Written and directed by genre auteur Jim Wynorski, Chopping Mall took the location of what was fastly becoming the ultimate place-to-be for young’uns of a certain generation – namely, the great American indoor shopping mall – and recaptured it as a hunting ground for some bloodthirsty technology gone awry. Essentially, some automated mall security guards – not unlike a tank/robot hybrids – were short-circuited by a lightning strike, and they go on a campaign to wipe the stores clean of some sexually-charged teenagers who stayed indoors after closing time. Though the body count was reasonably limited, the film still made paste of these anti-Authority figures. Perhaps its single greatest asset was giving starlets Barbara Crampton and Kelli Maroney the chance to share the screen, and the flick – I’m told – retains a cult audience even to this day.
So the idea of sentient robots wreaking havoc with various meat puppets isn’t exactly anything fresh or new, but that never stopped a storyteller from giving it another whirl. 2024’s Project Dorothy does just that. Written (in part) and directed by George Henry Horton, Dorothy opens its hunting season in the confines of an expansive abandoned factor where years before something robotic went horribly awry: a central Artificial Intelligence rose up with the intention of overthrowing the human race, only to have been shut down somehow before taking our planet. But when two bank robbers on the run seek shelter inside, one of them inadvertently reactivates the program, putting them at odds with a cybernetic aggressor who won’t go silently into the night this time.
What’s more dangerous? Skynet? Or the dude who accidentally turned it back on after it lay dormant for so many years?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“After a botched robbery, two men take refuge in a remote and lifeless scientific facility, inadvertently awakening a monster within.”
Because I can appreciate any number of ‘naughty A.I.’ stories, I was willing to give Project Dorothy a fair screening. It didn’t exactly look like it was going to be anything inventive with the whole ‘machines gone bad’ formula, and it’s safe to say that nothing necessarily groundbreaking was achieved in its 75-minute running time. Sadly, it doesn’t use its resources perhaps as effectively as it could have, and the end result is the picture feels like somewhere inside its bloat there’s actually a very effective short film that vastly better than the long version.
James (played by Tim DeZarn) and Blake (Adam Budron) are ‘on the lam’ from what appears to have been a bank job gone wrong. Hiking across backroads and cornfields, they ultimately stumble upon a massive industrial complex that appears to have been abandoned some time ago. Breaking inside, they do find shelter; but they also begin to suspect that they’re being watched by a force they’ve never encountered before … a sentient program named Dorothy that’s been asleep for a few decades. Now that it’s awake and realizes there’s a whole new world out there that can be infected via WiFi, Dorothy will stop at nothing to secure the stolen laptop in their possession so that she can unleash her darkest desires on the world-at-large.
The biggest flaw to the script from Horton and Ryan Scaringe is that we, the audience, are never quite let on as to what Dorothy’s deepest and darkest desires for the human race might be. While revenge for having been ‘terminated’ years ago might be the obvious course of action, the film could’ve benefitted from a grander game plan, one that spelled out perfectly where such a threat could’ve taken us. Instead, the premise unspools a bit too predictably and stereotypically for a genre that’s made endless explorations into A.I. gone cray-cray; and, yes, this winds up cheapening the whole technological affair, primitive though its packaging may be.
Whereas Chopping Mall’s biggest asset were these fanciful robots that went about their campaign of carnage, all the budget could afford here were some rather limiting forklifts (aka tow motors) that never look all that threatening and, frankly, aren’t all that fast, all that flexible, and all that frightening. (FYI: in case you’ve never been around one, they’re very heavy – have to be in order to accomplish what they do – so their mobility is small in scope.) While the production makes good use of its abandoned facility’s office, expansive caverns, corridors and what have you, none of it either feels all that fearsome – not in the way that James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) exoskeleton could terrify audiences – so viewers aren’t chilled as vicariously through the lives of these characters as they could’ve been.
Despite having the requisite leanness that could’ve made this thriller work on, at least, some visceral level, Dorothy wastes far too much time in what I suspect were drone-enabled shots of the factory interiors. It’s almost as if Horton and his crew were trying to inject some life into such mechanized lifelessness, hoping to convince you that there was more to this robotic intelligence than meets the eye, but when there isn’t the audience might feel a bit cheated by so much footage promising more yet delivering less. Those are creative decisions made entirely in pre-production or whilst everything was in-process; and I’d argue that greater restraint – and a shorter run-time – would’ve made for a better adventure.
A tremendous asset was casting screen veteran Tim DeZarn in a rare starring appearance. His isn’t a household name – Hollywood is a competitive industry, if nothing else – but no doubt his face is the kind film fans might recognize. (Seriously, he’s been in well over one hundred projects, often times giving a bit of character to an otherwise supporting and/or forgettable bit.) While the material here might have some inherent weaknesses, DeZarn – with a blue collar attitude – soldiers onward and shows he’s always up to the challenge. Even without the greater context for why he’d want to save a world that has cruelly and inevitably pushed him into a life of crime, he still musters the ‘hero thing’ and hatches a plot to see that this Dorothy stays on the farm in Kansas, never getting to the fabled Oz or its yellow brick road that she dreams about beyond those doors. He might be long in the tooth, but he’s definitely got the chops to make this work, and he does even when it all feels a bit … well … loopy.
Also, Project Dorothy opens with a very interesting vision, following up some scenes of mechanized activity with nothing more than a veritable wall of growing corn. The juxtaposition of what man has made – the machines that might destroy them – versus what the Earth has provided – crops to feed and, thus, give them life – couldn’t be more stark, more obvious, and maybe even more timely. It’s this sentiment that I think a good deal more of was needed to give Dorothy – as a film – the resonance she needed to transcend the tried-and-true indie project scene and be something more relevant. The seeds were clearly planted; I just wish what was harvested made for a more fulfilling meal.
Project Dorothy (2024) was produced by Kinogo Pictures and Liberty Atlantic Studios. According to the press materials provided, the film is available (as of January 16, 2024) via streaming and VOD on such platforms as Prime Video, Vudu, Vubiquity, Cox, and Comcast. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the provided sights-and-sounds were, mostly, very solid quality: sadly, there’s some filler sequences meant to display the A.I.’s activity that gets re-used over and over and over, slowing down what little momentum the flick manages to muster all too often. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? As I viewed this one entirely via streaming, there were no special features under consideration.
Alas … only mildly recommended.
It isn’t as if Project Dorothy (2024) is a bad film; rather, its greatest disadvantage is that it brings really nothing new or nothing compelling to the whole ‘locked box’ and ‘A.I. gone bad’ sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy filmmaking. At around 75 minutes, it’s also entirely too long, feeling like someone thought taking a 30-minute episode of The Twilight Zone and expanding it to feature length without also beefing up its ideas, budget, and social commentary potential was a good idea for success. Still, kudos to all involved in for giving genre fans with another iteration of the classic monster movie because it might just challenge budding storytellers to try it again down the road.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Gravitas Ventures provided me with complimentary streaming access to Project Dorothy (2024) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.