In the grand tradition of men-in-suit movies such as its most obvious reference point, Robocop, Automation‘s robot antagonist, Auto, is quite blatantly an actor in a costume. That the costume itself is reasonably well-constructed takes nothing away from the inherent charm of actual human characters interacting with him/it. Regardless of advances in technology, there will never be a time when practical FX aren’t better and more tactile, even in cases such as this when the effect isn’t wholly convincing.
The events of Automation take place in a sort of near-future Los Angeles, where the skyline is filled with flying cars but everything else looks about the same. It’s a clever method of hiding a low budget that also ensures this world doesn’t feel too unlike our own as to be isolating. Although it’s Christmastime, the bloodthirsty corporate stooges led by Sadie Katz’s gravelly-voiced Susan are getting ready to replace 90 percent of the company workforce with (much more efficient) robots.
This announcement is made on the same day as the office Christmas party, which seems like a strange choice until you realize it means most of the employees will be out of the building once Auto goes on his inevitable rampage. Automation, then, is less of a bloodbath than it could have been, but considering the focus remains on the few characters we actually get to know, it’s kind of an inspired choice.
Our heroine is Jenny (the hugely likeable Elissa Dowling, who’s appeared in everything from Tales of Halloween to We Are Still Here), the company’s sole freelancer who, like many of us, works on her own stuff once the bosses are out of sight. She makes for an interesting counterpoint to the harsh Susan, though both are sympathetic in their own ways (watching them come to the fore and join forces is a joy).
Nestled among the other employees is the always welcome Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Almost Human, Bliss), here playing a bigger dick than he ever has before and clearly relishing the opportunity. As Auto’s inventor, Hatchet legend Parry Shen also gets to play against type, his all-important “And” credit suggesting this very fine actor is finally getting the respect he deserves in the industry.
There are plenty of Robocop references sprinkled throughout, from a lady hitting on Auto to, well, the general premise of the flick. It’s spoiling nothing to reveal Auto inevitably reverts to his original factory settings, thereby giving in to some seriously dark memories from a previous life as a soldier (these battlefield-set sequences betray the film’s budget and, yet, again they’re more convincing than video-game-lite VFX would’ve been).
Auto himself is an unfailingly polite ‘bot, voiced with impressive heart by Jim Tasker. When one character remarks that she’s “starting to wonder who the real robots are around here,” it rings true, making Auto’s dissent into madness sting that much worse. He really does seem like a kind soul, and the suggestion, by Shen’s inventor, that Auto may be becoming sentient adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story.
Still, this is a horror movie first and foremost and Auto can do some serious damage, whether he intends to or not. From busting through a door like Jack Torrance in The Shining to beating someone to death so bloodily it recalls that infamous moment in The Simpsons (or the night of 100 Suplexes, depending on your flavor of entertainment) — curiously, we don’t get the money shot of a smushed head, which seems like a missed opportunity — his power is clear.
Automation takes a long time setting the scene, so the eventual outbreak of violence feels slightly rushed, but the intention is clearly to establish Auto as a friend first so his turn to the dark side carries more weight. Although it’s never clear what the company at the heart of the movie actually does, their offices and attached warehouse are the ideal setting for a cat and mouse game with a vengeful robot, with Jenny and Susan believably flummoxed by how somewhere so familiar could suddenly feel so maze-like.
The debut feature from writer-director Garo Setian, with a script credited to three writers including himself, is a slight offering. The office setting recalled a similarly low-end festive horror, or at least one section of which, in All The Creatures Were Stirring (also starring Skipper, funnily enough) but, for all its allusions to Robocop, Automation is its own beast; funny, scrappy, and loaded with tons of heart.
Hardcore horror fans might find it slightly light on tension and gore but what it lacks in scares, Automation more than makes up for with two formidable female leads, a villain/antihero with real depth (even if he isn’t exactly human), and enough punchy energy to carry it across the finish line. Hell, there’s even a genuine moment of catharsis that feels completely well-earned. Take that, Robocop.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Garo Setian
Writer(s): Garo Setian, Rolfe Kanefsky, Matthew L. Schaffer
Stars: Elissa Dowling, Sadie Katz, Graham Skipper, Parry Shen
Release date: December 3, 2019
Studio/Production Company: Capital Arts Entertainment
Run Time: 91 minutes