Automatons

James Felix McKenney (2006 83 min, B&W)

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Somewhere in the distant future, The Girl is alone. She is the last of her people, the others having died in a generations-long war that the girl continues to fight with the assistance of a group of antiquated robot helpers and soldiers.


The Village Voice

Nathan Lee Dec 5, 2006

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. Making excellent use of “Robo-Monstervision” (a/k/a what looks like some combination of Super 8 and cheap consumer video) underground auteur James Felix McKenney (CanniBallistic!) updates the post-apocalyptic robot-run-amok flick by downgrading the production values to mesmerizing retro effect. The bleary, stroboscopic black-and-white image parts a grungy curtain on the Girl (Christine Spencer), survivor of some vaguely explained war of the worlds, who’s holing up in a low-tech compound with her robot friends (dudes in cardboard suits). When the ‘bots aren’t going bonkers under the influence of a video signal beamed in by the Enemy Leader (Brenda Cooney), the Girl studies the video diary of the Scientist (Angus Scrimm), whose recounting of the global apocalypse doubles as an allegory of the war on terror. Whatever. Robot radness achieved! Budgets are for bitches.

The NY Sun

S. James Snyder Dec 13, 2006

When it comes to science fiction films, everyone has a definition of campiness — a designation that all too often skews to the truly silly or the hilariously exaggerated.

The problem with “campy” films, like the ridiculous spider-invasion thriller “Eight Legged Freaks” or the low budget, strings-and-wires schlock known as “The Lost Skeleteon of Cadavra,” is that they are limited by an agenda. By exerting so much effort in looking unprofessional and unsophisticated, they draw out our skepticism instead of our affection.

“Automatons,” the unexpectedly mesmerizing, low-budget spectacle (it bills itself as “a low-tech effects film about the horrors of war and robots”) set to light up the Pioneer Theater for an impressive 16-night run, is sure to be dismissed by some as just another campy robot fantasy. A story about a futuristic world, shoddily filmed on grainy black-and-white stock, composed almost entirely on one set, and featuring audio imperfectly dubbed over the action, the only thing more peculiar than the aesthetic is the physical movement of the movie’s stars — the robots. Seemingly constructed out of cardboard, the robots shuffle along at a snail’s pace, lumbering about as if trapped underwater.

Here’s a movie with ideas as big as any to be found in “War of the Worlds,” but with a budget that must have been a fraction of what Steven Spielberg spent on catering.

This is campiness not out of choice, but out of necessity — the kind of camp that leads one to secretly relish the likes of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Outer Limits,”or even the original “Doctor Who.” It’s not a film of compromise but of sheer determination, refusing to be defined by its budget and liberated by a decision to overcome its bank account with sheer imagination.

It says something about the movie that it takes quite a while to learn where — or how — the story takes place. Structured smartly as a mystery, beginning in the fog of a brave new world, writer and director (and producer) James Felix McKenney grounds us in a bunker, watching a woman who seems to do little else besides fix broken robots. Day after day, the Girl (Christine Spencer) polishes them up, sends them out through a series of metallic doors, and then watches their signals on her radar as they attack other robots out in the barren, lifeless outdoors.

Mission after mission, she dispatches these drone fighters, some of which return damaged, some of which fail to return at all. She cleans and she preps, and occasionally the television monitors near her turn on, revealing the faces of a woman or a man — the only other faces we see in this vision of the future. The former, we come to learn, is that of an enemy commander, apparently another woman (Brenda Cooney) in much the same position as our heroine — with her own robot army and the ability to send out radio signals that turn the Girl’s robots against her.

The man (Angus Scrimm, well known to horror fans), however, is the only voice in the film that comes to matter. Seen in flashback, through a recording he left for the Girl to find, this man is the haunting voice of the past, informing the present of how this misery came to be. Listening to him, we learn of how a great war was launched — a relentless war against those who would seek to destroy the prosperity of the Girl’s country — and how these robots were created to help forge freedom around the globe. As the Girl continues to unearth videos left by the Man, they become more cryptic and foreboding. The war is not going well, he says in later recordings, and as the landscape around him becomes increasingly ravaged by violence, he comes to question the worth of all he has believed and fought for.

