It’s the near future, three years after a race of giant killer robots have invaded the Earth, subjugating humanity, declaring martial law, and confining the population to their homes under virtual house arrest where they are monitored night and day by computer implants. Resistance is futile and the penalty for dissension is death. Anyone caught outside breaking curfew is incinerated and only the members of the Voluntary Corps, human collaborators who serve the robots, can move freely.

When 10-year-old Connor (Milo Parker) is orphaned after his father is killed by the robots, he’s taken in by teenager Sean (Australian actor Callan McAuliffe) and his mother, former English teacher Kate (Gillian Anderson) who’s forced to fend of the unwelcome, lascivious attentions of Mr Smythe (Ben Kingsley), another former teacher now the Voluntary Corps chief quisling. Unable to leave their homes, the residents of Sean’s street have knocked through their attic walls to make a large common room and Sean and Connor spend their days there, hanging out with brother and sister Alex (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (James Tarpey) and listening to the tales of bolshy pensioner Martin (Roy Hudd).

When the kids accidentally discover that a brief electric shock temporarily disables their robot implants allowing them to move freely around the town, they decide to break into the headquarters of the Voluntary Corps in an attempt to find out what happened to Sean’s RAF pilot father Danny (Steven Mackintosh) who was part of a last-ditch resistance against the robot invasion. But their quest brings them into direct conflict with Smythe and the unlikely heroes are forced to make a last desperate stand when they discover the robots true genocidal plans for humanity…

Smart, cheeky and engaging, Grabbers director Jon Wright’s third film Robot Overlords is a refreshingly sunny, cheery entry in the cycle of dark, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, teen movies filling our screens, drawing on the rich British sci-fi traditions of Doctor Who, 2000AD and John Christopher’s The Tripods and closer in spirit to ‘80s classics The Goonies or The Lost Boys rather than the more po-faced Hunger Games or Divergent series’, it’s heroes regular teenagers who bicker and banter and rob a sweet shop the first chance they get before eventually shouldering the burden of saving the world.

As humanity’s saviour Aussie actor Callan McAuliffe is charismatic and solidly heroic and he’s ably supported by his own Scooby gang of helpers; motor-mouthed boaster Tarpey who feel like he’s wandered in from The Inbetweeners, the long-suffering Hunt and, possibly the true brains of the outfit, young Milo Parker. Crucially, McAuliffe’s boyband dreamboat looks aside, they feel like real kids thrust into an extraordinary situation rather than the glum, destiny-driven heroes of a YA novel.

The adults too are good, Gillian Anderson in particular proving adept in the action scenes and one of the highlights of the film is her escape from Voluntary Corps custody by essentially bamboozling and shaming a former pupil who obviously was never the sharpest knife in the drawer and there’s strong support too from Geraldine James and Tamer Hassan as a couple of local gangsters-cum-nascent revolutionaries. The weakest link surprisingly is Ben Kingsley who for some unknown reason has adopted a cod-Yorkshire accent that serves to undercut his traitorous character, a sly inversion of his Itzhak Stern character in Schindler’s List, surviving by turning on his own, by betraying humanity, his lists mean death not life. Kingsley simply never feels like much of a threat, just a bit of a sleaze with designs on the hero’s mum.

While the robot effects are at their best in the film’s night scenes, the sight of massive robot invaders patrolling the deserted streets of the film’s seaside town setting is surprisingly chilling and Wright keeps the film rattling sleekly along at a furious pace, never pausing long enough for you to pick holes in the plot. Perhaps the film’s greatest asset however is it’s FUN! Finally someone has made a kids’ film that’s an old-fashioned romp; smart, funny, scary, action-packed and thrilling, Robot Overlords should appeal to a kid’s audience from 8 to 80.

To paraphrase The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman: “I for one welcome our Robot Overlords!”.

DVD Review: Robot Overlords
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