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Saturday, 30 October 2010

Drones (2010)

Directors: Amber Benson and Adam Busch
Stars: Jonathan M Woodward, Samm Levine, James Urbaniak, Dave Allen, Tangi Miller, Marc Evan Jackson, Angela Bettis and Paul F Tompkins
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

I'm really not sure what I expected from Drones, the opening night movie for this year's IHSFF. I hadn't read up much on it, but everything I saw underlined a Joss Whedon connection that's hard to ignore as many key players have solid places in the Whedonverse. Directors Amber Benson and Adam Busch were Buffy the Vampire Slayer regulars: Benson, who handled the technical side of the job, spent three seasons as Tara; Busch, who dealt with the cast, had a long running recurring role as Warren. Lead actor Jonathan M Woodward has appeared in five TV shows, three of them for Whedon, who killed him off each time. Tangi Miller is even a spokeswoman for breast cancer with Alyson Hannigan. The connections didn't want to quit, so I couldn't help but have them in the back of my mind as the film began, but I'm very happy to report that you can safely relegate this paragraph to the background. Drones is very much its own film.

So, sure in the knowledge that this is not a Whedon knock-off, I can begin to actually review the film. It's a comedy, far more than it's a science fiction film, but it's the sort of comedy that they just don't make any more, which made it a highly refreshing ninety minutes. Comedies today are supposed to be all about toilet humour and Star Wars references, because every budding movie comedian wants to be Kevin Smith, but this is free of all of that because writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (names that suggest these guys were destined to be a team) apparently have their roots in more classic material. The Thrilling Adventure and Supernatural Suspense Hour, their monthly stage show, takes its influence from old-time radio and has featured many of the cast members here. This film shows that influence too but also classic Hollywood, with a careful pace and a reliance on presence and cleverly written dialogue rather than special effects and sets.

The drones of our story are office workers at a company called OmniLink, whose office provides the one and only set. The title is taken from an analogy given by Pete, the boss, in a PowerPoint presentation as the film begins. He likens OmniLink to a hive where the drones take orders from the queen. That would seem to make Pete the queen, but in the able hands of James Urbaniak, he's ineptly smooth, blissfully unaware of how wrong he usually is, so it's neatly appropriate. He seems to think that drones like Brian and Clark can take inspiration from the humble bumble bee because he can self regulate his temperature. Given that Brian and Clark are you and me, just a little more so, they don't quite get out of the metaphor what Pete might have intended. They're cubicle dwellers who say 'high five' to each other but don't actually do it. Their biggest problems have to do with deadlines and water coolers that don't work.

The talk is hardly what you expect science fiction to be about. Everyone's a little shaken up by OmniLink's decision to change the intercompany database from being chronologically sorted to alphabetically, especially Cooperman. He'll write the sort of strongly worded memo about it that Dan Berg sang about over the opening credits. They all talk about how Brian should ask out Amy who works a few cubes down. Brian sees them as different because she uses capital letters in her instant messages but he doesn't. Clark thinks they'd be great together. Cooperman's all for it too, and he's right about everything. And while we're wondering about why we're seeing this film at a horror and science fiction film festival, we follow Brian into the supply closet where he finds out that Clark is really an alien. Given that Clark's dialogue includes gems like, 'My behaviour is a perfect simulacrum of human mores,' we could wonder why this is news but Brian is a drone.
What follows is a refreshingly different take on using aliens as a toolkit for examining our own humanity. The dry humour reminded me in places of that of Douglas Adams, but these aliens (yes, there are more to come) are successors to Ford Prefect rather than Zaphod Beeblebrox as the cleverness is in how they're forced to appear human and how well they succeed at it. If you worked at OmniLink and I asked you to pick out which of your colleagues were aliens, you'd get it wrong until I revealed the truth and you'd think, 'I knew it all along.' The script focuses as much on similarities as differences, the aliens in our midst just as on the spot as the humans. Clark is observing the Earth in preparation for invasion and ensuing enslavement of the human race by his people, but this is detailed with dry subtlety and a notable absence of fanfare. Brian's all for it as long as he gets a raise and this revelation doesn't threaten their friendship. It's just cool.

Drones really doesn't deserve to be this good. It was written in a week by people who had never written a feature before. It was shot in two more by directors who divvied up responsibilities, one of whom had never directed before. The leading lady wasn't cast until the day before shooting began. There's nothing on screen but an office and a bunch of actors. Some are well known for their film work, others for television, some for nothing at all. Some stuck religiously to the script, others improvised continually. Yet there's an obvious cohesion between those involved that goes beyond the many prior connections from previous projects. Everything feels comfortable, even if it wasn't, and we're drawn into that comfort zone. Amy and Miryam chat away by phone though Miryam sits right outside Amy's office. Cooperman puts his feet up and relaxes as he handles huge projects. Brian and Amy hit it off. Pete calls them Bramy because he thinks it's cute.

I wish Amber and Adam the greatest success with their film but I have a feeling it may not come in quite the way they hope. It plays too slowly, too quietly, too subtly to appeal to mainstream audiences who won't appreciate the depths, but those depths are there nonetheless and inviting enough to suggest a small but solid cult audience. I don't mean anything like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room, but I could easily see this falling into a category with a movie that is worthy of comparison on many fronts. Office Space was never a huge success but it's just as watched today as it was a decade ago and it only becomes more relevant and more referenced. Drones could easily do the same thing, meaning that the directors may not get rich off this film but could well be kept busy answering questions about it for years and, when promoting future projects, being asked to autograph copies of this one.

The characters are certainly archetypes, albeit well drawn ones, but I have a feeling they have meaning on more levels than the obvious. I don't know where Acker and Blacker are from but it was fun to ponder if the characters represented Californian cities: Brian as San Francisco, Clark as Los Angeles, Amy as Hollywood, Cooperman as Venice Beach, Pete as Sacramento. I may well be wildly wrong but there's something in the script that resonates just enough that we know it's there. The personas the actors assume are far more obvious. As Brian, Woodward unmistakably channels the young Bill Murray and he does it very well. Samm Levine plays Clark exactly like Wallace Shawn. Urbaniak doesn't really play Pete, he plays Jeremy Irons playing Pete, especially when he says 'super awesome.' As Amy, Angela Bettis comes across as very French even though she's from Austin, TX. She's somewhat like Audrey Tautou but with more classic influence too.

Technically the film is capable but as subtly so as the script. The camera keeps the beat like a drummer, doing precisely nothing flash but staying almost constantly in motion. There are no special effects at all and they aren't missed. An office is an office, but there's attention to detail in the set design that's admirable. It's so well designed and so well played out that I could even buy into the on again, off again relationship between Miryam and Ian, though she was listed by Ebony as one of the 55 Most Beautiful People in the World and he's the epitome of the invisible cuboid. I think whether you're going to like this film is going to depend on your sense of humour, perhaps your taste in sitcoms. If you're American but you watch the UK shows, you may just love this and come back to it again and again. If you stick with what the networks show you, though, you may not get it. It'll be like plyfoxians with a slurb.

PS: 'Hail Soyka!' I mean, 'Go humans!'

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