This is the extent of the movie’s tools: a character in the present, toiling over her war preparations, a character in the past, putting the war in context, and the bizarre one two-punch of shuffling robots and radar beeps to convey battles now under way. Yet somehow, against all the expectations that have been built up by big-budget blockbusters, the film works, as Mr. McKenney patiently unravels the reality of his future nightmare.

From the opening shot we’re drawn in, unsure why these robots are fighting, why they are moving so slowly, or who’s really controlling them. Even the film’s grainy black-and-white photography, often interrupted by a pulsating white strobe light, gives the movie an exciting, disorienting glow. The soundtrack, divided among the sounds of ray guns, radar bleeps, recorded voices, and resounding silence, offers a wild variation in texture.

And it all ends with a punch, as Mr. McKenney’s claustrophobic technique becomes his way not only of accommodating his small budget, but of evoking the film’s themes of isolation and denial. Sure, it’s campy. We’ve got all those robots and that post-apocalyptic jargon, all that bleakness and those weak special effects. But as is true with all the great experiments in camp, the frills don’t matter when there are firm — and fascinating — ideas behind them.

If Hollywood’s star-driven, risk-avoiding formulas have proved anything, it’s that beauty can only beguile for so long. And if great campy sci-fi has offered any meaningful counterpoint, it’s that the ugliest of visions can also be the most captivating.

Film Threat

Steve Anderson April 3, 2007

Okay…it’s time for one of those little thought experiments that make life so downright puzzling. What do you make of a movie that loudly proclaims that it’s “Filmed in Robo-Monstervision”, which is apparently code for “Dude, you’d better not have epilepsy when you watch the first two minutes of this” and also features Angus Scrimm–the ever-lovin’ Tall Man himself–as a scientist? The answer is clear…”Automatons” is an excellent homage to the movies of yesteryear, and will be quite a thrill for anyone who misses those old days.

“Automatons” has not only the look but also the plot of a mid-twentieth century science fiction movie. Fifties or sixties–I’d call either a fair guess. Basically, a war has boiled off the Earth’s atmosphere, and this yielded massive depopulation, massive sterilization, and attempts to repopulate the Earth with human clones. The “enemy”, meanwhile, has figured out several ways to co-opt “our” equipment via radio transmission, and that includes robots. For one valiant holdout living in a cave with a handful of robots, this could mean quite a few problems.

I do wonder, however, how serious the risk actually is for epileptics who see “Automatons”. The screen regularly flashes and rolls like the Litton Light Test gone berserk. Though I’m not personally fond of old movies, I can’t say that there’s really all that much wrong with “Automatons”. The robot battle scenes are the grandest style of kitsch, amd the interstitials between robot ventures are packed with bluster, bravado, and dialogue that makes it clear no one has a clue what they’re talking about. Listening to Angus Scrimm talk is like listening to someone who’s been watching way, way too much Fox News, one minute saying “the enemy hates our freedom” and the next saying “oh, yeah, we had to institute curfews for everybody”. Which was probably at least part of the point…nothing like a little political allegory to spark up an otherwise dull movie.

I’m not a big fan of retro tech with flashing screens every few minutes, and the pacing is as slow as syrup–I remember looking at the time counter and being amazed that I’d only cleared a half-hour, and still had over an hour to go!

I never wished so hard that I had the ‘bots from the Satellite of Love hanging around, because this was the kind of movie Doc Forrester should be launching at me. And when watched from that peculiar perspective, suddenly “Automatons” takes on a whole new life of its own. What would Joel and / or Mike have done with this? I’m not sure, but I bet they would’ve had a field day with the fifteen minutes of empty space at the end. I’m not kidding, either–fifteen minutes after the credits roll is just empty black space.

All in all, if you’re into retro tech, or just retro sci-fi, or damn good MiSTie fodder, then you’re going to love “Automatons”, which definitely has the look, feel, and plot of a two-reeler popcorn muncher down at the Bijou. It would’ve gone really well right alongside “I Was A Teenage Something-Or-Other”, and if nothing else, you can get some mileage out of the old Servo and Crow puppets you built back in the eighth grade.

