Now, this isn’t to say that I find all of these projects worthwhile; it’s only to underscore that whereas other critics might lambast storytellers for weaving even the simplest tale from the shaky-cam perspective, I tend to be less oppressive and more focused on the entire affair (story, characters, etc.). After all, if a film works then it works, and it deserves to be evaluated against its own merits and flaws the way any other would … but I’ll also admit on the front end that I had some issues with ROBOT WARS that I couldn’t reconcile come the big finish.
(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 three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at “things to come,” then read on …)
From the advertising materials:
“In a dystopian near future, a corporate heist goes wrong and the team members struggle to survive a desperate escape through the apocalyptic sprawl with their stolen prize, a weapon of unspeakable power. As they navigate the urban wasteland, they must contend with barbaric gangs, corporate death squads and the terrifying truth about the weapon they have stolen.”
I find it’s best to describe SciFi as a blanket that can be easily fitted over practically any sort of tale, be they dramatic, horrific, or comedic. As a consequence, many films and TV shows end up claiming the mantle of SciFi even though – at their heart – they bear little resemblance to one another. For example, Syfy’s update of Battlestar Galactica really looked nothing like the late 1970’s original: despite pillaging much of the franchise’s names and places, the new Galactica had more in common at times with CBS’s M*A*S*H than it did the swashbuckling adventures starring Lorne Greene, Dirk Benedict, and the late Richard Hatch.
One of the more prominent sub-sets of the general SciFi format is the dystopian tale, a variation that even itself allows for all kinds of narrative flexibility. One need only look to the big box office adaptations of the popular Young Adult series The Hunger Games to see the hidden potential of tapping a grim look at tomorrow, and even AMC’s entertainment juggernaut The Walking Dead can be considered overtly dystopian in its tone. Indeed, the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of those wanting to spin some yarn.
ROBOT WARS (2016) tries hard to achieve some modest new ground by incorporating the ‘found footage format’ into the dystopian thriller, but I found its results decidedly mixed, the fault of which is largely owed to restrictions of the initial format.
Writer/director William L. Stewart crafted his story by incorporating several perspectives (within the film, his characters are ‘implanted’ with technology that grants the audience to witness events unfolding through their eyes), and – as such – a tale already muddled with a world not quite fully created or defined gets hamstrung by almost constantly shifting viewpoints: Person A argues with Person B, and on occasion the audience witnesses the argument through the eyes of the person speaking, essentially the same way it would any other film … so what’s the need for the structure IF it arguably isn’t any different from a conventional flick?
Well, the problem there is that the ‘found footage format’ ends up being little more than a gimmick in Stewart’s hands when, quite frankly, it could’ve / would’ve / should’ve been something more.
2009’s District 9 – writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s SciFi/Satire – utilized the ‘found footage’ set-up by way of a carefully crafted in-person documentary; but even Blomkamp realized that narrative device would only take the audience so far into the ‘heart’ of the film. At a point midway through the feature, the ‘perspective’ approach disappears, and the real story – that of a human finding his identity while becoming something inhuman – begins. The documentarian approach gave the storyteller great ease to establish the parameters of the world in which his characters would play out their grand fable, and – once the foundation was built – the shackles were thrown off.
By comparison, Stewart’s WARS provides the theatrical set-up in its early moments: practically mirroring that which Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP (1987) introduced viewers to the perspective of a half-man-half-machine crimefighter, WARS plays its cards in its first and second reels. But then Stewart proceeds to tell his story by incorporating several other points-of-view, many of which seem curiously unnecessary: so-and-so is shown running down a hallway, while so-and-so’s implant records a ride in an elevator. It’s easy to determine that the heist is in-progress, but so much of what unfolds feels superfluous.
To complicate matters, WARS’ overall story ends up spooling out in occasionally hard-to-hear exchanges between far too many characters, none of whom are developed enough for us about which to care. The benefit to the ‘found footage’ format is that audiences are forced to go along for the ride; but if it isn’t all spelled out in a fashion that makes the trip interesting beyond the format then you end up feeling like you’ve been strapped to a chair and forced to watch an experimental film about God knows what where everything happens whether it’s needed or not. The people don’t matter because you’ve never really met them, so their fates are circumstantial. Come the big finish, you want to care about what happens to these characters you’ve come to know, but that doesn’t happen here, at least not to the point wherein any of it felt authentic.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. If ‘found footage films’ are ‘your thang,’ then you might find some pleasure with ROBOT WARS, but I suspect it won’t be all that memorable for you. Still, as I’m always guilty of saying about less-than-stellar efforts, there was a germ of an idea in there worth being explored in greater detail. Unfortunately, the narrative restraints of a ‘found footage flick’ offers really only a narrow track – one increasingly thin as a film wears on – and characters suffer as a consequence … which generally leads to audiences suffering, assuming any show up in the first place.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Breaking Glass Pictures provided me with a promotional DVD screener of ROBOT WARS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.