the film channels Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone, or even vintage Outer Limits, it's far more original (at least ideologically) to realize such retro aims. In fact, it's far more original than such hints of homage suggest. The "This is How Humanity Dies" tagline should be rephrased to state "This is how true speculative storylines are handled". That's this small film's greatest achievement.