December 3, 2019 Automation (Movie Review)
Technology only lasts for so long before it is made obsolete. Nintendo 64 games do not look as hot now as they did in 1999. VHS tapes are grungy and murky compared to DVDs, Blu-Ray, and streaming services. While word processors, let alone computers and laptops, put the typewriters out of common use long ago. That is just how progress works, and it is not something one usually thinks about.
Not until they start putting a face on technology, then suddenly even the most twee and inoffensive pieces of media get a dark edge. Thomas the Tank Engine becomes a dystopia where one must be Really Useful to avoid getting scrapped. While the world of the Mega Man video games becomes a grim, post-apocalypse because one scientist wanted to make his own Astro-Boy homage.
Then there is Automation, which cropped up in select theaters on November 29th, 2019, and is due out on VOD/Blu-ray on December 3rd via Epic Pictures. It was directed, edited, produced and written by Garo Setian (Partners in Crime 1996, The Drifter 2005), with aid from Rolfe Kanesky (Bus Party to Hell 2017) and Matthew L. Schaffer (Rat-Man: The Series) on the latter. It tells the story of AUTO (voiced by Jim Tasker: Took A Bullet 2011), a workplace robot who has found out he is going to be replaced with a new model. To protect himself, he decides to take out each of his human workmates. Can they stop him before it is too late?
The film aims to combine the grittiness of 1987’s Robocop with the comedy of 1999’s Office Space. It certainly did enough to win 14 awards on the festival circuit, including Hollywood Horrorfest’s Best Actress award for Elissa Dowling (We Are Still Here 2015), and Best Supporting Actress for Sadie Katz (The Bill Murray Experience 2017). So, it sounds promising. But will it serve the public trust with a good time? Or should it be taken to a field and given the baseball bat treatment?
Surprisingly, it is technically a Christmas film, not that it plays too much into the theme beyond some chintzy office decorations. The Office Space tone is more apparent, as it starts off with ruthless capitalism! Not only is AUTO up for the chop, but most of the humans he works with are too! The difference is that the boss, Bill (Jeff Rector: Pray Another Day 2003) agonizes a little over the decision rather than giving a shrug.
That is not to say it is some exposé on corporate culture. The film is not aiming to top 2015’s Chappie in drama or looks. It is a B-movie, from AUTO being a man in a cluttered-looking suit, to the Syfy Channel movie-style direction that adds to that cheesy tone. Still, the film works within its limits too. The CGI is sparingly used and looks quite nice when it pops up. It is in the other special effect shots where the dollar-stretching becomes more apparent.
Likewise, while AUTO’s design is kind of a mishmash, the suit is rather high-end as far as costumed characters go. The parts are smoothly textured, and there are some nice details here and there. It could have done with a little more drafting on the drawing board to smooth out the clutter, but it would not look out of place in more beloved sci-fi franchises like Doctor Who or Red Dwarf.
While the direction and costume quality are mostly fine and dandy (sort of), what is the film like to watch? Well, it does have some compelling factors. For one, the acting is surprisingly solid. Tasker and Dowling work especially well as the robot and his friend Jenny. They have a few corny scenes one could play robot cliché bingo on, yet the sincerity of their delivery makes them work. Even relatively plot-thin roles- AUTO’s bullies, etc- feel like people than stock characters.
Also, AUTO’s descent into mechanized madness works on a solid arc too. The film gets the audience to feel for him when he is abused and support him in his lighter scenes. Yet the film teases his dark side and hidden history through dreams and visions preceding his choice of action. So, it balances out that sympathy with worry, then gradually tips the scales as more and more things go awry. It comes off as a natural progression.
However, it is still a cheesy film. The drama is too stock and melodramatic to be taken all that seriously. While the comedy is not quite sharp enough to be like Office Space. There are a few funny lines, but otherwise the level is more like Freddy Krueger’s one-liners (like AUTO’s misunderstanding of the term ‘crush’). The latter is fitting, as AUTO’s rampage is more like a slasher villain on the run. Except AUTO does not have the fear factor Michael, Freddy and Jason have.
It makes Automation a jack-of-all-trades in that sense. The film gathers all those elements up, while not being as strong as their singular parts. Yet it manages to hold them together by making the most out of them. The film is not fantastic technically, but it is competently sound, and the familiar plot is told with charm thanks to some strong performances. Dowling and Katz deserved their awards here.
Still, it would be best to catch this on VOD before grabbing it Blu-Ray, just to see if it is to one’s taste. Sci-fi fans might get an extra half-star-worthy kick out of it, but with everyone else in mind, Cryptic Rock gives Automation 3 out of 5 stars.