Low-budget B-movies today usually fall into two categories. Those despicably made in order to capitalize on much more well-known releases, as the production company The Asylum has specialized in, and those proper ”indie” movies made by people with a real passion for movie-making (not that passion necessarily entails competence, experience or money for production values, mind you). Asylum movies – we’re talking titles like for instance AVH: Alien vs. Hunter (2007) and Princess of Mars (2009) – typically have nearly non-existent production values, bad acting and worse writing, cheap excuses for special effects, and no regard for any kind of narrative logic or coherence. They are the movie industry’s parasites, leeching money off innocent movie fans who foolishly dare think there might be a gem buried under some halfway tantalizing sleeve cover or plot premise. So the big question is: Is Robotropolis an Asylum-style movie, or is it a much more interesting indie movie…? Muwahaha, the suspense is palpable, isn’t it?
Since Robotropolis features trailers for straight-to-DVD Asylum movies – Titanic II (2010), anyone? – I thought at first that the main feature would be such a one as well. Then I thought it might not be. A bit into it, I still wasn’t quite sure. It seemed to be a fairly original story, not noticeably similar to any recent or upcoming major cinematic release – at least not unless you go back to 2004’s I, Robot – until I remembered the TV show Battlestar Galactica (and its more recent spin-off, Caprica). Oookay, the robots here are almost dead-ringers for Cylons. Complete with a blue cyclops eye when good, and a red one when evil. And like Cylons, and the robots in I, Robot, they rebel. And that’s the plot. Mystery solved: Asylum territory it is. D’oh.
Robotropolis takes place on an isolated island in the South China Sea. Could be Hainan, say. Or some former British colony. It is certainly populated partly by Asians and partly by whites with strong British and Aussie accents (from the cast list, the actors are a motley mishmash of Brits, Aussies and Americans – none of name, and few of any sort). It’s the fairly near future. A huge corporation called MegaNational Industries are using the populated island for an experiment in robotics, where walking robots are doing just about everything, from the meanest menial duties to keeping the peace as a police force. They are being used as a kind of slaves. And when, for no particular reason, they seem to develop free will (but no personality), they want revenge on all humans, and start killing them. They are now… killbots. Right. Ho-hum.
We follow a tiny TV news crew who covers the robotic events as they unfold. Sadly, the story is wafer-thin, devoid of detail and never comes close to feeling real. Only a couple of the characters have any smidgeon of a personality, and even this evaporates as the first half hour rolls by. There is no hint of chemistry between them. As the unmotivated killings begin, the crew calmly forgets that they can call for help, they have no van to retreat to, and they never react with any panic or believable anxiety when appropriate, but do when inappropriate. The actors seem aware of the material they’re a part of, and that it doesn’t call for substantial acting. The special effects are few and far between, and quite bad. The robots themselves look okay, but a scene of a robot ”playing football” consists merely of a couple of moves back and forward, never getting into ball-play. And that’s a typical example. They generally don’t move much, but like to advance ominously and hold people by their necks. Conversation? Perish the thought.
In the final analysis, Robotropolis pretty much is an Asylum movie. It even has the same kind of uproariously atrocious ending that delivers no real closure; no shred of emotional pay-off. The makeshift soundtrack is an ineffectual attempt at drumming up a single iota of excitement. The type of actors is just what you would find in an Asylum movie, which usually has one E-list name (like Dedee Pfeiffer), and then a bunch of yahoos as extras. The only remotely known actor in Robotropolis is Lani Tupu, who played Captain Crais in the Aussie-produced sci-fi TV show Farscape, and while he was very good there, he is worse than pedestrian here. Robotropolis manages, barely, to hold one’s attention in the first half, but then becomes nearly unwatchable and reaches the end credits without having delivered anything resembling satisfaction. It is derivative and dull and the acting just becomes progressively worse until you can’t tell the actors from the robots. One has to marvel at movie-makers who are so skilled that they can make a movie self-destruct so completely.
The DVD has no notable extras, but the picture quality is fine.
Robotropolis is out on DVD 5th September 2011.
Director: Christopher Hatton
Cast: Zoe Naylor, Lani Tupu, Graham Sibley and others
Runtime: 81 min.
Country: Singapore / USA