This had the potential to be an amazing movie. With the opening line already a slap in the face to conventional wisdom and logical plot development, on par with 2012‘s “the neutrinos have mutated” – this sci-fi comedy flick could have been so, so much more than the resulting lacklustre genre mash-up.

An invading army of robots insist on keeping the citizens of a nice English country town locked in their homes, experimenting on human thought at will and promising to rack off when their research is all done.

Holding them at bay with implanted trackers, the youthful occupants of a few of these homes manage to free themselves and head out in search of the father of Sean, their leader, who is mysteriously missing. Evading the robots and human “collaborators”, a small army of sell-outs to the human race lead by Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley in one of many unusual casting decisions of late), the rag-tag group race throughout the countryside while Smythe tries to charm Sean’s mother, Kate (played by Gillian Anderson, whose familiar presence in the midst of extra-terrestrial life is one of the more enjoyable and redeeming features of this film).

I haven’t bothered to describe the central characters who form the rebellious band of youths as it really doesn’t matter – their underdeveloped personalities are just as useless to the overall plot as the third act romance haphazardly and awkwardly thrown in just because someone making the film felt it was necessary.

The moments of comedy are few and far between and most evident when Anderson is on screen, escaping from her captors with a hilarious gag completely out of tune with the rest of this very patchy comedy, where not even a goofball sidekick can relieve matters.

Most curious of all is the addition of Ben Kingsley and his decision to get on board with films that an actor with his calibre and experience would rarely associate with (unless the equivalent of the film’s budget was spent on his salary or the film’s production crew personally promised to build him a new house). The actor, best known for his historic portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi, has lumbered from one questionable role to another, missing a voice coach in the recent Self/Less and a conscience as an inexplicably nonplussed actor in Iron Man 3.

Aside from his captivating turn in Shutter Island, as of late the Oscar winner has starred in the heavily-panned Exodus: Gods and Kings, 2010’s Prince of Persia and any number of misfires. This is a far-cry from the man who played Otto Frank in the popular miniseries based on Anne Frank’s life, starred in The Confession and played the bad guy in my very favourite thriller Sneakers. Kingsley still has a lot of pull as a veteran star and any number of opportunities to turn his fortunes away from the likes of Robot Overlords.

Despite being able to convey complex emotions in his eyes while lying through his teeth, Kingsley’s turn as the regional collaborator cannot save this effort. Robot Overlords malfunctions on many levels.

Robot Overlords screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

On The Big Smoke