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 then does 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 greenlit Automatons 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."
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