DVD Active

Dustin McNeill

“If we are unable to produce children from our loins ever again… then let this brutal conflict be our offspring!” – The Scientist

Feature

This year is indeterminate, but it’s some time in the future. The atmosphere has been obliterated and mankind has somehow become sterile in the name of profits and progress. An enslaved race of cold, unfeeling robots enact a war that humans no longer have the stomach to do themselves and greatly outnumber their fleshy masters. The final battle of the Robot War, a senseless campaign of devastating violence fought by competing men of different philosophies and beliefs, is about to begin.
Automatons focuses on the Girl, a lone soldier stowed away in a n army compound. Apart from mechanical guardians, her only companion is a series of video recordings made by the Scientist, a man who witnessed first-hand the start of the Robot War. The enemy sometimes calls also, but they’re not to be engaged in communication at length.

As if battlefield warfare by remote control wasn’t enough struggle for The Girl, the enemy has found a way to turn her robots against her through radio wave manipulation. This makes Automatons ripe with tension because at any point, her closest guardians may strike out against her. At one frightening turn, she’s startled awake to find a technological nightmare all around her, her friends now foes. Soon the war will be finished as the tagline suggests… this is how humanity will die.

Automatons is a winning science-fiction prize with so many facets worthy of praise. The story is a rich but stinging allegorical condemnation of the current United States political situation. When loneliness sets in, the Girl turns to the video recordings left by her mentor, the Scientist.  At first, he offers encouragement that this war is much needed because terror must be fought at every cost. But as it rages on, he begins to doubt the country to which he develops killing machines for. In later video journals, The Scientist speaks of how personal freedoms are being infringed upon to supposedly better fight the enemy and worriedly tells of those who doubt the government being imprisoned or worse. She thinks not about his words, however, decidedly convinced that whatever humans reside beyond her fortress walls be monsters of evil that must be destroyed.
If you see one movie shot in “Robo-monstervision” this year, let Automatons be it. Visually, it’s a unique fusion of Mystery Science Theater 3000 set design with the nightmarish style of David Lynch. At no point does the film try to hide its shoestring budget production values choosing to instead feature them prominently. The Automatons themselves are a homemade mix of duct-tape, PVC tubing and other household items. It’s all part of a unique visual approach that makes the film terribly charming. Even down to the firecrackers and sparklers that handle most of the pyrotechnic effects, Automatons oozes B-movie charisma.

The sets and robots may be enjoyably shoddy, but the same cannot be said about the acting. Newcomer Christine Spencer superbly carries the picture on her shoulders as The Girl, often being the only character onscreen for extended periods of time. Her mentor by way of video journals is The Scientist exquisitely played by Angus Scrimm (of Phantasm fame). While on camera for a limited amount of time, Scrimm brings great pathos to the role and will arguably be who people walk away remembering foremost from this picture. Brenda Cooney, Larry Fessenden and John Levenge (of Doctor Who fame) round out of the cast.

Video

Presented in full-screen and black/white, this is definitely not going to be one of the discs you pull out to impress upon others the technical heights your new high-definition DVD player and flat-screen television can reach. One must assume that the scratched up, grainy quality of the image is a standard trait of films shot in “Robo-monstervision.” I can’t knock a film for wanting to look less than stellar as part of it’s artistic direction, but I also can’t award a high rating to a movie that looks the way Automatons does. I’ll give it an even 5/10 for video just to be fair but consider yourself warned, the picture is not a pretty one.

Audio

On the positive side, the audio goes hand in hand with the video in terms of quality to create a constant technical style. On the negative side, the same applies. The sound on Automatons is a real shame because while we can’t expect much visually from a disc that houses a film as murky as this one, the sound design here is pretty darn creative and unfortunately not given a real chance to shine. Viewers are stuck with a limiting Stereo track. I understand the direction the filmmakers were heading in with this deteriorated technical feel but some form of surround sound would’ve been a good thing in scenes like the robot battles. I have to go with a mildly disappointed 6/10 here.

