For any viewers partial to the mechanics of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films but not their steely factory finish, the British family film “Robot Overlords” may work as a wonky diversion. After bringing a shot of scrappy irreverence to the alien-invasion genre with his Sundance-preemed “Grabbers” in 2012, writer-helmer Jon Wright here adopts a kid-oriented approach to the same theme: This tale of tough tykes taking on intergalactic androids is more Saturday-morning television than midnight movie. The pic’s general good humor — plus the tony adult presence of Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley — compensates to some degree for its cheapjack construction, but not enough to extend its appeal far beyond preteens in Blighty. Even they, meanwhile, are likelier to find it in ancillary: “Robots” has proven a distinct B.O. underlord at home.
The action begins three years after the stomping robots of the title apparently achieved world domination, though there’s little sense of global scale in Wright’s film. Modest budgetary resources have limited the world to an indeterminate stretch of coastal England (filming took place in Northern Island and the Isle of Man), while Britain seems to be leading the battle against the steel invaders — when the chips are really down, it’s an old-school RAF fighter plane to the rescue. “Best of British, eh?” blusters one resistance leader. With this degree of parochial sentiment, it’s fair to say the pic isn’t nurturing many globe-conquering ambitions of its own.
The opening reel rushes through the essential backstory without explaining quite how the robots achieved their coup. The point is that they’re there, and humanity has had little choice but to get used to their presence and restrictive impositions, including implanted tracking chips and a nightly curfew — any breakers of which are summarily nuked. Such is the fate suffered (in a scene that may be a tad alarming for smaller fry) by the father of young Connor (Milo Parker), who is subsequently taken in by kindly ex-teacher Kate (Anderson) and her enterprising teenage son, Sean (Australian up-and-comer Callan McAuliffe). Together, they form a makeshift family with two other kids, precocious Alex (Ella Hunt) and her jokester brother, Nate (James Tarpey); Sean’s own dad, a revolutionary fighter, is missing in action, leaving Kate vulnerable to the attentions of former colleague and smarmy robot collaborator Smythe (Kingsley, in what has become his default villain mode).
While geeking around with electrics, the kids happen upon a temporary way to deactivate their chips, enabling them to venture outside and instigate a rebellion of sorts, while an ever-hopeful Sean seeks to track down his father. The ensuing series of standoffs, chases and narrow escapes is high on bustle and low on tension — there’s never a question of where this is all heading. Even with such generic scripting, however, there’s a genial, palpably enthusiastic chemistry between the four young, capable stars that gives their hijinks a bit of bounce, while Anderson bring her natural intelligence and empathy to an underwritten mom role. Kingsley’s brand of pork liver pate has been too thinly spread by now to surprise, but there’s still pleasure to be had from his leering overenunciation of words like “fecund.”
Technical contributions are barely at the level of an average “Doctor Who” episode, which will charm some viewers and distance others: The almighty overlords mostly resemble outsize Hasbro products, while the pic’s more elaborate digital explosions appear to take place in another story world entirely. Ropey effects work notwithstanding, Tom McCullagh’s production design has its spots of tongue-in-cheek inspiration, while Christian Henson’s chipper score blends human and electronic elements to more harmonious effect than the war in question.