Monday, February 09, 2015

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2015 Day #01: Robot Overlords & Alien Outpost

As I said in the week's preview, this festival is the one where I hope for the best but tend not to have a lot of optimism; for whatever reason, the films booked are often not very good. The frustrating thing is that standards often seem to be needlessly low, with something like Robot Overlords getting praise for not being a complete screw-up of a movie. Folks just don't know that there's good material out there - they missed Predestination in theaters/VOD, and so much of the good stuff I saw at festivals last year (or lamented not being able to see) just never gets on he radar.

That defeatest mindset is often reinforced early - after festival director Garen Daly started by introducing Robot Overlords as a World Premiere (it's not; it played the London Film Festival last October, and he could have looked this up pretty quickly), he basically said that it was just okay, ran it down a bit for being a "YA" type movie, and generally just didn't sound enthusiastic. And, honestly, why book things at a festival if you're not enthusiastic about them? Sure, you'll maybe sell some tickets to a movie with Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley, at least if you can get it advertised, but as I posed the question to the other attendees - would you rather see a premiere of Robot Overlords or be the dozenth group to see The Reconstruction of William Zero, which is great? Boston just doesn't book these movies when and if they open, and being held when it is, it's never going to be a festival people travel too, so you might as well make it a showcase for the best stuff on the festival circuit rather than try and get ahead of things.

Robot Overlords

* * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40, DCP)

I don't miss the days when science fiction films tended to be obviously cheap productions with second-class actors and effects, but it was a lot easier to spot a disposable B-movie then. Now decent effects are maybe not cheap but they're not out of reach, and people who have had some success will sign up rather than see it as beneath them. Thus you get things like Robot Overlords, more capable than its ancestors but still not much more than filler at best.

This one takes place three years after alien robots have invaded Earth, with resistance not lasting much longer than a week. Their conditions were simple: Just stay inside, or else. Things pick up with a man not doing that and thus being disintegrated, leaving his son Connor (Milo Parker) orphaned, to be taken in by former schoolteacher Kate Flynn (Gillian Anderson), who has also taken in siblings Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (James Tarpey) along with her own son Sean (Callan McAuliffe). With Sean's father missing, Kate is attracting the attention of "Volunteer Co-ordinator" Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley). Sean thinks his father is still alive, though, and after an accident with the car battery they're using for power shorts out their monitoring implants, the kids venture outside to look for him.

Now, you'd think that a group of robots that can not only cross the stars and lay waste to entire planets but who have great big cube-shaped ships hovering near every city might have monitoring software sophisticated enough to notice when four implants in one location go offline at once and maybe send a bot or a collaborator to check it out - there could be a fire or something, and they clearly want humans mostly alive for some reason. Instead, they have their collaborators use paper files, which may be for the best, because it's quite clear that their network security is terrible. This may sound like silly complaints for a movie mostly aimed at a family audience, but kids aren't stupid, and having grown up with this sort of technology, they're probably even more likely to ask why the GPS and notifications systems on their smartphones would be better than the ones used by a global network of giant robots, and that's before they even get to wondering how everybody seems to be pretty well-fed and clothed for global agriculture and industry having presumably been shut down for three-plus years. Just where is Sean getting the new tennis balls he is cutting open to fill with notes and throw down the street, anyway?

Full review at EFC.

Alien Outpost (aka Outpost 37)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40, DCP)

This was the second alien-invasion movie the festival served up in a row after a draining day at work, which is perhaps not the ideal situation in which to see it. On the other hand, it wasn't just fatigue making it hard for me to stay awake and alert, but boredom, and does a movie about the front lines of an alien invasion with a fair amount of action really have any business being boring?

It starts with three new American soldiers - Frankie Fiorello (Sven Ryugrok), Ryan Andros (Reiley McClendon), and Alex "Omo" Omohundro (Joe Reegan) - arriving at Outpost 37 on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, near where a cluster of "Heavies" from the repulsed alien invasion of a few years back still remains. They're followed by a documentary crew, which records their daily routine from being hazed by the folks who have been on-station longer. The mostly-forgotten base is commanded by Captain Spears (Rick Ravanello), with Lt. North (Matthew Holmes) serving as his right-hand man. Despite the best efforts of their liaison Saleem (Khalil Kathrada), they're facing as much opposition from locals as Heavies these days, and the relative calm is about to come to an end.

For being set twenty-odd years in the future, Outpost 37 (or Alien Outpost, its more alphabetical-menu-friendly name) can seem awfully retrograde at times. Take its all-male cast, for instance; it's commented upon as a source of stress among the soldiers, but it's 2035 - why has the army apparently regressed in that area? There's another scene where a soldier is being a local casualty and one of the documentarians asks how he knows how to give the man an Islamic burial, getting "know your enemy" in response. There's some potentially interesting places you could go with that, playing with how quickly old animosity returns even after a conflict where the whole world would have to pull together, but filmmaker Jabbar Raisani seems content to just fall into familiar war-movie patterns rather than give these things some thought.

Full review at EFC.

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