Extras
‘Death to the Automatons’ is an hour-long featurette chronicling the shooting of Automatons. There are several laughs to be had here watching James Felix McKenney and company work their low-budget magic. You can see the director testing out fireworks and accidentally shooting one of them into the camera man. You can also see Angus Scrimm’s scenes being shot inside of what appears to be a parked semi-trailer lit by a flood-light. Possibly even more fun than those spectacles put together is watching the gory battle victims being covered in chocolate syrup and makeup appliances. Everyone looks like they had a lot of fun making the show which makes us watching them make it fun also.

‘A Few Minutes with Angus Scrimm’ is a bizarrely comical rant with the modern genre icon. The Kansas-born actor unaccountably adopts a Brooklyn accent (and accompanying attitude) for his musings. You won’t get a terrible lot of fact or insight from these eight minutes but if you’re even remotely familiar with the performer then you should certainly get a chuckle watching him ham it up. Rounding out the disc are camera/effects tests and the original theatrical trailer.

If I had one complaint with this entire release, it’s the lack of a chapter menu. The feature film is indeed divided into chapters but there’s no menu listing of these chapters. It’s awfully frustrating when you’re trying to find a particular scene in a movie as nightmarish and dark as Automatons. It’s a very basic feature for DVDs to have so it’s absence is strange and even annoying. Despite this exclusion, I rate these extras with a 7/10.

Overall

Arguably his most important film to date, Automatons is tour de force for director James Felix McKenney. It’s the opinion of this reviewer that ten years from now, we’ll be able look back on this title as one of many in a filmography gradually crescendoing in excellence.

This disc meets the amazingly low technical demands of the film (as would a third-generation videotape copy) and the supplements are a fun peak behind the curtain. Despite missing that chapter selection menu feature I’m so fond of, this is a winning DVD release. An easy 8/10. If you, like myself, haven’t been impressed with any of the mega-budgeted science-fiction films of the past few years, I urge you to try out Automatons.

The Reeler

S.T. VanAirsdale Dec 11, 2006

James Felix McKenney’s dream started in front of a television. He remembers watching in his grandfather’s basement, couldn’t say when or what besides the pure spectacle of robots doing battle. Whatever it was, he was transfixed — and demanded more.

“It might have been a Godzilla movie? A Lost in Space episode?” McKenney recalled to The Reeler. “I don’t know. I asked my uncle what it was, and in explaining it to me, he said there were a whole bunch of movies like this. What I guess he meant was ‘science fiction,’ but at the time, I thought it was like cowboys-and-Indians or war films — that there were just hundreds of movies out there of robots fighting. So I always thought I would see these movies someday. Then I got older and home video came along, and I was crushed to find out they didn’t exist.”

That was almost 20 years ago. Hence Automatons, the New York-based director’s third feature film, opening Wednesday at the Pioneer Theater. A monochrome glimpse of dystopia fueled by propaganda, war and a fatally imploded technology race (sound familiar?), Automatons fuses surging political critiques to experimental sci-fi in a gritty, grainy 8mm black-and-white that plants viewers squarely in its heroine’s nightmare. Except the “heroine” isn’t much of a heroine at all: known only as The Girl (and played with matter-of-fact genre chops by Christine Spencer), the lone human in her stable spends her hours and days repairing obsolete robotics that must finish a war that has left Earth largely uninhabitable. Her only records of the past are video transmissions of The Scientist (Phantasm‘s Angus Scrimm), whose nationalistic bromides and best wishes withstand neither the rebellion outside his door nor the periodic, present-day satellite interference of The Enemy Leader (Brenda Cooney).

As one of the few surviving reactionaries, The Girl must ensure what little future she has with her antiquated robots’ aid, but as with other chip-brained nemeses of sci-fi past, she must first control and survive their learned instincts to attack her. Automatons’ microbudget (and McKenney’s own tastes, luckily for him) dictates robots that have been made in Man’s own image, or at least in his shape, and their combat veers from sclerotic camp to swift, stunning bursts of robot-on-human violence as The Girl tracks down her restless tormentors.

The robots symbolize the extinction of ideology as much as that of humans; their specific purpose has its roots in warfare, not victory. As such, McKenney said, that political criticism you hear is not just in your head. “All great science fiction is always a comment on current times, whether it’s Star Trek or Godzilla or whatever,” he said. “It’s really just about the stupidity of humanity, that we can build these devices that will wipe everybody from the face of the earth, but that includes us. They might outlive us.”

The director hastens to add that even a fun movie can present a message, implying that Automatons’ forays into splotchy, overdubbed kitsch are light-hearted enough to offset its thematic weight. Maybe so, but its experimentation is more engaging, featuring extended sequences of robot puppets waging battle in a devastated miniature waste-scape. Lasers blast into metallic heads — everything catches fire, explodes and melts in long, loving close-ups, The result yields roaring, grainy carnage resembling a chiaroscuro love child of Eraserhead and Team America: World Police. And only thendoes the bloody climax of impalements, dismemberments and drillings commence, allowing the ironic comfort of horror conventions to fill in the widening vacuum of genre expectations.

McKenney shot most of Automatons in 15 days in an old ice cream factory in Greenpoint, though he handled the Scrimm sequences over four hours in a minimally set-designed storage trailer in Hollywood. Actor/filmmaker Larry Fessenden, the New York indie horror kingpin who executive produced the film under his Scareflix label, had previously produced McKenney’s feature The Off Season and greenlitAutomatons as much for its ingenuity and insight as its mini-budget doability.

“We all know what it references,” Fessenden told me last weekend. “It references a certain type of sci-fi movie crossed with some kind of memory that we have of loving old black and white movies. So I must say, in every way, it’s what I knew we were getting into. The thing that’s special for me about the movie is that not only does it have this charming technique and atmosphere, but in fact, the script is really smart. That’s why Jim is really exceptional — he’s not just interested in these genre movies for the sake of the kitsch. He’s really interested in telling a real sci-fi story with some meaning.”

Now it’s up to audiences to track down that meaning — which they’ve managed in festivals from Oldenburg, Germany, to Boston to Wichita Falls, Texas. The Pioneer run is Automatons‘ premiere theatrical engagement. “I made it because I felt movies like this should exist,” McKenney said. “This is the first movie I’ve ever made where I felt like I could watch it over and over again. Maybe I’m completely blind, but I felt like if I like it, there must be someone else who would like it, too.”

Comic-book Bin

Al Kratina Feb 25, 2008

Too many males, robots in movies are like breast implants on a porn star: the bigger they are, the less likely we are to care if everything else is brain-damaged. However, neither robots nor breast implants are miracle cures. Not even machine parts could save the new Bionic Woman TV series from degenerating into a tiresome Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em match, and nothing Victoria Beckham stuffs in her chest will make her look any less like a bronze-age axe blade lashed onto a bundle of tree branches.

Thankfully, the robots in Automatons, though plentiful, are but icing on the film’s cake. The aggressively inventive movie is a textbook example of how imagination, ingenuity, and an obsessive love of White Zombie videos can overcome a low budget. In a post-apocalyptic future, a young woman lives alone in an underground bunker, accompanied only by pre-recorded transmissions from her mentor, played to perfection by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm, and an army of robots seemingly constructed from Erector sets and buckets. The unnamed woman is single-handedly continuing the war that destroyed her country, blindly launching attacks against an equally devastated enemy. Essentially a thinly veiled attack on American foreign and domestic policy, Automatons avoids slipping into a semi-literate Green Day manifesto through writer-director James Felix McKenney’s singular vision, which elevates the film to the realm of fantasy, where allegory works best.

Shot on 8mm film, Automatons possesses a dream-like quality, provided you dream in scratchy black and white. Drifting audio and shaky images enhance this atmosphere, perhaps inadvertently, and the cumulative effect is that of a 1940s sci-fi serial having a nightmare. The robots, clunky hybrids of early Iron Man suits and vintage Black & Decker power tools, create a retro vibe that contrasts nicely with the modern torture porn violence that drenches the final moments of the film in fluid. Most impressively, Christine Spencer, who plays The Girl, holds her own amidst the art direction and the robots, and never lets the inherent artifice of the film overwhelm her performance. Though if the robots had breast implants, it might have been a different story.

Facets’ DVD release contains a behind the scenes featurette, an interview with Angus Scrimm, camera and effects tests, and the original trailer.

Rating: 9 on 10

Quiet Earth

Jan, 24 2008

Robot radness achieved! Review of Automatons

I stole the robot radness line from the Village Voice but it’s definitely appropriate. Filmed in “robo-monstervision”, which I think translates to cheap black and white security camera running at about 15 frames per second, is a little gem and hopefully a glimpse of greater things to come from James. The filming style only adds to the sense of urgency and technological decay and really breathes life into the automatons (the robots). Oh, and did I mention Larry Fessenden was the executive producer and also makes a short appearance? Yeah that Larry, the one which wrote and directed The Last Winter which I loved.

The film uses what looks like a garage setting with lots of television’s, people in metal robot suits, pci cards for electronics, and scurrying little bots reminiscent of those in Jaba the hut’s palace. Don’t worry though, all of this is obfuscated with the cinematography which also lends a vintage science fiction feel to the entire thing. To this end, the sound effects are also spot on, especially during the automaton battle.

In what we later find out is an underground setting, one of the last humans on earth spends her days listening to recordings of her “father” (played by Angus Scrimm) about the past and the key part of the story, the running war. With contemporary political overtones, the Dr. (Angus) talks of ongoing battles with foreign nations, bringing up suicide bombers and their efforts to create more destructive robots. He also goes in depth about the enemies use of radio attacks to take control of their robots and tamper with their electronic systems, causing them to revert back to analog ways for the environmental controls.

Her enemy keeps breaking through her defenses with their radio attacks, so at random points throughout the film her own robots attacks her and she has to quickly run to jam the signals. This is always followed by dropping in another recording from dear old dad with the continuing story of the war, and as it progresses the facade that’s implied is dropped and we get to hear a hint of the truth. However, the girl doesn’t heed any of this and continues her battle using the automatons.

You’re probably wondering why, with all the good things I’ve said, this is only getting a 6.5 rating. The storyline, cinematography, the ending, in fact the entire vision was great but the one problem was the lead actress, Christine Spencer, who’s performance and ADR (automated dialog replacement) only detracted from the film. Regardless, any Phantasm fan (of which I am one) will want to see this for Angus Scrimm’s role alone. I don’t know why this guy hasn’t gotten more work, he’s really amazing. I’m also looking forward to James next film, Satan Hates You!

 

 

TV Guide

Maitland McDonagh

Imagine THE TERMINATOR (1984) made for a sum that wouldn’t have bought that modestly budgeted film’s raw stock, and you’ll have some idea what to expect from James Felix McKenney’s DYI sci-fi allegory. Sometime in the future, the Earth has been poisoned by generations of unending war. One survivor — a nameless young woman (Christine Spencer) — lives alone in a bunker and listens to tapes made by her mentor (Angus Scrimm), a long-dead scientist, while surrounded by the robots — some battle models, some designed as household help — that he helped design. The robots themselves recall old-fashioned B-movies like the Commander Cody serial RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952), PHANTOM FROM SPACE (1953), TOBOR THE GREAT and GOG (both 1954): Tin men with metal-hose arms and legs and claw hands. Though his messages to her start out filled with optimism that his battle machines will soon defeat their enemies, the later tapes are increasingly dour and tempered by his realization that the war has been futile and that his own government has systematically lied about the nature of the conflict. The girl carries on the fight, repairing old robots and building new ones, occasionally taunted by video transmissions from the enemy leader (Brenda Cooney), whose own technicians are always devising ways to turn the girl’s own machines against her. The film seems aimed at the forgotten 10-year-old within who thrills at the thought of watching stop-motion animated robots blow each other up in smudgy black-and-white — the kind of thing some overprotective babysitter didn’t let them watch on TV because it might trigger nightmares. And in this case, the babysitter might have been right. In the climax, the girl’s metal army storms the enemy compound, their everyday grasping hands replaced by a lethal array of swords, circular saws and maces they don’t hesitate to use on the puny humans. The acting is flat, and the scientist’s ideological speeches too bluntly designed to mirror post-9/11 rhetoric. But there’s a dreamy fascination to the iconic images of machines fighting a perpetual war for the human creators they’ll inevitably outlast.

B is for Brains

Jan 24th, 2007

What a joy! Automatons could have easily become a refurbished parody or homage to numerous classic films and television shows from over half a century ago, but instead, it stands stably on its own two metallic, shimmying, corrugated legs.

The setup, which is told to us in a most discerning way through recorded videos being played back by The Girl, our resident robot repairer, is that the timeframe in which this story takes place, on either this planet or an entirely fictional one, only two remaining ’super-powers’ exist in the world. Each of the remaining factions has it’s own supply of monstorous mechanical soldiers, and neither appears to be giving in any time soon.

Our heroin goes on about her most dubious way and repairs the robots battle after glorious, explosive battle. The exposition taking place constantly as a voice-over by video playback unravels the history of this world. B-veteran Angus Scrimm provides that voice, and manages to keep the movie rolling along briskly with his delivery as an arrogant, fascist scientist bent on stomping out insurgents, terrorists, and eventually, just plain ‘foreigners’. Where have I seen this before….

Getting Serious: Because of the moderate production, it carries with it something dearly missing at the theaters these days; simplicity. You may receive vivid nuances of the brilliance of Alien and Blade Runner while watching Automatons, and, much like those two quintessential sci-fi flicks, pacing plays a terrific role in this film. Its slow, deliberate shots cause the viewer to become immersed in the scene. A lingering image of a lone robot wandering on an open plain, for instance, causes us to shed the comedic value of the realization that we are viewing simple robot puppets. Most of the other scenes involving miniatures and technical readouts achieve realism in a similar fashion; by extending the length of the shot and therefore forcing the audience to pay closer attention to the situation, which creates tension instead of laughter. Also, the wonderfully realistic and timeless sound effects are very effective in convincing us that we are seeing something other than tiny tin toys and fireworks. A mild hum of electronic warmth can easily transport the audience to the home of our heroin, a robot chop-shop.

Lighten Up: This is the way true B-movies should be made, even today. All sense of sleek computer effects have been stricken from vision. The familiar jump and flicker of the frame are delightful to see. This movie contains everything that the “new and improved” George Lucas is missing. It has charm, and it has character. Also, Automatons has guts!!! Just when you thought the anti-war, anti-imperialistic message might end with a whimper, it ends with a BANG. Not to take away from the allegorical importance of the flick, but this show has some incredible, shocking gore. Gore-a-philes out there requiring your daily dose of venting vitals will delight in the multiple robo rampages.

After it’s all said and done, Automatons leaves you extremely satisfied. Nothing is lacking in this unique vision of the future. It delivers an interesting story and intriguing characters, simple as that. Budget hardly enters into it. (unless you giggle when 3-inch robots get blasted in the face with sparklers and melted with roman candles)

NY Times

Jeanette Catsoulis Dec 13, 2006

With its retro look, cautionary theme and not-so-special effects, “Automatons” is a shameless ode to ’60s sci-fi and classic television shows like “Lost in Space” and “The Outer Limits.” Shot in silvery black-and-white with old 8-millimeter cameras, the movie depicts a blasted, depopulated future in which the few remaining humans wage a remorseless war of competing beliefs.

Yet this evocation of a time before C.G.I. and other technical marvels is more than just the nostalgic reframing of a current ideological impasse. As we watch a lone young woman (Christine Spencer) live out her life in a crumbling laboratory, endlessly repairing an ever-dwindling army of clunky robots, the movie’s loving attention to light and shade transcends its hermetic setting and meager budget. At times the buzzing static and fizzy backlighting recall the glistening surrealism of the filmmaker Guy Maddin, while the decaying mise-en-scène effectively suggests a planet — and a species — exhausted by human conflict.

Written and directed by James Felix McKenney, “Automatons” is driven less by its hints of suicide bombers than by its rigorous adherence to a time when robots were played by inverted dustbins and battles were represented by dots converging on a crackling screen. This lack of sophistication is enormously endearing, leaving us with the comforting notion that the end of the world will look a lot like the beginning of television.

AUTOMATONS

Written, directed and edited by James Felix McKenney; director of photography, David W. Hale; music by the Noisettes with score by Noah DeFilippis; produced by Lisa Wisely and Mr. McKenney; released by Glass Eye Pix. At the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, 155 East Third Street, at Avenue A, East Village. Running time: 83 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Christine Spencer (the Girl), Brenda Cooney (the Enemy Leader), Angus Scrimm (the Scientist), Noah DeFilippis (the Companion Robot), Don Wood (the Helper Robot), John Anthony Blake (the Communications Captain) and Larry Fessenden (Enemy Guard).



CHRISTINE SPENCER – is an actress, known for Automatons (2006), Satan Hates You (2010) and Absolute Trust (2009).

ANGUS SCRIMM – most famous as “The Tall Man” in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) and its sequels, grew up in Kansas City, but in his teens moved to California and studied drama at USC under William C. de Mille (brother of Cecil B. DeMille). His film debut came as another “Tall Man” he played Abraham Lincoln in an educational film made by Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which led him to a steady career in theater, television and film. His big-screen debut was in Jim, the World’s Greatest (1976), directed by then 18-year-old Coscarelli. During this time he was using his birth name, Lawrence Rory Guy. He adopted the stage name Angus Scrimm three years later for his performance in Coscarelli’s horror/sci-fi opus “Phantasm”, which would mark Scrimm’s permanent impression upon modern cinema. His role as the infamous Tall Man has earned him the praise of critics worldwide, as well as a large following of fans. His success in the “Phantasm” films has been parlayed into numerous other malevolent roles including the evil Dr. Sin Do in The Lost Empire (1984), Vlad the Vampire King in Subspecies (1991) and the nefarious Dr. Lyme opposite Nicolas Cage and Charlie Sheen in Deadfall (1993). Scrimm did intriguing double duty as the diabolical Seer and the angelic Systems Operator in Mindwarp (1992), co-starring Bruce Campbell. He did a shock cameo in the Italian film Fatal Frames – Fotogrammi mortali (1996), opposite Stefania Stella andDonald Pleasence, and managed a gleeful parody of himself as the hulking henchman inTransylvania Twist (1989). Scrimm has not limited his career efforts to simply acting, however. As a journalist he has written and edited for “TV Guide”, “Cinema Magazine”, the now-defunct “Los Angeles Herald-Examiner” and other publications. He has also written liner notes for thousands of LPs and CDs, for just about every genre from classical music to jazz, from Frank Sinatra and The Beatles to Artur Rubinstein and Itzhak Perlman. He won a Grammy award for best album liner notes.

DON WOOD – is an actor and writer, known for CanniBallistic!(2002), Satan Hates You (2010) and The Off Season (2004).

JENNIFER BOUTELL – is an actress, known for Satan Hates You (2010), The Pod (2006) and Urchin(2007)

BRENDA COONEY – was born in Ireland. She is known for her work on The House of the Devil(2009), The Innkeepers (2011) and I Sell the Dead (2008).

NOAH DeFILIPPIS – is known for his work on CanniBallistic! (2002), Automatons (2006) and The Off Season (2004).

JOHN LEVENE – (real name John Anthony Woods) left home at the age of 21 and travelled to London. He was working in a men’s clothing store when he met Telly Savalas (who was making the film “The Dirty Dozen”) and he was inspired to become an actor. He joined an agency which provided walk-on actors. He had to change his name because every variation on it was being used by a member of the British actor’s union, Equity.

His physical stature earned him the role of a cyberman in the 1968 “Doctor Who” adventure ‘The Invasion’, but director Douglas Camfield gave him the role of Corporal Benton when the actor originally cast in the part was sacked. This was to become his best known role and he played the part of Benton regularly in the series until 1975, when he was written out. In 1977 Levene quit acting and in the 1980s he moved to the USA.



JAMES FELIX McKENNEY, writer/director/producer –  was born on May 27, 1968 in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. He is a producer and director, known for The Off Season (2004), CanniBallistic! (2002) andAutomatons (2006).



AUTOMATONS
(2007, CD – The Noisettes)

Music from AUTOMATONS by The Noisettes with additional tracks by Noah DeFilippis and Graham Reznick.

AVAILABLE FROM CD BABY AND THROUGH iTUNES